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So, you've won an award...

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Do industry awards just prey on pride?

You don’t remember entering. You barely even remember the piece of work that’s been nominated. And you’ve certainly never heard of the Copywriting Republic Annual Presentation who are behind the award. But there it is, in black and white (or possibly fuchsia Comic Sans). Just imagine! The glory! The fame! The adulation! The, the…

…the expense. Because there, just above the RSVP button is the sting: a fee of £345 (plus VAT) to confirm your entry plus attendance at the ceremony. Welcome to the money mill that is the industry awards industry.

Free isn’t cheap enough

It’s seldom an issue for agencies or large businesses, who usually have a budget for marketing and promotion and can write off such expenses against tax. But it’s a different matter for freelancers. There may be a discount for freelance entries (and you may be also able to cushion some of the expense as a tax write-off too if you know your way around QuickBooks), but it still means and outlay that you hadn’t budgeted for, which you need to weigh up against the benefits.

And unfortunately, those are often nebulous. You’ll start to notice that majority of the invitations that you receive aren’t even for work you’ve done — they’re inviting you to create and submit new material. It's one thing to give your work away for free, but it’s a different matter entirely when you’re paying to create material and hand it over — along with control over how it’s used.

But, what the hell. Maybe you’ve had a win on the nags or a string of recent jobs where the client has actually paid on time, and you figure it’s worth a punt. You’ve looked at past entries, realised that your stuff is way better and you enter, figuring that being able to put ‘award winner’ on your LinkedIn will bump your status up a few points. But at the same time, you’re tempering your excitement and trying to be realistic about your expectations.

It’s the taking part that counts, right?

Mind you, that all depends on what your expectations are. Having paid your entry fee you might, for example, expect a level playing field. And you’d be wrong. Remember those big agencies and companies? They’ll often throw a lot of money at this sort of thing and it’s their purchasing power rather than their talent you’re competing against. After all, the organisers want to make sure that they come back the following year.

At a recent award event organised by a UK creative agency, 75 new nominations miraculously appeared on the night of the event itself, two months after the closing date for entries. Most of these were submitted by the event sponsors — who were also on the judging panel. Half of them won.

This was one of several award ceremonies that this particular agency hosts every year, which appears to be their primary source of revenue. But the payola in the retail world is even more glaring. One major fashion group scoops up armfuls of awards every year, at the approximate rate of one table of guests per award. With a disgraced billionaire at the helm (you fill in the blanks), they can afford it. You probably can’t.

Money talks and bullshit… also talks

There’s little doubt that pride is the major driver in award entries. The organisers know this, and they know it well. The promotional blurb is often fawning, daring you to show off your #MadSkillz, whilst at the same time playing on your #FOMO. Which is fine if there’s actually something to miss out on.

Back in the halcyon days of the 1980s, there were more up-and-coming rock bands in Los Angeles than there were places to play. The promoters weren’t slow in finding a solution to this: they’d charge the bands to get up on stage. Talent didn’t come into the equation — you got top billing at Gazzarri’s or the Starwood by throwing money at the problem and for a handful of bands, it paid off — in the short term.

Yes, it got them noticed and even signed to a label, but in most cases their lack of ability was quickly exposed under scrutiny from the press and the public. The practice never really got far beyond Los Angeles — even the most hair-brained hair metallists could do the maths — but it occasionally resurfaces in the form of up-and-coming bands buying support slots on major tours.

Do you want salad with that?

But there’s a big difference between having the opportunity to latch on to Beyoncé’s coattails and a nomination for an industry award that you’ve never heard of in the first place. And if you haven’t, you can guarantee that nobody else has either. It’s a bit like those stickers you see in the window of your local kebab shop, proclaiming that they won a bronze in the Loughborough Chip Shop Awards despite also winning a zero-star rating for hygiene.

Both might smell and look good under a neon light; but the chances are that you’ll spend a lot more than you’d planned and feel sick the next day. At least with a kebab you can tell yourself that you were drunk.

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