Off message: Awards and the internal pitch battles

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What happens when you ask hyper-aggressive over-achievers if they think they’re the best in the industry? John Anderson knows all too well.

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Every year at harvest time in the great state of Kansas, huge combines make their way through thousands of acres of ripe wheat. Crews work feverishly around the clock to cut as much as wheat as they can to bring it to market at just the right time.

Now, most PRs wouldn’t know one end of a tractor from the other, but the awards season at an investment bank is a lot like cutting wheat. You’ve got a limited amount of time in which to get your arms around a mind-numbing amount of data points and verbiage. There is one big difference. With cutting wheat, there is a lot less chaff.

From my time inside the belly of the beast, I know that the whole process starts with what we might call the 'killer memo’. This is the one you send to all the various department heads across all asset classes, all geographies and all industry sectors. 

This memo is supposed to be a call to action, in which you set out the need for everyone who thinks they should be included in an awards programme to submit their arguments accordingly.

Think about that for a moment. In an environment brimming with hyper-aggressive, overachievers you ask anyone to raise a hand if they think they deserve some industry recognition.

So what happens…? You guessed it. Everyone and their uncle wants to participate. Even the people who water the plants are trying to figure out which shrub in the foyer they should photograph for their submission.

Then the fun really begins. Your inbox is jammed with awards submissions that should be put in the British Library as examples of trite misrepresentations that couldn’t stand up to the most cursory analysis.

Here’s what they say:

"The left-handed asset-backed desk at ABC Investment Bank had another amazing year." 

Here’s the reality: 

They barely covered the cost of capital and managed to avoid any regulatory censures.

They say: "The geographical expansion continues."

The reality: they managed to squeeze a folding chair onto the trading floor in Hong Kong for an intern.

They say: "Our climb up the league tables further confirms our stunning display of virtuosity."

The reality: they tailored a league table that puts them in the spotlight by showing all the deals done on a Thursday east of the Danube and sold to part-time dentists.

When you’ve finally narrowed it all down to credible contenders, you have to figure out your next step – putting someone forward to make the case in person. 

Step back

If you’ve made multiple submissions – I remember one year we had over 20 different groups involved – you will have no shortage of bankers wishing to talk to an editor. If that is the case, just politely offer to make someone available and step back. A magazine newsroom at awards time is like a food processor on amphetamines – best not to step into that buzz. 

However, if you’re up for one of the big awards, a face-to-face meeting with the top brass is in order. And should that occur, a funny thing happens. For as self-aggrandizing, nay delusional, as mid-level bankers can be, most CEOs are usually much more honest, objective and plugged-in than people give them credit for.

There are exceptions. Early in my career I sat through an incredibly brutal, hour-long session with a very senior banker and an editor. This senior banker completely ignored my briefings and guidance and decided he would make the argument by denigrating all the banks he imagined were the competition. Having wiped out the peer group, he then did an awful job of talking up his own book.

There is an overarching observation that needs to be made here. It is fine to claim that you are head and shoulders above the rest, as long as you really are head and shoulders above them. 

But if you’re having a bad year, if your game is off, or worse yet, if you’re really struggling, then don’t torment some poor PR guy by insisting he files an award submission on your behalf. You would be better off buying a bowling trophy and showing it to your mother, if recognition is what you’re after.

I would like to end with a suggestion to those who are fortunate enough to win an award and will be picking it up at a black tie event. If you’ve never tied your own bow tie, don’t wait until the last minute to learn.

John Anderson is a freelance writer who spent more than 20 years as a senior corporate communications official at a number of leading global financial institutions. He welcomes comments at john.anderson293@googlemail.com.