And the Winner Is …

How one campaign wins four awards.

Wondering if you should enter your work in a workplace communication competition? Here are a few thoughts about choosing what to enter and where. 

I had a nice surprise in my inbox yesterday morning. I received notice that a communication campaign I worked on last year—a wellness program launch for CommonSpirit Health—earned its fourth accolade. 

I’ve earned awards throughout my career but not four different awards from four different organizations for a single campaign. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever entered a single campaign in more than one or two competitions. So, what made this one special? Why did it win? 

If you’re looking for some recognition for your communications team, here are a few thoughts on what to enter and where to enter it.

Je Ne Sais Quoi

I work on several campaigns for several different clients every year. Not every one of those is award-worthy. 

When I say a campaign isn’t “award-worthy”, I don’t mean the work isn’t good or that it failed. I simply mean it lacks that je ne sais quoi.

This lovely French expression, literally meaning “I don’t know what”, is sometimes used to describe an elusive quality that makes something appealing or distinctive. Based on my experiences, entering, losing, winning and judging these competitions, I think winning campaigns have that. 

When I sense the following while developing and executing a campaign, I start to suspect I might have a winner on my hands.

It feels different from the beginning. Not every communication project sets out to drive major change. The goal might be maintaining the status quo, not rocking the boat, or (in the world of HR and benefits communication) meeting a regulatory requirement. These kinds of projects are important, essential, but they have a different vibe from the outset. They don’t necessarily stir the passions and they’re not as likely to produce the kind of work or results that turn a judge’s head. The CommonSpirit campaign was different right from the beginning. The project had visibility at high levels in the organization and it was clear that the project team had high hopes. They were passionate, energetic and eager to push the boundaries. They weren’t just trying to get this thing over with. They wanted to make a difference. I knew this was going to be a creative challenge and a special opportunity.

By the way … be open to your campaign’s potential regardless of its subject matter. Some of the most interesting, creative work I’ve done has been on topics ranging from annual benefits enrollment to workplace safety to compensation surveys. Sparks can ignite anywhere.

It looks and feels special. There are certain campaigns I look back on that surprise me. I wonder: How in the world did I come up with that headline? I can’t believe the client approved this photo! In retrospect, good creative can feel like the obvious choice. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. For the CommonSpirit campaign, we brainstormed for days, combing through samples, brand guidelines and company communications, which led us to scouring the Bible. During the ideation phase, after we get out all the obvious ideas, I will sometimes feel like I’ll never figure it out. We’ll go down dead ends and end up in unexpected places. These steps can be frustrating, but they are necessary and good. I think effective creative employs uncommon words and images in a way that will be immediately welcomed by the audience. That’s the needle to thread. But a lot of good creative ends up in the recycle bin precisely because it pushes the envelope. Fresh ideas can feel risky and they can make clients feel uncomfortable. But when those risky ideas elicit a positive response, you know you’re on to something.

It achieves something special. The CommonSpirit campaign had clear goals from the outset—and they felt aggressive to me. I had never worked with this client before and it was a big project. A lot was on the line. Before the launch, I felt confident that, on their own, the deliverables we had created could win awards. But when the results of the campaign started coming in—70,000 new wellness program registrations in three weeks—I knew we’d touched our audience’s hearts and minds. We had achieved something special.

Know What You’re Getting Into

While I was studying creative writing and poetry in college, I entered a poem in a contest. In a few weeks, I received a letter indicating my work had been selected for publication. Beaming with pride, I took the letter to my professor. He quickly pointed out the contest was sponsored by a “vanity press.” They’ll print your work if you buy their publication. Basically, the only people reading that book will be the people who wrote it. Hopes dashed. Lesson learned.  

Entering communication competitions can be expensive and time consuming. And, they will get your hopes up. I’m not going to place a bet of time, money and emotion on something as mysterious as “I don’t know what”. I want a level of confidence that I have a real chance at winning something that is worth winning.

If you think you have a winner on your hands, here are some basic steps to take.

  1. Make a list of competitions you want to win. Google searches will pull up all kinds of results. You likely know some of the big ones, but there are other good competitions out there that are regional or have a particular focus. Make note of all of them.
  2. Narrow down your list by time frame. Some competitions are annual. Some accept applications on a rolling basis. They will all have guidelines about when the campaign happened. Choose competitions that make sense based on when you did the work and when winners will be announced. If you missed the boat on an award you’d like to win, put it on your calendar for next time.
  3. Align with the criteria. Before you start working on your entry, be sure you understand the criteria. I categorize competitions into two main types:
  • Quality. These competitions base judgement solely on an evaluation of the work itself. They don’t ask for results and they’re not interested in context. Basically, these are creators evaluating the quality of what you’ve created in and of itself. If you have a stunning piece of work, give these a shot. They can be great validation of the work you’re doing and a nice recognition for your team. Check out lists of previous winners. Are these organizations you’d be proud to stand alongside? If so, enter.
  • Quality and Results. These competitions place great importance on achieving results. They’ll want a solid case study outlining your strategy and outcomes. If you have a stunning piece of work backed up by an insightful approach AND compelling evidence of results, take the time to enter. These kinds of competitions (e.g., IABC, Ragan, Communicator Awards) have higher standards and there’s more competition but they come with greater notoriety and, I think, an overall higher sense of achievement.

Let’s Connect

Do you have a campaign coming up that needs award-winning strategy and creative? What tips and insights would you share about entering communication competitions? We’d love to hear from you. 

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