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Awards: Your Time to Shine

March 17, 2011

“Voice from the Trenches” is written by Alex Moore. Alex Moore is a freelance writer and the Marketing & Communications Manager at Prellwitz Chilinski Associates (PCA Inc.).

When I first started in the AEC industry, I was intimidated by award submissions. I heard “award” and thought “red carpet.” Award-worthy projects I thought must be major, magazine cover projects. The big time.

Then the slow drip of award call for entries (CFE) started trickling into my inbox, my snailmail box, and across my desk. Postcard by postcard, the mystique eroded away. It was CFE water torture. There was an award for every conceivable building, and, seemingly, a hunger among my co-workers to win them all. Meanwhile, every CFE had its own set of bizarre submission requirements: List every product used in the HVAC system in reverse-alphabetical order, followed by a list of every product you considered using, but opted not to, in chronological order, beginning from the first product you decided not to use. Send on a notarized form under separate cover along with your entry fee ($600 for first entry, $550 for subsequent entries).

And that was a few years back. The CFE flood has only increased. These days just about every cash-strapped publication and professional organization has an award program, and so do many vendors. Most CFEs look alike and most seem reasonably credible, so just about all of them end up on our desks.

It’s good that they do. Award submissions give marketers on every level a chance to shine. Sure it’s a hassle to wrangle complex technical data on a tight deadline, but awards generally combine the things we’re best at: graphic design, writing, big-picture storytelling, critical thinking. When I’m pulling together an award, I’m doing something no one else in my firm can do as well as I can, and that’s a good feeling. Plus, it’s not hard to garner office support for an award pitch. Everyone loves to win a prize.

The trick I’ve learned is to apply a critical eye well before the award process starts, taking on only the awards that make business development sense or clearly advance our marketing plans. Even the least rigorous award submissions take significant time and resources, and the competition is usually stiff: If your project doesn’t jump off the page as meeting all the jury criteria, you’re toast. Plus, even if you win an award from a publication your clients have never heard of, what have you really gained? Resist the temptation to go after awards that offer only marginal marketing benefit, and be the voice of reason when someone hands you yet another CFE.

When you DO go after an award, play to win. Sounds obvious, but it’s easy to approach award submissions like just another routine deliverable: meet the requirements, get it out the door, hope for the best. With awards, that approach is a recipe for wasted time. There’s no glory in defeat when it comes to awards, and the competition is too stiff to simply meet the criteria. Your work has to jump off the page immediately. Here are some tips I’ve learned along the way to help increase your chances.

  1. Research the jury. They’re all different, and often you can ask around to get a sense of what they might be looking for. Often the contact listed on the CFE will be responsive to inquiries about the jury composition. As in any marketing effort, it pays to know your audience.
  2. Invest in photography. Juries spend about 5 seconds with your entry before they make a snap judgement. Sadly, they’re not spending those 5 seconds reading your carefully developed narrative. Show them your best photo right away… and no, it doesn’t have to be a dusk shot. The goal is to make the person who opens your award submission a champion for your project.
  3. Tell a story. Say your cover photo gets you past that first cut. Now you have a new hurdle to clear: Setting your beautiful project apart from dozens of other beautiful projects. Go beyond technical achievement to ask yourself what story the project tells—about the city where it’s built, the people it serves. Your painstakingly compiled vendor list and 30 precisely reformatted, 300 DPI jpegs. are worthless without a big-picture narrative hook that your champion inside the awards jury can latch onto.
  4. Don’t wait until the last minute, but expect things to come down to the last minute. Cool heads prevail when it comes to getting award submittals out the door. As with proposals, you’re often up against a deadline before you get that technical review you were promised two weeks ago. Rest easier by getting everything you can control done well before the 11th-hour fact-checking and wordsmithing scramble. Compile your photos, vendor lists, LEED scoresheets, and supplemental images. Identify the “story” hook and create a broad-strokes draft of your narrative. Get everything packaged in the required format well before you need to hit send. Then, go with the flow of changes and revisions. Don’t take redlines personally. Instead, take pride in the fact that you created the document being reviewed and edited.
  5. Finally, reach out to your network. Fellow marketers within a project team your submitting can offer valuable content as well as good insight, and PR consultants can also be tremendously valuable partners in the award process (I learned most of what I know about awards from Mike Reilly). Remember, its victory or bust, and victory is sweetest when it’s shared!
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