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Since the start of this year I’ve had winning trophies on my mind. I’ve been tasked with considering our work from the last few years and researching and entering as many awards as possible. I’ve also been working with the team to continue pushing to pitch and create the type of impactful, innovative and creative campaigns that will put us in the running for awards in 2022.

Last week we found out that our work with the fitness and health startup Fresh Fitness Food was nominated for a Webby Award, which is a testament to the hard work that the team put in during the first few weeks of lockdown. It was certainly a challenge to onboard and then support a client that was unsure how it would survive even a couple of weeks of a national lockdown.

The nomination is also a testament to the work put into entering the Webby awards, because entering awards is difficult. In compiling this year’s entries I’ve been poring over our original pitch decks, pulling apart post-campaign analysis reports, conducting research, canvasing the team for feedback and input – and I’ve been mapping out the awards timelines and requesting budgets for the rest of the year. All of this has made me seriously consider what the point of all of this is, and I’ve come up with four really good reasons not to enter awards.

1. The process is really time-consuming

If you’ve ever written an entry for an awards category you will know the exquisite torture that comes with the tight word counts, fiddly online portals and the different technical and creative requirements that change from entry to entry. Especially for an independent agency trying to nip through within the early bird deadline, it can cause a frustrating last-minute panic if you’re not quite as organized as you’d like to be. There’s a case to be made that successfully entering awards is such a specific skill that you could have someone on your payroll doing just that all year round.

What the process really offers, though, is a chance to really consider your work from the previous year and put it through a rigorous (internal and external) assessment process. There’s something thrilling about looking at previous winners in your chosen category and feeling like you’ve not only met that standard, but that you and the team have surpassed it. There’s also the added benefit of looking ahead at the work you’re making now and applying the same rigour in the planning stages as you would the finished product. Getting your team to approach each piece of work thinking how the awards entry will come together will maintain a level of ambition and self-assessment that makes your work better and better.

2. They're really expensive

Like, really expensive. This can make you second guess some of your work, wondering if it’s good enough, and – in the case of my process this year – led me to reconsider some of our top target awards for 2021 when I felt that the gamble of the cost-to-return ratio just wasn’t worth it. It’s true that a lot of awards have tiered entries where you make a saving for entering early, and there are economies of scale where the more you enter the cheaper it becomes. But all of this requires you to be laser focused and on the ball (see above RE hiring someone to do this), and when there’s still no guarantee of even a nomination, it can really make you pause and sweat the cost.

What is missing from the above, though, is the fact that the gamble is really part of the process, and in fact the return you can get from a nomination (not to mention a win) cannot be denied. Since the early days of Wilderness, when we were entering one or two categories per year just to get a bit of notoriety, we would frequently get at least one new business enquiry per entry. We can track some of our longest-running retainers to one award win and an evening of intense networking. Keep in mind that there are so many agencies out there, and sometimes the difference between one and another can come down to who schmoozed who at an event and what’s in the trophy cabinet.

3. The competition is fierce

When the process is difficult and the cost is high, you really need to weigh up your chances of winning. Looking back at previous winning campaigns, I can sometimes feel that combination of jealousy (‘why didn’t we think of that’), frustration (‘we did think of that’) and confusion (‘how did they do that?’). It can really make you second guess yourself. There’s also a sense at some of the ceremonies that money talks. The big agencies with the cash to throw around pop up in so many categories, and you can feel – especially when you’re starting out – like the odds are stacked against you and you really shouldn’t bother.

But you should bother. Not to repeat myself, but the inherent gamble is what makes it worthwhile. You need to be putting yourself out of your comfort zone or you’ll never advance. The feelings of jealousy, frustration and confusion spur us on with everything we do – to look at something and think ‘we’ve done that’ should be quickly followed by ‘why aren’t we shouting about it?’. It is so worthwhile comparing yourself and your work against that of your peers, and if you find that you don’t stack up then you should be using that as a goal to improve in the future.

When Wilderness was in its infancy we went back to the same awards ceremonies a few years in a row. The first year was a gamble, the second year we came with confidence, the third year we saw we were up against some of the same small agencies, and we knew that in the fourth year we wouldn’t be back. Each year we assessed ourselves and our work against the competition with an eye on the next level, and made plans for where we would be competing in the future.

4. They're just a vanity exercise

Yeah. Totally. There’s a huge amount of back slapping and incestuous inter-industry one upmanship that is really a bit gross. For the big agencies it’s a way to get mentioned in every category and pay for the menus. For smaller agencies it’s a way to tell a story about being a scrappy underdog, or try and convince people that you’re bigger than you actually are. Ultimately the trophies and the accolades are just meaningless baubles that sit in the chief exec’s office and gather dust...

I don’t believe any of that. Actually, most of it is true, but the fact that awards are a vanity exercise also has a lot of positives. Awards play a big part in team morale – the feeling for a junior in your company to have played a part in an award-winning campaign is massive. It’s not just a confidence boost but something that can go on a CV and make your team look amazing (and eminently more employable). It also has the reverse effect and attracts talent by making your agency look like a more inviting place to work. When we were able to attend ceremonies they were, yes, expensive, but also a great chance to bring the team together to celebrate a very unique and positive part of working life. There’s also an impact on your relationships with clients and partners. Everyone loves to have their work recognized, and it can be really beneficial to share your success with the people that employ you. We’ve had brilliant evenings forging stronger bonds with client teams, winning (or commiserating) together and making plans for future work in between courses.

On balance I truly believe that entering awards has a positive impact on an agency even before a nomination is announced. There are a lot of factors to consider, and some of them will be deal-breakers for you if you don’t have the time, money or the work to make entering a viable option. Regardless of that, I recommend going through the process and experiencing the value that assessing your work, your team and your standing in the industry can bring.

Jamie Maple is managing director at Wilderness.