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Judges share how to write a successful industry awards entry

An image of author Aoife McIlraith, accompanied by various search-related iconography

Industry awards can elevate the perception of your agency or in-house team, making you more attractive to potential clients or helping you gain recognition in your organization.


Crafting a winning award entry, however, is inherently competitive. So, where do you start? What should you know before you begin? And, how can you distinguish your award entry from the competition? 


As an industry judge that has spent many years and hundreds of hours reviewing entries and awarding winners (at the US, UK, and European Search Awards, Global Marketing Awards, European Paid Media Awards, and more), I thought it would be a great opportunity ahead of the European Search Awards this year to lend some critical learning and tips on how to craft a winning entry.


Since awards entries are evaluated on both the quality of the work as well as the quality of the application, that’s the lens through which I’ll share both what I’ve seen as well as insights from other industry awards judges as well. Let’s get started.


Table of contents:




Why should your agency or in-house team apply for an industry award?


For winners, digital industry awards serve to:


  • Elevate your team, adding to your agency’s credibility and in-house team’s visibility with management. Awards highlight your team’s strategic and creative strengths, making your skills more visible to potential clients, partners, and bosses. Winning or getting nominated not only boosts team morale, but also showcases your expertise on company websites, sales collateral, and across social media platforms.

  • Make you stand out against competitors. Showcasing awards on your website can illustrate expertise, experience, authority, and trust to the industry, current and potential clients, and search engines. Submitting an award entry is one of the only ways you can independently benchmark your work against the best in the business, encouraging continual improvement and innovation. Additionally, nominations and wins can open you up to new partnerships with complementary agencies and clients who are interested in the highest, award-winning campaign quality and implementation.

  • Feedback for future campaigns and award entries. Most awards provide critique and feedback for entries by expert industry judges. This feedback often highlights really impressive aspects of the work and provides critique on areas to improve (both from a campaign perspective and the quality of the entry). Where else can you receive this type of independent expert review? If leveraged properly, this feedback is a gold mine. If you didn’t secure the win this year, this critique can also help you ensure next year’s award entry is elevated with an increased chance of winning.


A page from digital marketing agency Hallam’s website, showing three awards: The Global 2023 search awards winner, the European 2023 search awards winner, and the European 2022 search awards winner.
Digital marketing agency Hallam showcases awards prominently on its domain.

Before you apply: Research awards, categories, and past winners 


To enter and win awards, you need to gather a bit of background information. Look to gain real insights into:


  • Who runs the awards

  • The awards categories available

  • The standard and criteria for entries 


Decide which award(s) to submit entries to

Awards are a way of illustrating that you and your team are at the top of your field, so take the time to do the research. 


Become a student—find details of the past winning campaigns, agencies, and in-house teams. This gives you a benchmark and helps identify what stands out in your field. Also, take a closer look into the companies that run the awards; are they reputable, well-regarded, and trusted in your industry? 


This ensures that the awards you choose to enter (and may win) are respected and carry weight. Remember, your research may also benefit from looking beyond your own country to understand global standards and expectations.


After you gather this information, decide on what types of awards and categories best align with your team’s efforts in the past year. It takes considerable time and expense to craft great entries, so make sure that that time and money are worth investing.


Understand the standard you must meet

To understand what judges expect, review the list of past winners. Review some of these top agency and in-house teams in your niche, see which awards they have won, and find the winning case studies.


While you may not have access to their detailed submissions, many winners share case studies or highlights on their websites.



It’s also beneficial to occasionally extend your research beyond your immediate geographical area to capture a broader view of industry standards. If you see common tactics and methodologies for illustrating the value of work, then you should ensure that you are replicating those techniques in a comparable way for the categories that you enter.


Also, look at these companies’ social media accounts, which award events have they attended? Ask yourself, who are the award nominees and winners that are currently working with your dream clients? This will help you gain insights into the current standard those dream clients expect. 


Judge’s top tip: Don’t restrict your research to just your own geographical area. For example, if you are based in the UK or Sweden, research awards based in the USA and Europe. Half of the judges I know judge awards globally—not just in their own country or region. This is key to understanding that there is a consistency in judging, regardless of country. If there is considerable consistency in judging, you can expand your research to gain insights into winning entries in other countries and regions.


“To compete for the top spot in your category, several standards need to be met at once: There are of course the results, which usually are essential to even be considered as a winner, but remember that a big part of the entry is storytelling. No matter how good the campaign was, it needs to be sold to judges. Make sure you speak to the judges on all possible levels—like the creativity, the data, and the process. Each judge is different and needs convincing in a unique way. The winning campaigns tend to speak to all possible judging profiles and backgrounds at the same time.” — Natalia Witczy, Global, European, and UK Search Awards judge and CEO at Mosquita Digital

Two people in front of a podium at the UK Agency Awards 2021.
Source: Don’t Panic Events.

Ensure your project matches award criteria

When judges evaluate entries, one of the primary criteria is that they meet the brief. If you are not able to satisfy the brief, then you should look for a different category or even a different award to apply for.


For instance, if you are applying for an award in the small business category, but you are working with a multinational corporation, you may very well be out of the running simply because the project does not satisfy the category criteria.


“Sometimes, awards are won by process of elimination: After an initial review of all applications, I would eliminate the ones that didn’t meet essential criteria, then work backwards to identify the campaign that most accurately reflected the spirit of the award. Those who didn’t follow the category criteria/application instructions were the easiest to rule out of consideration, which is unfortunate because sometimes, aside from the one critical error, the quality of the campaign might have made it a serious contender.” George Nguyen, Search Engine Land Awards judge (2019-2021) and Director of SEO Editorial at Wix

How to craft a winning digital industry awards entry


Let’s now go over what the judges are looking for in your submission as well as the best ways to approach the standard sections of an awards entry.


What judges look for: The bare minimum for awards entries

In essence, an application is very similar to a case study. You want to illustrate the work that you did, the thinking behind it, and how you created great results. 


Across your application, it is important to remember that you are judged on your work as well as the application itself. 

So if you are not able to follow the application instructions and if you fail to demonstrate your work, you might not win even if the campaign was exceptional.


  • Respect all instructions and follow them strictly. One example is word count; if the maximum word count is 1,000 words, do not exceed that. Judges might be reviewing over 50 applications for three days straight, so respect their time. It is very frustrating for judges when instructions are not followed and it is such a simple way to get points deducted. So, stick to all instructions and give the judges every reason to score you highly.


  • Be very aware that judges have signed NDAs and the award process is completely confidential. Don’t risk losing points by not including crucial campaign information.

  • Each section of your awards application may be weighted. Do not ignore this weighting if it’s provided; if it’s not, then take an educated guess that all elements may be graded equally.  Regardless how small or simple a section of the application may seem, if the weighting of that section is worth the same as the other sections, it is worth investing time to ensure that all the content that you submit is robust.


Don’t ramble but don’t be shy, either—you have an opportunity to showcase your work. Your competitors will illustrate their exploits in great detail, if you are too brief or too long in comparison, you will look as if you’ve undersold yourself. 


When entries are similar, those that take the time to invest in the often-overlooked sections of the application can gain precious points that can put them over the top. In a tight race, the highest standard of information in each section can sometimes make the difference between a winner and a runner up.


“Show the judges the unique elements because we already know the basics. All judges are experts, so don’t tell us that you did keyword research. Instead, tell us how you researched topics for the target audience and (having identified a sweet spot your client has a product/service for but no content) you filled the gap, structured the internal links well, and doubled their sales. We need to understand what makes this award-winning, not just what you did.” — Judith Lewis, European, UK, and US Search Awards and Founder at Decabbit Consultancy

Now that you understand the approach you need for filling out your awards submission, let’s look at how you can best translate your success story into the application.


What to include and avoid to maximize the strength of your awards entry

Most industry awards applications are divided into the following sections:

  • Introduction

  • Objectives and budget

  • Strategy, target audience, and creativity

  • Tactical implementation and challenges

  • Results

  • Supplemental content

  • Why we should win

Let’s explore how you can approach each of these sections to create a winning entry.


Introduction (Agency/client or company overviews)

At the start of most awards applications, there is a summary section that pertains to your agency/client or your company (if you’re an in-house team). Use this section to provide a short, informative introduction to your campaign.


  • Set the scene on who your client is, the industry, and maybe even explain the competitor landscape.

  • Take the time to help the judges understand the nature of the business. This is easier with large corporations and household names, but is especially important if you work with a smaller client.

  • This section gives the judges critical background information to better understand your entry and campaigns as they read on, so mention details that are crucial to your success story, but do not go overboard as this is supposed to be a preview to the rest of the application.


Objectives and budget

In this section, you need to be direct, to-the-point, and ensure that you include all information (but also limit it to just what is asked for).


  • State the challenge that led to this campaign.

  • List the set of goals you received from the client.

  • Clearly state objectives, goals, and KPIs, both at the start and at the end of the campaign. Use bulleted lists to keep it succinct.

  • Breakdown the budget, based on instructions provided, in clear currency figures.

  • If you can not provide real budgetary figures (i.e., you’re bound to an NDA), you should at least provide an estimated range and then a breakdown of percentages of the budget as per instructions.

  • If you are entering a regional award (e.g., Europe-wide), provide figures in both your local currency and the most relevant converted currency (e.g., Euros). 


Remember, judges cannot judge what isn’t clearly measured or described.


“State what your goals were before you took on the project, what budget and requirements you were given for the project, the outcome of the project, and the overall timeline of all those events.” Barry Schwartz, Search Engine Land Awards judge and CEO at RustyBrick

Strategy, target audience, and creativity

Strategy: Describe the plan to reach specific campaign goals. 

  • State the strategy of the campaign. 

  • Link the strategy directly to results, demonstrating clear cause-and-effect.

  • Describe any adjustments made to the strategy in response to unexpected market shifts or challenges.

  • Do not provide a list of campaign tactics under the strategy section.


Target audience: Getting judges to understand the target audience is crucial for aligning the campaign’s design and execution.


  • Detail any research you carried out.

  • Provide demographics and target audience behaviors.

  • Explain how insights into the audience informed the choice of channels and messaging.

  • Explain how the campaign was tailored to resonate with and engage the target audience.


Creativity: Highlighting creativity distinguishes your campaign to judges in both conception and execution.


  • Describe the creative process, from brainstorming to final concept and execution.

  • Highlight examples of creative concepts, processes, and innovative use of technology.

  • Discuss how creativity addressed specific challenges and boosted the campaign’s impact.


Judge’s top tip: Winning entries excel by showcasing a clearly defined strategy, an in-depth understanding of the target audience, and standout creativity. By effectively communicating and outlining how these components drove your campaign’s success, your submission will highlight not just its effectiveness, but also the innovative team behind the campaign. 


Tactical implementation and challenges

Tactical implementation is where your strategy meets action, bringing the campaign to life. This is where you should detail the tactical planning, processes and execution.


  • Explain the specific actions you took to execute the strategy, including the platforms and digital tools used.

  • Describe the sequence of operations, showcasing how each tactic aligned with overarching goals.

  • Highlight any innovative practices or unique methods that were crucial to the implementation process.


Challenges: Addressing unique challenges with creative thinking often separates the good award entries from the great ones.


  • List major obstacles encountered during the campaign and explain how you overcame each.

  • Discuss adjustments made to the original plan to accommodate unforeseen circumstances or results.

  • Illustrate how overcoming these challenges contributed to the overall success and resilience of the campaign.

  • Avoid listing challenges that every agency or in-house team faces (e.g., “getting client or management buy-in” or “tight deadlines”). 


A detailed account of your tactical implementation shows how you effectively executed strategies, while discussing challenges highlights your team’s adaptability and problem-solving skills. Together, these sections underscore your campaign’s innovative execution and resilience.


“Remember the power of storytelling: problem, unique strategy, conflict, and results. A captivating story hinges on your unique approach and the challenges you overcame to achieve extraordinary results. Many entries miss this, so the results just end up looking ordinary.” — Miracle Inameti-Archibong, Search Engine Land and Drum Search Awards judge and Head of Search at John Lewis & Partners

Results

Clearly state how you achieved your results. No matter how fantastic your results are, if you are not able to show how you got there and back that up with first-party data and screenshots, it’s almost impossible to validate the results and get awarded high scores for your entry. I can not tell you how many times a lack of clarity and proof has let down entries I’ve judged. 


  • Map the results back to the stated objectives—this should be obvious but is often (and surprisingly) omitted.

  • Use hard figures where at all possible. Providing only percentages may harm your entry. “We increased conversions by 450% in six weeks,” is really not telling the whole story—450% of what?

  • “We increased sales by 450%,” without illustrating how you contributed to that outcome is also not particularly useful.

  • Never exaggerate your results. Judges are experts and will use third-party tools to dig deeper if they feel your results are not what they appear. (Yes, it happened to me and yes, they got heavily penalized.)

  • Hard figures are the standard, but if you are restricted by an NDA and need to use percentages, make sure that you provide extra details and prove your results. 


Proving and illustrating your results is fundamental to whether or not your entry is high quality. The judges you’re presenting to are people who have been working in the industry for some time and will understand that there can be many reasons why a campaign may or may not succeed. By illustrating how you contributed to the outcome, you can give judges a good reason to advocate for your campaign and skills.


Judge’s top tip: Include a quote from the client on the success of the campaign and how it contributed to the business overall. This is a great extra layer of validation in the results section for the judges to review.


A screenshot of a Wix case study with a quote from the user praising Wix.
Like this case study (shown above), you can include a quote from your client in your awards submission to impress judges.

Supplemental content

Make sure your application shines on its own. Your application should be compelling without over-relying on supplemental documents.


  • Enhancement—not dependence: Use supplemental documents to enhance the narrative of your application, not to house essential data or key points. For example, one thing you can do is show the judges the stages of your creative assets (how they looked at the start versus how they looked at the end).

  • Simplicity and clarity: Aim for clarity and conciseness in both your main application and supplemental materials to avoid giving judges any reason to deduct points.

  • Mind the word count: Remember that words in supplemental documents count towards the total entry limit. Do not lose points by trying to outsmart the rules by adding a ton of extra words in a PDF. Honestly, this will lose you precious points with judges.

  • Judges review many applications quickly, and if yours relies too heavily on supplemental content, it complicates their evaluation.

  • The judges are interested in the data and the evidence, not how pretty the supporting documents are.


Why we should win

This is one of the most overlooked sections (and one of the hardest to complete). This section is your chance to really show the judges the impact your campaign had on your client, customers, and audience. 


Tell the judges why you think your entry deserves to win. Don’t assume they’ll pick up on you implying why you should win.

  • Winning an award for achieving results you were paid to achieve is not award-winning—that’s just doing your job. What was exceptional about these results? What was unique and challenging about this campaign? 

  • If possible, include a client testimonial to emphasize the value of your work.


“In a couple of lines, you should be able to summarize the crux of your entry, why it’s innovative, unique and, most importantly, memorable for the judges.” Crystal Carter, EU Search Awards judge and Head of SEO Communications at Wix

Before you submit your entry

Perform a final review. Go back to the application instructions and make sure you checked off every single thing required. Review everything in detail and make sure you stay within the word count; if not, consider another round of editing. Review your screenshots, did you contextualize them? Judges may view your content from a number of different perspectives. While you may use one particular tool every day, that doesn’t mean that the judges who are evaluating your entry are familiar with that particular tool. Explain what your images illustrate and why you are showing them. Qualify your data, screenshots, images, and charts with insights that support your case. Remove screenshots or graphs that don’t back up a stated point.


Get an unbiased, expert opinion. Ask someone that you trust—an expert that has no connection to the campaign you are entering—to review your submission. Ask for their honest critique and feedback. They may very well spot opportunities to improve the entry. Have a native speaker write or review your application. Ensure that your entry is reviewed by someone who is a native speaker of the language you’re being judged in. Judges are likely to be fluent in the application language and will expect a clear and coherent entry that showcases you in the best light. I’ve seen some great cases of work, but the language quality ultimately let them down—a native speaker can help reduce this risk.


Digital awards entry do’s and don’ts


Do’s:

  1. Research thoroughly: Understand who won previously and the standards in your industry globally (not just locally).

  2. Adhere to guidelines strictly: Follow every instruction meticulously and respect the word count and judge’s time.

  3. Focus on clarity: Ensure your entry is clear and concise, making it easy for judges to understand your achievements.

  4. Illustrate your strategy and results: Clearly link your strategies to tangible results and demonstrate their effectiveness.

  5. Invest in every section: Treat all parts of the application as critical.

  6. Provide proof of results: Back up your achievements with hard data, including charts and first-party data screenshots where appropriate.

  7. Use supplements wisely: Enhance your entry with supplemental materials, but don’t rely on them to carry essential information.

  8. Review and refine: Have your entry reviewed by an expert and a native speaker to ensure it’s free from errors and clearly communicates your value.


Don’ts:


  1. Overlook simple sections: Don’t neglect parts of the application that seem less important; they could be decisive if entries are similar.

  2. Be vague: Specificity in your objectives, strategies, and results is crucial; vagueness can undermine your entry.

  3. Exceed word limits: Stick to the word count to avoid deductions and demonstrate your ability to communicate effectively within constraints.

  4. Forget the client perspective: Including testimonials or client perspectives can significantly enhance the credibility of your results.

  5. Miss the final review: Double-check your entry against the submission guidelines and ask for feedback to catch any overlooked errors or opportunities for improvement.

  6. Rely solely on digital proof: While digital metrics are important, contextualize them with qualitative insights to paint a fuller picture of your campaigns impact.


A text graphic that says “Agency award do’s and don’ts” listing the same points as the text in the article above the image.

And, the campaign of the year goes to…


Remember, every entry is an opportunity to showcase your team’s achievements, benchmark against the industry’s best, and highlight your innovative approaches. Ensure you approach each submission with the aim to impress and captivate the judges, demonstrating the excellence and impact of your work.


 

Aoife McIlraith

Aoife McIlraith is owner and MD of Luminosity Digital marketing agency and founder of Searchmastermind.org and Speakerlineup.com. With 22+ years of international marketing expertise, Aoife helps brands get the right content to the right audience at the right time to drive sales. Linkedin


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