News article

69% believe buying a table will help them win an award – here’s the truth

A couple of weeks ago, we ran a poll on Twitter and LinkedIn asking a very simple question: Does buying a table at an award ceremony increase your chances of winning?

The results were fascinating, surprising and, in many ways, saddening. They’ve led me to think deeply about the state of awards aimed at the financial services community. My thoughts on the topic will only hold your attention for a limited period, so I’ve also asked judges and event organisers for their views.

You can ignore some awards

Let’s start by accepting that not all awards are equal.

You can ignore those emailing you out of the blue, congratulating you on your “win” and asking you to part with a few grand for the privilege of using the “winner’s” logo. These aren’t awards in any meaningful sense of the word, just commercial operations designed to part you with a few quid for a pointless logo.

Lee Robertson, founder and CEO of Octo, agrees: “Award farms, as I call them, are very dubious. They just offer you an award based on some spurious process for a payment in return for a logo and trophy, and I would personally ignore [them].

“There has also been a proliferation of awards over recent years. I do believe that there is something of a hierarchy, where awards that have detailed entries, are properly judged, and with shortlisted firms being interviewed, being at the pinnacle.”

Heather Hopkins, managing director, of NextWealth, says: “I’m a small business owner and I get emails weekly telling me I’ve been shortlisted or won awards that simply require payment to collect. These messages are spam but have unfortunately tarnished other, reputable awards.”

These “awards” shouldn’t sully the reputation of all those in financial services. As Heather says: “I also get spam firms that promise fantastic SEO. I don’t write off all marketing agencies. I even get spam offering me dodgy financial advice. That doesn’t change my positive view of financial planners! The poor practices of some always have the chance to tarnish the many.”

However, our poll results show that the reputation of awards might already, to use Heather’s words, be tarnished:

  • 65% of respondents on Twitter said that buying a table would help them win
  • This rose to 73% on LinkedIn.

The two polls attracted a total of 617 votes, so the data set is large enough to be significant.

I suspect there are a couple of reasons why people voted in the way that they did.

Firstly, believing that the judging has been influenced by buying a table, is more palatable than recognising the possibility that other firms were worthier winners, or your entry wasn’t up to scratch.

Secondly, many winners attend the ceremony, perhaps because they’ve had a gentle nudge from the organisers that it would be “worth them attending”. I understand why organisers do this, as they want winners to get the recognition they deserve and it’s going to be a pretty dull evening if none of the winners attend. But it doesn’t mean the judging process is corrupt.

Gillian Hepburn, head of intermediary Solutions at Schroders, and regular judge, picks up on this point: “When businesses are notified of being on the shortlist, I guess they don’t want to miss out should they win and, therefore, feel they need to attend.

“But as we all know, only one business can win, so having bought a table and attended the event, many are disappointed. Maybe some of these disappointed businesses perpetuate the myth?”

Lee Robertson makes another interesting suggestion: “I believe there is a mixture of reasons why people think winning is linked to buying a table, some true and some less so.

“For some, it has just become something they believe to be true. They have heard it said by others and don’t question it. Unsuccessful entrants have been known to state this as a reason for not winning and so it filters around the community.”

It’s not a view confined to social media either.

At April’s Professional Adviser Awards, I heard three blokes in the toilets complaining that they’d not won, attributing their loss to not buying a table. Confronting strangers in the toilets isn’t something I’m generally prone to do, so I let it pass.

However, I was keen to understand whether their views were mirrored in the wider financial services community. Our poll results show they are. So, I set out to find evidence that proves, or refutes the accusation.

Timing of the judging process means awards can’t be corrupt

Let’s begin with the Professional Adviser Awards where Yardstick clients, Corbel Partners and Delaunay Wealth, won the Best Adviser Network and Best Adviser Website categories respectively. Neither attended the ceremony, hence yours truly weaving my way through the tables, hopping up on the stage and collecting the award on their behalf.

If the accusation that attending was linked to success, surely neither Corbel Partners nor Delaunay Wealth would have won?

But we can do better than my anecdotes. Let’s ask the people who organise the events and judge each of the categories.

First, the organisers.

Laura Purkess, financial journalist, formerly of Citywire, has this to say: “Buying a table or sponsoring an event has absolutely no impact on the outcome of the awards in my experience. Judges are generally given entries to assess with no information about who has sponsored the awards or bought tables. Even if they are aware, there’s no incentive to be favourable to the sponsors.”

Next Justin Cash, online editor at Dow Jones and the former editor of Money Marketing, told us: “Buying a table in absolutely no way increases your chances of winning awards I’ve been involved in.”

We hear the same from the judges.

Firstly, back to Lee Robertson: “I have never been told who has bought tables. In any case, judging is often done way in advance of table or sponsorship sales.”

Andy Kirby of Money Alive, agrees: “As a member of judging panels for the past 10 years, I can attest that there is no link between buying a table and winning an award.”

Andy kindly then went on to explain the judging process for one of the awards he’s been involved in: “Typically, each category is evaluated by four or five judges. Each judge is assigned to review around five or six categories.

“The marking is conducted through an online platform, where each judge is provided with a case study and marking criteria. Judges then independently score each entry against the criteria and enter their scores on the online platform with any comments. At this stage, judges cannot see each other’s scores.”

Andy adds: “The scores are then collated to provide an overall view across the judging panel. In the final stage of the process, judges come together to discuss each category, and at this point, they can see each other’s scores. Based on these scores, judges discuss each entry to reach a consensus on who should be the overall winner.

“So, to reiterate, the process of buying a table does not have any bearing on the judging process. The winners are determined solely based on their merits, as evaluated by the judges according to the established criteria.”

Gillian Hepburn, echoes Andy’s comments: “My experience is that I have never been told who has bought a table or even sponsored the event when undertaking the judging process.

“Most awards are judged in a similar way: the shortlisted entries are made available online, and the judges assess these independently, applying the required scoring methodology and adding comments. A judging meeting then takes place where scores are reviewed and debated if there are any disagreements as to the winner. In some cases, shortlisted candidates present to a judging panel.”

Gillian also echoes an earlier point, saying: “It’s important to consider the timeline, as often at the judging stage, sponsors haven’t been finalised and table sales are still in progress.”

Heather Hopkins recounts a time when she was told who the sponsor was, but it worked against the firm: “I judge many awards; Schroders UK Platform Awards, Money Marketing and Professional Adviser among others. In my years judging awards I can only remember one case when I was given the name of a sponsor.

“The story might help, so bear with me. I was judging an award for adviser tech. We had narrowed it down to two potential winners and had come to a bit of a standstill. The host made an off-hand remark that given it was so close, perhaps we could give it to the one that was sponsoring the awards.

“We rebelled and gave it to the other firm. The sponsoring firm got a highly commended. In the only case, among dozens of judged sessions, I was told the name of a sponsor. It in fact resulted in that firm being pipped to the post.”

Finally, Paul Lewis of Radio 4 Moneybox fame added his thoughts on Twitter when we published our poll:

It seems clear that the judging process means it would be impossible for judges to be influenced by outside factors:

  • They don’t know who bought tables
  • They (generally) don’t know who is sponsoring the event
  • Table sales and sponsorship deals are often struck after the judging has closed.

Reputations on the line

There’s another reason why I believe the process is fair – namely the judges’ professional reputation is at stake.

Gillian Hepburn again: “I have also never been pressured to vote in a certain way. I take my judging responsibilities seriously – it’s often time-consuming and laborious work but my professional credibility is at stake if we make a poor decision and therefore it’s not great if there is a belief that the judges are in any way corrupt.”

Heather Hopkins makes a similar point: “When I judge awards, I read every single one. I spend hours on a single category, reading the entries, and researching the firm online and in NextWealth data. I then attend the judging and participate in a deep debate and discussion about the entrants. It’s a rigorous process. If it’s not, I won’t be part of it.”

On the same subject, Lee Robertson said: “I would withdraw as a judge if I was ever presented with this situation, and I believe others would also.”

5 ideas to improve financial services awards

I believe several things can be done to improve awards in our profession.

1. Understand the differences between awards and “awards”

We all need to accept that not all awards are the same and, as Lee says, recognise the hierarchy. The harder they are to win, the more they are worth winning.

2. Remove sponsors

I understand awards cost money to run, however, I wonder if there’s potential for a radical new model.

In years gone by we’ve seen a handful of conferences organised without the support of provider sponsorship, most notably, Paul Armson’s BACK2Y. It would be interesting to investigate the possibility of replicating this for awards, perhaps with an entry fee to cover the organiser’s costs.

3. Name the judges and the categories they adjudicated on

It would be interesting to look into the possibility of it being made clearer who the judges are and which categories they’re working on.

How judges would feel about their names being published and linked to a specific category is a question only they can answer. However, it would help to make the whole process more transparent, while allowing entrants to speak with the judges to understand how their entry might have been improved.

4. Keep shortlists short

Awards must be careful about not being seen as overly commercial. For example, I’ve heard complaints that shortlists are getting longer.

And in some cases, they are.

Our research shows the number of advice firms shortlisted in one high-profile award has risen by more than 150% in the past five years. That could simply be down to better quality entries being submitted or the organisers wanting to celebrate the best in our profession. However, if someone was looking for evidence that awards are becoming increasingly commercial, they might accuse the organiser of lengthening shortlists so they can sell more tables.

For me, the answer is simple. Limit the number of firms, or people, on the shortlist to a reasonable number, perhaps five or six, with a weighting for areas of the country with more advice firms.

5. Stop the need to canvas votes

Finally, I’d like to see an end to awards where the winner is based simply on the number of votes they receive.

This method favours larger firms and those with a wider social media reach. It’s a point also made by Gillian Hepburn: “Where I do have an issue is awards voted for by advisers where providers then ask for their vote. Perhaps those with the largest telesales teams or client bases win?”

There’s still huge value in entering awards

Believing the myth that buying a table will help you to win an award will leave you a few thousand pounds worse off. It also means:

  • You won’t critically review unsuccessful entries to understand where they could be improved
  • You won’t go searching for the vital proof and evidence that’ll make your entry stand out
  • You will ignore the faults in your business that prevented you from winning.

In contrast, if you enter and are shortlisted or win, the promotional opportunities are huge. I’ve also seen how winning boosts team morale. Finally, there’s huge and often overlooked value in the process itself because writing your entry is the equivalent of a mini-SWOT analysis for your business.

Lee Robertson agrees: “The better awards, and not all are created equal, require a detailed entry across multiple facets of your business. This encourages a detailed look at service, offering, pricing, documentation, marketing and advice so can be really useful as a mini-audit of the business.

“It is a great way to get the wider team involved and thinking about the business in the round, to present it in the best possible shape for scrutiny. I was always amazed at how this helped spruce things up.”

Finally, on the subject of being shortlisted, Heather Hopkins makes a fascinating point: “Awards can be a fantastic way to recognise a team’s success. Being shortlisted should be celebrated. Winning is great but it’s not always about first place.

“Have you heard of ‘silver medal syndrome’? Researchers have found that Olympic athletes that win gold and bronze are happiest. Silver medallists suffer from a psychological syndrome of being disappointed in their achievement because of missing their dream by a narrow margin.

“Don’t let silver medal syndrome stop you from entering awards. We need to recognise the best in our industry. Even if you are shortlisted but don’t win, that is a huge achievement!”

Resources to help you

So, if you never believed that buying a table would help you win, or you’ve now changed your mind, and you want to start entering awards, we have some freebies to help you:

  • Our Adviser Awards Index is a comprehensive list of awards that you can enter. We update it regularly showing which awards are open and who they’re aimed at. Click here to visit the index
  • We have a handy checklist to help you prepare a winning entry. Click here to download the PDF
  • If you’re shortlisted or win an award, you need to capitalise on your success. Our checklist, which you can get for free by clicking here, will help you do just that.

Finally, if you want to enter awards, but don’t have the time, skill, or inclination to write the entry yourself, we can help with that too. Our team have a great track record of writing compelling entries that are regularly shortlisted and often win their categories.

If you’d like to know more, email or call 0115 8965 300.

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