Home TypeNews Phil Soar on awards: Why no one wants a silver medal

Phil Soar on awards: Why no one wants a silver medal

by EN

In his latest column for Exhibition News, CloserStill and Nineteen Group chairman Phil Soar says awards are like a dog which is not barking. Here he gives some tips on winning and explains why no one wants a silver medal. 

This is perhaps a piece for a rarefied audience – but I was asked four times at the EN Awards why I had never written anything about industry awards and the notable performances of CloserStill and Nineteen Group (I was a founder of both and am still chairman of both).

I have been reluctant because it seems far too self-absorbed – additionally, when I did write a long piece about the awards a few months ago, it was censored by my betters.

But I was prompted to put pen to paper by last week’s EN Awards. There were only 11 awards which a trade show company could have possibly won – and of these four went to CloserStill and three to Nineteen. Hence the questions. In the twenty year history of exhibition award ceremonies in the UK there have only been four occasions when a single company has won four or more awards in one night – and in all four cases that company was CloserStill.

So I was asked in Battersea several times: “How can this possibly happen? Who are you bribing?” (I am sorry to say that, in my many years as chairman of the AEO Awards, no one ever even hinted at bribing me).

As this week’s in-box confirms, there were several “How can X have possibly won Y?” on the night.

So let me try and address these questions with a series of thoughts about our two awards ceremonies (EN and AEO). I write with a degree of inside knowledge, having chaired the AEO Awards for the past seven years.

You can’t beat shows which don’t enter

Firstly, you can only beat the people you are up against – a truism still best illustrated by Alan Wells winning the 1980 Moscow Olympics 100 metres when the USA had boycotted the event. If Spring Fair, DSEi and World Travel Market (the three biggest UK trade shows) don’t enter, then they won’t win Best Trade Show.

In the early days of the awards, the winners predictably tended to be the big players.

For instance, in the first dozen years EMAP won AEO Best Trade Show four times, UBM/Informa three. The winners were instantly recognisable to the industry – the IFSEC cluster (twice), IMEX, ICE, Pure (twice), Spring Fair. Media10 (not a large player in the early years) has won the AEO Best Consumer Show six times.

But in the last six or seven years that has changed and smaller companies now have a bigger say. When CloserStill won its unprecedented seven awards in one night at the  EN Awards in 2014 it was on the back of a turnover of just £14m (I’ll repeat – just £14m). Nineteen Group, with just four events, won three awards at EN and one at AEO, and Raccoon have begun to feature regularly.

The bigger players are less evident these days

This change seems to have been partially driven by an apparent lessening of interest by the bigger players. Informa and Reed are by a mile the largest in the business, but make relatively few entries given their size – Reed had just one shortlisted at EN and Informa five. Tarsus and DMG are not as regular an entrant. Easyfairs are regulars, but perhaps less than their size would suggest. Clarion and Hyve are featured far more often – Hyve had nine shortlists at EN.

If you look through the entries to both AEO and EN nowadays certain names recur – Media10 and Raccoon in the consumer categories, CloserStill, Nineteen, Clarion, Oliver Kinross, Hyve in trade.

With the possible exception of Clarion, these names have something in common. They are relatively small compared with the billion pound turnover big guys. They are also very tightly managed companies largely run by the people who created them (this is of course also true of Clarion). They tend to have an internal champion who tries to make sure that everyone gets involved in the process – Alison Jackson, Alexia Maycock, Julie Driscoll, Lee Newton and Rob Nathan. They still have some real sense of being a family. The senior management is very conscious of the sense of wellbeing and fun that awards bring. It maybe the case that the senior managements of the larger groups are rather too removed from seeing minor issues such as the benefit of awards.

How the judging can unconsciously bias the results

How the awards (both sets) are judged has been a source of much controversy, dissent and, on a couple of occasions, fierce disagreements.

The controversies have often resulted from what have been described as ‘incomprehensible’ decisions. Occasions when it was clear that no-one in the room could reasonably believe that the Best Trade Show winner was a better event than say Spring Fair, BETT, ICE, World Travel Market, Brand Licensing, DSEi etc.

Having said that, I am cautious of assuming too much. Everyone who enters agrees to abide by the rules of the awards, and that acknowledges the imperfections of  judging systems which cannot possibly be perfect.

In the early days a committee of the boards did the judging. By and large, it was acknowledged that these relatively senior players knew the events, the suppliers and the venues. But, of course, some judges would have biases – if not in favour of their own events or venues (which they were excluding from judging) but perhaps against the entries of competitors.

The EN Awards started with a basically open online voting system where anyone could vote – which might have seemed superficially fair but could have two clear disadvantages. One was gaming the result, and the other was that a voter was only likely to pick events and venues which they personally knew – thus necessarily favouring the big guys.

By gaming I mean that public voting is always a nightmare for the powers that be. For many years the public vote for the BBC’s Sportsperson of the Year Award lead to the winner being a leading fisherman, who was supported by literally millions of active fishermen. The BBC rejected this winner every year on the controversial basis that fishing was not a sport (and of course because this was not what they wanted). And then there was Boaty McBoatface (also rejected) and I suppose you could add the Brexit Referendum to the pile.

The judges rate the best entries, not the best shows

Both AEO and EN moved towards a system of independent judging panels, some from within the industry and some not, who voted online on the entries which had been received. While this was deemed fair, independent and robust it has one obvious problem – the panel judging for Best Trade Show was clearly not judging the best trade show. They were actually judging the ‘best submission for the best trade show award’.

The judges cannot be blamed for this. They can only assess what is put in front of them (rather as a jury at the Old Bailey does not hear the evidence which the judge has declared inadmissible).

This becomes even more convoluted – and here I draw on my own experience as chairman of the AEO Awards. The AEO board wanted (or was advised to want) a judging panel with a balanced gender split – in 2021 60% of judges were female – plus some 20% had protected characteristics and some 65% were non-AEO members. I cannot comment on the EN panels, having never served on one.

While one understands the background to such desires, one was bound to ask why a higher percentage of protected characteristics and an even higher percentage of non-members and persons with limited experience of the industry was likely to provide us with better decision making. Or why a 50/50 female/male split would generate fewer controversial results (nowadays the judges do not sit in rooms together – certainly that saves one noisy personality dominating the discussion).

Members of the organising committees have argued long and hard about whether there should be some guidance to judges – as happened in the days when six or seven people gathered together to debate the entries. The arguments revolve around guidance about what happened in previous years, and even whether submissions really reflect the actual events, venues or suppliers they are supposed to be about.

Can we prevent apparently random judging decisions?

In recent years we have seen a number of decisions in what we might call the major categories (Best Trade Show, Best Marketing Campaign etc) which have lead to serious debate about how they occurred. It would be wrong to name names if only because all entrants clearly accept the rules of entry, with their faults and strengths, but there have been clear examples where it seemed to be the submission rather than the event which won the award (and others where there was no apparent explanation other than the use of a pin). A small number of companies have used PR agencies to curate entries (my companies have never done this) and thus have created carefully written professional entries.

If a first time show has entered the market not as a small start up, but as a spin off from a very large parent with a ready-made customer base, then this can give a new, original feel to a submission and which can make a compelling story in just 750 words.

And there is the problem of the panels changing every year. There was one relatively recent occasion when a winning show one year submitted basically the same entry again the following year – changing the numbers and a few words. And they won again – a new judging panel had not seen the prior year’s entry.

The ideal, of course, would be like Crufts. A small judging panel would visit each show or venue and make their decisions based on the real thing, not a proxy surrogate. But that, of course, is not possible with retrospective awards.

So, tips for winning awards

  • Above all else, remember the judges are not assessing the ‘best consumer show’ or ‘best marketing campaign’. They are assessing the 750 or so word submissions and picking the one they like best. It is unlikely the judges will ever have visited your show, or indeed know anything much about it – or even that of any of your competitors. There was one occasion when this was tested with an entirely spurious entry from an event which didn’t exist (though the name made it sound as if it did, there being lots of shows in the IT sector). The entry was just words which could have said anything – and the show was very close to winning before the deceit was revealed. It is the submission which counts – not the event. Entries are interrogated a little more rigorously nowadays.
  • Some categories are easier to win than others. There are always numerous entries for Best Trade Show, Best Trade Show Marketing Campaign, Unsung Hero, Supplier of the Year etc. These are therefore hard to win. But you only have to look at the shortlists to see categories where there are fewer entries (in some categories every entrant gets shortlisted): ESG or Sustainability Awards, any first year award which isn’t directly trade show related. The awards for consumer shows always have far fewer entrants than trade show awards simply because there are fewer consumer show companies (and which is not meant to decry Lee Newton and Media10’s great successes in the past decade). In 2019 there were only two entries for AEO Best Consumer Launch Show and, on the venue side, there are often few entries for the smaller venue category (eg less than 20,000sqm).
  • Though I shouldn’t encourage you, if you don’t have internal expertise in the way Media10, Nineteen or CloserStill clearly have, then think about employing outside help. It is clear that the judges have biases – look at the lists of previous winners – and you may discern them. Anything which is new or fashionable (eg sustainability) at the time has a better chance. An expert can précis 750 words into a much more readable and entertaining submission. It is clear that readability counts.
  • Don’t get too upset if you don’t win. ‘If at first you don’t succeed’ is a useful motto for parachutists, but there’s a randomness to awards. The more you enter the more you are likely to get there.

 A plea to drop second places

It may seem honourable to celebrate a good second but it grates. I have managed to stop (for the time being) the AEO having Highly Commended before the winner is announced. But I saw that EN had Silver Medals this year. In my experience (having come second many times in my life) it simply says: “You haven’t won” and it does not ease the disappointment to know that before the actual winner is announced.

There is a practical example of this. I collect Olympic medals (odd, I know, but there you are). These can generally only be bought via two major auction houses – Sotheby’s in London and one in California. Of the medals which come up for auction, less than 10% are gold, 30% are bronze and around 60% are silver. Of course, there are the same number of gold, silver and bronze medals in existence.

No one can be certain of the reason, but the following seems likely. An Olympic gold medal is so special that it is treasured and handed down through the family. Many winners of bronze medals are likely to have been delighted to win a medal at all. But the silver medal says: “You didn’t come first.” Not for everyone of course, and this is cod-psychology. But it is hard to come up with another explanation for the consistent excess of silver medals.

Do you agree with Phil Soar? Tell us what you think by sending a letter to the editor.

Email ewallin@mashmedia.net



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