10 inside secrets to winning an award – from the judges

21 September 2015 By Northern Lights

10 inside secrets to winning an award – from the judges image

Last year's Corp Comm winner

This week 24 judges decided which entries would win the prestigious CorpComms awards – the magazine for corporate communicators. I was honoured to be asked to join them.

Judging the work of your peers is thought-provoking. It challenges you to think about the work you are doing for your own clients, the value and the results. I reckon we do pretty well but equally I took home lots of ideas to do even better.

Helen DunnHelen Dunne, editor, split the judges into three rooms and each group tackled eight award categories over the day.

While many entries were truly inspiring – for creativity, results, return on investment – others were really disappointing. Often this was down to the old ‘not answering the question’ or poor presentation of what may have been a great campaign.

So here I share the inside secrets from my fellow judges. I should perhaps explain the process of judging. We had each been sent our pack of entries a week before judging day, typically with 10 to 20 entries per category. We were all asked to read and score these entries in advance, stating who we thought should be the 1st, 2nd, 3rd in each category.   At the judging day we then discussed each category to see if we all agreed with the overall winner – which we almost never did, initially! And then asked to see the supporting materials for the main contenders or anyone we weren’t sure about.

Some discussions were long and heated but eventually we would agree the winner and move on to the next category.

While these tips are specifically for comms awards – actually, the principles apply to any award entry.


  1. Match the brief with the results

My own process for scoring was to go straight to the objectives and brief for the campaign, then to the results. I didn’t read any of the creative element and what they did until I had a clear picture of what they were trying to achieve.

This was the place where probably a third of entries failed. We saw objectives such as ‘drive enquiries to the website’ as a key goal and then no further mention was made anywhere about how web enquiries increased or even website visitor numbers. If your aim was to save lives, can you compare stats across years or even get a quote from the emergency services about the difference the campaign has made? Just don’t ignore the original goal.

If results are commercially sensitive, you have to find a way to show you were focused on, and achieved results for, the key goal, even if you can’t give absolute figures. If you can’t, there is little point in entering.

Last year's Corp Comm winner 2

Several entries would talk about an objective being ‘to raise brand awareness’. While some of our judges felt this was an acceptable aim, I have always struggled with it – both because it is so hard to measure success of something this vague and I firmly believe that ‘brand awareness’ is ultimately to achieve a specific business goal. This is usually sales, but it could be reputation or recruitment or whatever. For me, the more specific the goal and matching results, the higher the entry will score.

  1. Include your budget

If you want to be a winner, give an indication of budget. It matters hugely when comparing the scale of activities and results. We had phenomenal campaigns with just a £10k budget and some really gritty issues tackled with £1m budget. Both were excellent, but part of our assessment included discussion around return on investment and scale – and you can’t do that without knowing how much money they had.

Entrants were allowed to submit budgets in confidence – which will be respected by all judges – so if someone still doesn’t give an indication we assumed that it had been an embarrassingly large amount of money that they didn’t want to mention.


  1. Don’t rely on supporting materials

Clearly the packs sent out to 24 judges in advance included the basic entry form. You need to write this entry form as a stand-alone document, especially specifying the results, and not rely on supporting materials to tell the story.

We were having a debate around one category and a fellow judge said that the quality of international coverage on one entry far outdid the one we were comparing it to. I had just looked through both lots of supporting materials and realised that the quality of media was as good, if not better, on the one being down-graded – but they had relied on us looking at the supporting materials and not articulated this in the entry.

If the basic entry doesn’t stack up, the judges may never get to the supporting materials.

Many entries did a clever entry format, set out in landscape on the page with four columns and this enabled them to include visual images which quickly told their stories.

  1. Make sure supporting materials really add value

We had all marked one business campaign pretty highly and then asked to see the supporting materials. The video was so excruciatingly dull, we all of us spontaneously marked our scores down a point!

  1. Capture the campaign in your summary

We are all communicators. If you can’t excite the reader in the first paragraph and lay out the challenge, the creativity and the results in a pithy sentence or two, you shouldn’t be entering.

  1. Why are you entering?

There were a number of entries where we felt someone had entered just to make their team feel good, particularly in the public sector. There must be better ways to praise and recognise your team than submitting a rushed and poorly thought through entry.

With the ‘best in-house team’ the stand-out entries talked about the organisation’s critical issues that they were focused on supporting, the measurable results they had achieved and how they created a strong team spirit and high performance. It doesn’t matter if you have two or 26 people in your team – again, the focus on objectives and results is what we were looking for.


  1. Explain the context of your challenge

I found myself defending a few entries where they were very challenging business, scientific or academic campaigns. Some of the judges were looking for more creativity/oomph in these – whereas I was saying if there had been more oomph you would probably have lost your audience.

The entrants would have helped their cases if they had explained their creativity within an audience context more.

  1. Presentation and detail counts

Entries were scored down for

  • Spelling mistakes
  • Grammar errors
  • Poor presentation
  • Lazy entries – not tailoring to the category

One company had put in all three categories at the top and then just crossed out the ones not applying to that category!

We had all given up a day of time to help on this – if the entrant couldn’t be bothered to proof read or tailor, it didn’t matter how good the campaign, it wouldn’t make the top three. We are in the communications industry and the basics of spelling and grammar should be a given?

  1. Don’t be dramatic or use superlatives

Let the results speak for themselves. We had some entries talking about ‘no team had ever faced such challenges before’ when if you were comparing to some of the crisis campaigns, you thought ‘that’s rubbish’.

Don’t hype up your entry. Be clear about the goals and include all the facts – good evidence makes the strongest entries.

Last year's Corp Comm winner 3

  1. Explain how you got your insights

We were all impressed with campaigns where there had been research to understand the target audience and gain insights and then used these insights to be creative and engage. Do include your research and how you came up with ideas and why they worked for your audience.

So those are our own insights. I thought the mix of judges in each team was really excellent – we had real breadth of experience to understand and champion different types of campaigns so that they were evaluated as fairly as possible.

While I changed my mind on a few entries after discussions with other judges, it was reassuring how similar our views were.

And the final message – Do enter! There were dozens of outstanding entries with budgets from £2k to £30k. Don’t feel your campaign needed to be on the front page of the Mail to win – provided you achieved the results you set out to achieve, everyone has a fair chance of winning.

My lips are sealed as to who was chosen until the awards dinner on 24 November in London (the – good – photos in this blog aren’t a clue: they are all 2014 winners! Read more about these here). If you are a winner, you might like our tips on how to get PR for your award (though I suspect all these entrants are past masters at this bit!).

Till then, thanks to Helen Dunne and my fellow judges – it was a great experience being in a room with so many top professionals who understand our industry, its challenges – and what can be achieved through outstanding communications!

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Written by Northern Lights

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