It's been around since 2003, and sometimes we take it for granted, but this particular award is not taken lightly by those who've won it.
When Prosper Riley-Smith lost his battle with cancer, AQR debated long and hard how to mark his passing. He was a longstanding member and former chair, a creative genius, larger than life, and had made a substantial contribution to the industry. The Award created in his name has been hotly fought since its inception, but we've never asked what it means to walk away with the cheque and the little statuette. The answers, though, sum up all that is good about qualitative research and industry members.
Fiona Jack feels a personal tie to the Award, having known and respected Prosper greatly, and having initiated it in his memory. She won it in 2009, and noticed an immediate effect in terms of approaches — and business — from new clients.
One door it opened was in Russia. "We did a project for quite a scary chap, two down from a well-known oligarch, about a new leisure resort outside Moscow," she says. "By demonstrating that we had made a strategic difference we were able to convince him to work with us. We actually used the quotes that the judging panel had said about us — and that won him over very convincingly."
The first winner, Italy's Luigi Toiati, remembers how he got the news. "It was the most beautiful moment of my whole career," he says, "a sign of cultural prestige corresponding to the Oscars." It may not have had a direct impact on his finances, but it did boost his credibility overall as a professional, creating what he calls the aura of 'guru'.
For Bob Cook, who won in 2005, it marked a step change in how he saw himself as a researcher. "The work that we did for the project felt new and ground breaking to me — but having it recognised in this way brought confidence in developing new ways to look at client problems and up the game of the industry as a whole," he says. "The calibre of the judging panel was a key part of this: it's great to have impressed impressive people!"
I have heard mutters from agencies who claim their work is not stand out enough to compete, but this is rarely the case...more a matter of quallies being so busy that it's difficult to stand back from a project and assess it with any degree of objectivity.
Sarah Jenkins, the winner in 2013, recommends entering without hesitation. "There are only good things that can come from it," she says. "It not only provides personal recognition for the work you did during that particular project, but also that of your current wider work. And importantly, it raises your profile within the industry, which shouldn't be underestimated, and shines a spotlight on your agency."
For a small start-up, winning can be the leg-up needed to brand build and make an impact. "We have had so many clients approach us with speculative briefs since we won," says Amanda Anderton, last year's winner. "It definitely coincided with the exposure we have had as a result. We have been able to publicise ourselves winning, and AQR has publicised it, too."
"We've also been inundated with people wanting to work with us, and for us, our success rate in converting briefs into projects has gone up — which I don't think is coincidental. The standard of the candidates that have come forward looking for jobs with us has increased too, so it's been pretty phenomenal. It really has had a marked impact on the success of our business. This might be because we are so small that you can see those incremental changes much more visibly than a bigger agency would, but is also a real testament to the power of having won."
The Award undoubtedly gets your name out there to a broader audience. "The year after winning, I was invited to talk and present at an MRS members' night," says 2011 winner Julie Davey, "and also at an AURA workshop day on qual best practice, and had the good fortune to be further recognised with an award for best speaker by AURA on the back of this."
Winning — and entering — is not just beneficial to the agency, but can enhance relationships with clients. Acacia Avenue, not satisfied with having won it in 2006, also won it the following year. Caroline Hayter reflects that entering, or thinking of entering, means that you make the most of every contact with them. "You use that time, whether in a lift or on the way up to a meeting, to find out what they might not otherwise talk to you about," she says. It is also a joy, she feels to be able to do something jointly with an insight manager, at a big multinational or wherever, that raises their profile. "We all want to look good," she says, "so why shouldn't they?"
Awards as therapy
If all this sounds too good to be true, well it isn't. Each of the previous winners said they would encourage others to enter unreservedly. "First, it's an exciting process," says 2012 winner Becky Rowe, "just writing the entries on their own is a useful exercise in thinking about what you've done well, what you're proud of. We all do good work, so entering is really like therapy or counselling, and having to return to the project, work out why it was so good, unpick and sell it to someone who wasn't involved is a challenge."
So if you're thinking of entering, or maybe wondering whether you even stand a chance, I'll leave you with why Julie Davey found winning meant such a lot to her. "I had been at a stage in my career where I was experiencing a slight crisis in confidence as to whether I was keeping pace with the rate of change in the industry, whether I was still relevant, or becoming a research 'dinosaur'", she says.
Submitting proved a cathartic exercise, both for her and her team, while winning "was a highlight moment: being able to share the job of success with a long-standing and valued client, and a huge lift to my own self-esteem of delivering high quality innovative research."
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2015