The view from the awards trenches

IFR Awards 2023
7 min read
Jezz Farr

PR veteran (and former IFR man) Jezz Farr explains what the awards process looks like for the unfortunate souls trying to line up all the egomaniacs involved (and that’s not just the bankers).

When I was eight, I was the youngest runner in an all-comers fell race in the Lake District. Up a big hill and back. I came last. But I didn’t care. I finished – and for that I was awarded 10 pence. A lot back then to a young kid.

The memory of this race still brings a tear to my parents’ eyes. For me, it was recognition that I had achieved something.

The awards industry in banking is a rum old thing. For some, the awards resonate more loudly than the excellent journalism produced each week or month by the magazines and websites that bestow these gongs.

For others, it’s a ritual met with a sinking heart. And by others, I mean the journalists who have to traipse across their respective financial centres conducting too many soft interviews with people they would rather be interrogating about tougher issues.

For bank PRs it is a thankless task that eats up the days for limited reward.

Once upon a time, there were no awards. Then, about 35 years ago, a couple of magazines (IFR being one of them) realised that recognising achievement in banking had some huge benefits.

First, it provided greater access to award-hungry senior bankers whom journalists sometimes struggled to see otherwise. Second, there was money to be made: the magazines sold adverts in their awards issues and access to their awards ceremonies which in turn triggered greater interest in subscriptions. And third, there was a big party where all the winners slapped themselves on the back and praised the magazines for their great journalism. It didn’t matter that they often avoided said journalists for the rest of the year.

Roll forward 20-odd years and nearly every financial magazine had an awards process. Some new media outlets had awards before they had even officially launched a magazine.

At one bank where I worked, there was a formal awards management team. They had a spreadsheet of all the awards, the pitch requirements and the times of the year they were needed and where. It was a very busy spreadsheet. Boy, was I glad they were there. They ran the whole process, leaving to the PRs the easier task of chaperoning bankers to the hundreds of interviews.

We are the champions

I hold that awards are a good thing. For the many hundreds if not thousands of junior bankers who toil day and night to win business, recognition of their efforts by a third party does wonders for internal morale. It might be short lived, but it means something. A team that has sweated for six months to land a winning deal can boast they are the champs. And well done them.

I am less certain about the argument that awards help win new business. I can picture many a client’s eyes rolling when pitched again with a page full of awards. So what? Every bank has them. My awards team’s database was forever being mined for awards. Maybe a meaningful IFR global award might catch a client’s eye. Who knows?

So from a bank’s PR perspective, I think the effort is worth it. And effort it is. Not least the coordination (if you have an awards team, look after them) but also the angst. Not mine but that of the bankers. Some take it very seriously, personally even. If they win, they rejoice. If they don’t, there can be tears. Some get cross and shout at the journalists, scuppering any chance of winning, ever. Some even blame the PRs for not preparing them well enough. And do we get a slap on the back for helping bag an award? Very, very rarely.

Different challenge

Then there is the issue of awards ceremonies. I think there are fewer now, but not long ago one could go to an awards ceremony several times a week. Journalists sometimes get upset if, in their eyes, a bank’s attendees weren’t senior enough. We PRs sympathise – we try our best. Fair enough, though, if a bank sends no actual bankers and just a PR. It happens.

Attendance is less of a problem at the big bashes, such as IFR’s do at Grosvenor House on London’s Park Lane. But this presents different challenges for PRs.

First, there is a race to invite the best financial and market journalists to a bank’s tables. We all want the FT, Bloomberg or Reuters banking editor on our table, as well as our best contacts in the media. We crow about our media guests to our friendly PR rivals.

And second, the charity event. Many award-giving media outlets will raise money for charity at their ceremonies. At IFR it is famously the tombstone. There are two parts to this challenge from a bank’s perspective. Who will do the bidding and how much will they bid? The latter is often decided by someone senior, usually at the last minute because, despite PR prompts, they haven’t focused on it.

The bidder might be the same but not always. This job comes with some risk. We PRs can give our advice but it is usually ignored because this is about pitching a bank at the right level at the right price relative to the others. Not necessarily in the spirit of the event, more about not losing face. Whatever. The charities still get their money which is the important thing.

Then the awards are taken back to the bank and put in a cupboard. Some internal articles will be written about how great the team/department/institution is, which no one but the winners read. And a few weeks later, all that remains is an entry in a database that someone somewhere may one day drag out for a pitch.

But let’s applaud the winners. Not so much those accepting the big global or regional awards. Those awards are great ‘n’ all. But let’s remember the smaller more junior teams for whom an award is a beautiful thing. A moment of joy in an otherwise stressful day. It is something about which they can boast to their families, and might even bring a tear to their parents’ eyes.

Jezz Farr has been a senior communications adviser to major international banks for more than 25 years.

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