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'Tis the season for awards

As one season draws to a close (though if you were in Northern Europe you could be forgiven for thinking summer barely arrived) it is  succeeded by another one, one that is as equally anticipated but is far more reliable: the Awards Season. There is little danger of it not appearing and rarely is it a washout. For a B2B marketing pro it is an opportunity to raise the brand profile, add some gongs to the trophy cabinet and entertain some clients in salubrious surroundings. Well, that’s the idea anyway.

As we re-engage after the holiday break we need to consider for which awards to apply, which categories to choose and which products or customers should be highlighted. Once the testimonials have been checked and the forms approved, our precious entries then end up in the hands of a group of industry experts who ultimately have a boozy lunch (allegedly) in a hotel boardroom as they decide and debate which of us will be crowned ‘best of the best’ in our respective fields.

The next phase is the event itself.  We get dressed up to the nines, trying to squeeze into DJs and frocks that surely fitted us the last time we wore them. Still, it’s too late to get an alternative so we just commit to go on a diet the next day and hope that the discreet safety pin will do its job. We then spend an evening getting drunk on cheap wine, eat rubbery chicken for sustenance, and do it all in a hotel in which most of us would never stay. Or maybe I am being a little jaundiced. 

If we win, it means everything. If we lose, it was a fix and we were robbed, And anyway, the winners have far bigger marketing budgets to sway the judges.

Yes, it is easy to be cynical about B2B awards. They come in various standards and have varying influences in the market. Yet the reason we keep entering them is that they surely can make a positive impact for our employees and our partners and it is not too much of a stretch to say they can have a bottom-line impact to our business. When NetApp was named Vendor of the Year in the UK by CRN, I know it meant a great deal to our partners and to our team. Not a day goes past when someone doesn’t apply for a job at NetApp, drawn to the fact that we are ranked globally as one of the best places to work – an award of a different kind but equally as attracting.

Does winning an award change your life? Does it add significantly to the brand value of your company? To find out whether winning an award is really all it is cracked up to be, I caught up with an old colleague of mine, John Watton, now Director of Global Branding & Marketing, Expedia Affiliate Network at Expedia but formerly CMO of ShipServ, the on-line marketplace for the shipping industry – and as B2B as you can get. John won the B2B Marketer of the year in 2009 in the B2B Magazine Awards and I wanted to get his view on the value of such awards.

DG: So I know I have congratulated you before and it’s now 18 months since you triumphed, but again, congrats on the achievement. What impact has being crowned B2B Marketer of the year had for you, and for your former employer, ShipServ?

JW: Thanks Dave. I've been incredibly lucky in the past to receive awards for more general campaigns and initiatives, but receiving an individual award was a unique experience for me. Despite celebrating and rewarding success in the teams I've led, I'm typically British when it comes to receiving personal compliments - I blush, mumble thanks and look at my shoes. So in some ways it's taught me to take a compliment and helped increase my social skills! But on a serious note, its great to get external verification that what you're doing is right/at the leading edge/outstanding. This was a tremendous boost to the team at ShipServ, as we were creating a market and effectively writing the rule book for what we were doing. In addition, we were in many ways a marketing partner to thousands of small businesses around the world, so them knowing that we were excelling in marketing ourselves had a positive impact on our day-to-day business.

DG: In your new capacity at Expedia you clearly have a global branding remit, so how important would you say awards are in helping to build a brand?

JW:  I'm not 100% convinced that most B2B companies will profit from increased business because of having lots of awards. And especially marketing awards, sadly. In some ways we were lucky at ShipServ because we offered a marketing service to a portion of our customers. That said, I've never submitted a single marketing award nomination myself, but have been happy to support partners or agencies when they've approached me (at this point I have to name-check Laura Mishima of Marketo who did an outstanding job pulling together the submission for my Marketer of The Year Award). But they definitely help with attracting good talent and building internal morale.  If you're a small niche brand like ShipServ, it's tough to convince talented individuals to join you as they're likely to have their pick of the top brands. Awards go some way to reassure them that the alluring, charismatic recruitment pitch ("we're going to be the Google of plumbing!") from this little company they've never heard of, has some external validation and isn't too good to be true. At ShipServ I also made sure we did well in tech start-up awards such as Red Herring 100, Tech Media Invest 100 and White Bull. These all helped us with our recruitment value proposition. And for existing staff its a shot of caffeine to remind them they're in a company that's a great place to be, despite the dodgy coffee and cramped offices.

DG: How have you leveraged both your own award and awards that any of your previous employers have won? Any pearls of wisdom or crucial advice?

JW: Please, please, please never lead with awards! It reminds me of those agency pitches where awards and extravagant ROIs are paraded. I always thought "so what?" - show me the money, your people and let me speak to your customers. Personally, they're the very last thing I speak about, if at all. Of course they go on the CV, but probably a distant third behind references and business impact metrics. And I can tell you my awards were never discussed in the interview process for Expedia! But i come back to the incredibly positive impact awards do have on staff. We all want to learn from others and develop our careers working for the best. So (again) used judiciously with staff they're a powerful tool. There's also no harm using the details of an award from a previous company as a case study to share with your new team. It shows your thinking, approach and vision. 

DG: So John, modesty aside, what attributes do you think it takes to be crowned Marketer of the Year?  

JW: I love the application of marketing, love rolling up my sleeves and absorbing the latest and greatest. I've embraced social media, tweet regularly (@jwatton), put my life in the cloud and have more devices than is good for me. And I'd encourage any marketer to do the same. You can only learn from it and come out a stronger, better, wiser marketer. But when it comes down to it, the fundamentals of marketing haven't changed – it’s about knowing your customer, your product, your business model, your revenue streams and measuring meaningful metrics. I'd like to feel I combined the pragmatic with the innovative to get my own award. So if that's something to be copied, feel free and good luck!

So there we have it, a positive impact from personal, professional and business perspectives. It really is worth filling in those application forms, squeezing into tight tuxedos and pitting your drinking capacities against your peers in the industry. The value of awards is undisputed, just how you leverage them will depend on the size of your business and whether you are in brand-build mode or are an established brand.

No doubt I will see some of you this “season”!