Analysis: Are industry awards a key to greater things?

PR industry awards are hailed as the pinnacle of professional achievement by some, but taken with a pinch of salt by others. So does an award influence future success?

Hangover cures close at hand, on the morning after last week's PRWeek Awards, the winners were logging on to inboxes overflowing with congratulatory messages and fielding phone calls from sycophantic strangers.

But, back-slapping aside, after erecting a new shelf in reception for the trophy and adjusting the corporate website to alert the wider world to the win, to what extent will awards have a positive long-term effect on business?

Statistics indicate that PROs value industry's awards more than ever, with both the PRWeek and IPR's annual awards earlier this year seeing record numbers of entries in 2003.

Specialist awards, such as OTC bulletin's OTC Marketing Awards for the healthcare sector, are also growing in stature, while the PRCA's FrontLine awards saw an increase of almost ten per cent in consultancies entering this year.

The Consultancy of the Year prize at last week's PRWeek Awards went to The Red Consultancy. Since it was set up in 1994, Red has, in the words of one rival, 'cornered the market' in respect of awards handed out to PR agencies.

Red CEO David Fuller says he has 'built the business on the back of awards', saying that, from a business perspective, they have saved Red 'shit-loads' of money as they are the 'best marketing tool (an agency) can have'.

Gordon Forbes, MD of Leeds-based Ptarmigan Consultants, which won the Consultancy of the Year award last year, says it 'helped the agency get on pitch lists we might not have done before'.

PROs often prepare award entries and promote award wins that do not relate to PR achievements, such as awards for corporate success. Lewis, for example, drafted entries for its client Computer Associates's HR department in a Best Companies to Work For awards earlier this year.

Within the PR sector, however, the motivations for entering awards are not necessarily sales-related.

Derbyshire County Council was a finalist in this year's PRWeek Public Sector Department of the Year category and won the Communicators of the Year accolade at the IPR's Local Government Group Excellence Awards earlier this year (PRWeek, 12 September).

Derbyshire head of comms Rod Cook says: 'Unlike consultancies, we don't really use these awards as a marketing tool - taxpayers will not necessarily be impressed by us winning PR awards.'

He adds PR awards enable 'benchmarking against the private sector' and act as a 'quality control' device for his team's work.

Charity NSPCC was voted PRWeek's Public Sector Department of the Year last year, and director of communications John Grounds says the award 'sent out a very important signal' to potential corporate or celebrity partners that 'they are working with a professional and successful organisation.'

But some organisations spurn PR awards ceremonies and are dismissive of their benefits.

Freud Communications director Oliver Wheeler says his agency has declined to enter PRWeek's Awards since 'taking out two tables in 1992, putting forward two campaigns that we thought were pretty special - The Big Breakfast and Planet Hollywood - and losing to a stunt that was quickly forgotten.'

Wheeler dismisses the internal and external benefits the kudos of winning awards could secure for his agency, saying Freuds is 'entirely satisfied' with its internal recognition system and pitch-rate success.

Similarly, Julien Speed, joint managing partner of consumer PR specialist Starfish Communications says: 'I really believe potential clients don't give a stuff. They see it as the industry slapping itself on the back'.

The fact that winning an award has positive motivational effects is undeniable - Fuller places the feeling of winning 'up there with the mega-pitch win' - but some are sceptical about the longer-term effects.

Speed admits that awards mean a short-term morale boost, but says: 'It's a fantastic thing to put on your CV, but that will just enhance staff's prospects of getting another job.'

He adds that, in his experience, headhunters target award-winning account teams, with staff poaching becoming a worry for agency chiefs.

James Gunn, who won Best Young Professional at the PRCA's FrontLine awards last year (PRWeek, 20 September 2002), says he received 'no more calls than usual' from headhunters following his win. But he admits that the sparkle the award leant to his CV 'helped me in terms of moving to a new agency' (he left Lexis PR, where he won the award, three months ago, to join Golin/Harris).

Sour grapes at past entries failing to win, negative experiences at past ceremonies, scepticism about judging processes or lack of resources to compile awards submissions are widely cited as reasons for not entering.

But, in addition to the motivational benefits, the consensus is that winning awards generates PR opportunities that can positively affect profits.

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