(And Actual Awards You Can Win)
I had no idea that marketing agency vanity awards existed until this year when I almost fell prey to an award scam. They’re out there – beware.
Since responding to the first group, I’ve been targeted by two others. Here is my story. Don’t fall prey to the marketing agency vanity award scam!
Note: This is a true story. I have redacted the name of the “conference” and the dates, along with individuals names, but the facts are accurate.
At the end of this article, I include a link to download a free copy of an ebook we published with legitimate marketing awards and conferences you can enter. I hope you download it.
The Marketing Agency Award That Isn’t
My scam radar is pretty good. I’ve got that cynical edge that looks at every opportunity from two lenses: what’s in it for me and what are you trying to get from me. So, when the following in-mail appeared in my LinkedIn account, my scam radar was on high.
“Hey Jeanne, I’m glad to inform you that you have been shortlisted for the ‘Outstanding Leadership Award’, set to be conferred at the [Redacted] Conference in (City and date redacted) 2022).” The note included a link to a video of a past conference.
I fired back a response:
“Seriously? Where is this listed? And can I promote this? Quite a lovely surprise.”
And then…crickets. Nothing. Days passed, and the woman who had contacted me never responded.
Now, if you were hosting an awards competition, and you’ve just notified the winner, and they responded like this, wouldn’t you respond quickly? I would think so. My scam radar was on high once again.
However, the LinkedIn profile of the woman who had contacted me checked out. She was indeed affiliated with the conference mentioned and received excellent LinkedIn recommendations from previous companies who had hired her to coordinate conferences and events. I assumed she was on the conference marketing team and had been hired to reach out to people to get them to attend the conference. How, or why, the conference organizers thought I was nominated for a Marketing Leadership award was beyond me, so I wanted to know more.
I cautiously made an appointment to speak with the woman who had contacted me. She let me know that a colleague from the nominations committee would join the video call. Fair enough.
“Thanks for booking the calendar for Monday.
Also, apologies for the delay in response as I was not active here due to some reasons.
You have been invited to participate in the nomination process for the “Outstanding Leadership Award” by our research team on the basis of 5 below-mentioned criteria: 1. Leader’s Reputation 2. Educational Background 3. Professional Experience 4. Creative Thinking 5. Decisive Leadership
We have a procedure which we follow for selecting our awardees, for that we have an application form.”
However, she still hadn’t answered some of my questions about how my name had come up, who had nominated me, etc.
“Meanwhile, please refer to the deck attached.”
The attached deck was nothing more than a glossy promotional piece, mostly filled with images from their previous event, which looked good but could easily be stock images of a conference. Who knows?
Remember, I’m from New York City. Home of street cons and a thousand get rich quick schemes.
I decided to attend the video call to see what this was all about.
The Committee Meeting and the Sales Pitch
We met on July 11. The half-hour video conference was bizarre. I immediately told the two people from the conference award committee that I needed to know this was not a scam. I must have asked a dozen times if this was a sales pitch. They assured me that it was not – that it was a genuine award.
They then proceeded to weave a compelling sales pitch, alternately hyping the award and the resulting promotion for a small marketing agency like mine and the potential for reaching hundreds of other marketing leaders by accepting the award at their conference and paying the additional fees for their marketing package, which include press releases, badges, and the ability to conduct a session at the conference.
The catch? I was expected, as an award winner, to pay $2,000 for my conference ticket. I would also have to pay for my own airfare and hotel.
The conference dates backed right into Christmas. I was already reluctant to commit, given how close these dates are to both Christmas and a close family member’s birthday. The thought of missing both events due to canceled flights or weather delays, both real possibilities at that time of year, troubled me. Additionally, as I mentioned to the committee, I wasn’t keen on attending in-person events due to the potential for COVID. They said it wasn’t an option; I must attend in person to receive the award.
But how, I asked, had they found me in the first place? Who had nominated me?
After much discussion, they admitted that a “computer algorithm” had selected my profile as a nominee for the “marketing leadership award” based on “criteria outlined” in their deck, which they could only cite but not explain.
Throughout the call, the pair stressed “mandatory attendance” at the conference in order to ‘receive the award.’
I’ve won several marketing awards, including the New York University Award of Excellence and the Lester Wunderman Award for direct marketing excellence, and in both cases, if I wasn’t able to attend the award ceremony, no one threatened to take back the award.
Both previous awards also came with prizes. The award committees didn’t ask me to pay for my promotions; they promoted the event themselves, only asking for my permission to use my photograph and name in their publicity, which I gave them.
In the case of this award, however, the committee stressed that purchasing a $2,000 ticket to the conference was mandatory to receive the award. I balked at the price. I pushed back on the other expenses: airfare and hotel fees. They said they would give me the ticket for $1,500 and reduce the hotel fee to $65 per night. I began to feel a surreal sense that I was haggling over the price of a flea market find.
Again and again, the duo stressed that attendance at the event was mandatory to receive the award. If I wanted to publicize my award, I’d have to fork over more money for a press release, “award badges” to put on my social media profile, and other fees to leverage the award.
Still skeptical, I heard out their pitch to the end. The call ended with them urging me to pay a $50 entry fee and complete an application. It wasn’t much money to see what would happen next, so I completed the application, paid my fee, and shrugged. It was a long shot anyway since the pair assured me that from 1,000 shortlisted names, only 500 would make it to the nomination round, with 60 in the final round for the single award.
After filling out the application, I dug deeper into the conference through my old friend Google Search, but still couldn’t turn up any dirt. I could find no evidence online that either the two people I met with were scammers or that the conference was anything but a legitimate professional development event. The only catch was the odd emphasis on me, the award winner, paying the fees to attend, speak, and promote my award. The hard emphasis on conference attendance was also still nagging at me as a catch that seemed out of sync with an actual award, but I couldn’t see how it was either illegal or a scam, just an oddity that I disliked.
You’ve Won a Major Award!
(Is it “frageeli”? Bonus points if you get the Christmas Story reference)
In less than one week from meeting with the pair and completing my application form, the following appeared in my email in-box on July 19.
“Hey Jeanne Grunert,
Hope this email finds you in the best of health and spirit.
The [Marketing Conference Name] primarily comprises achievers from the industry whom we recognize for their contributions while providing a platform for networking and knowledge sharing amongst this elite group of high-performing individuals and companies.
We received a lot of incredible applications this year and choosing the Honorees for the category “Outstanding Leadership Award” was a very tough job for our Assessment Committee (chair and management). All nominees were adjudged on 5 parameters, namely:
- Leader’s Reputation
- Educational Background
- Professional Experience
- Creative Thinking
- Decisive Leadership
After careful consideration and research, our Assessment Committee (chair and management) rated each applicant on every criterion to reach the final list of honorees.
We are happy to let you know that you have been selected for the Outstanding Leadership Award recognition, to be conferred at the [Name Redacted for this article] in [Name redacted for this article]. Please find attached with this email your Assessment Report for your perusal.
Please pick a convenient date and time using the following calendar link, for our team to get in touch with you and confirm your participation at the event.
We congratulate you on your wonderful achievement and look forward to seeing you at the event!
Whoa! How did go from one of 1,000 shortlisted nominees on July 7 to the winner by July 19?
It made absolutely no sense. Why did I have to meet with them to “confirm my attendance”? Why the rush to confirm my attendance for a conference occurring five months in the future?
The “Assessment Report”
The so-called “report” attached to the email also made no sense and read like a form letter. The criteria listed each had a ranking factor next to it and a brief paragraph about my so-called skills in the respective area.
But what had the committee looked at to rank each factor? I checked with the three people I had listed on my references to see if the committee had contacted them , and not a single person had been contacted.
The ranking factors included things that could only be determined and evaluated by looking at my agency’s actual client work: marketing plans, content marketing campaigns, and results achieved. But this information is not available outside of my agency. Only I could submit this information to them, as is typical of marketing awards where the participants must submit campaign examples and results as part of the application process. But I hadn’t submitted anything.
Now I was seriously concerned. What was this award? Why did the entire approach feel like a scam but the conference seem like a legitimate event?
I tried calling the previous award winner to ask her about her experience with the conference. I found her name in press releases mentioning the award and found her company online, where she had shared another press release citing this conference and the award. I left a voice mail saying I received notification that I’d won the upcoming award and wanted to hear about her experiences with the conference and award.
She never returned my call.
More suspicious than ever, I returned to searching online. Something was seriously wrong with this picture, with pressure mounting from the nomination committee to confirm my attendance at the event. I didn’t return their emails or LinkedIn messages.
Marketing Agency Vanity Awards
It took me a while to uncover two articles online – just two – explaining why I felt this was a scam of some sort. While not technically a scam, the award process itself is fraught with problems, and provides a meaningless vanity award to the winner while ensuring the conference has attendees eager to be there.
In his article The Agency Award Scam and How It Works, Jason Yormark explains how other conferences and industry magazines prey upon small marketing agency owners’ natural desire to grow their agencies through publicity.
While not an outright scam (agencies are certainly receiving something for the money they pay) the award itself is based on useless, made up criteria.
Yormark delineates a process that is the mirror image of the process the “nominations committee” used to solicit my response. He ends his article by wondering why no one is unmasking these awards for what they are. I know why.
People like me who almost fall for them, or who do fall for them, are too embarrassed to admit it. I’m not. I want you to know this, and I want every marketing agency owner to know this so they don’t waste their time on bogus awards.
The growing realization that I almost fell victim to a vanity award made me very angry. What made me angrier, however, is the fact that very few people online were calling out these companies for the shady business practices they employ.
The Conference Is Legitimate – But the Award Is Meaningless
Is it a scam? Is the conference real?
The conference people I spoke with did indeed offer me an award with the condition that receiving the award was dependent upon attending the conference. That isn’t illegal, as far as I can tell. Any award committee can set whatever criteria they want upon an award. It’s their award. And the conference itself appears to be a genuine professional development event, a typical marketing conference with speaker sessions, workshops, and so on.
However, the value of the award itself, the nomination process, the evaluation process, and the “pay to play” mentality surely puts this award and others of its kind into a gray area that taints it.
I never returned the committee’s more urgent messages, choosing instead to wait to see what would unfold.
I’m Shortlisted – Again!
Then – surprise! – on July 27, I was contacted via email by someone claiming to be from “The Advertising And Marketing Forum” with a Virginia address stating that I was nominated for an award for Outstanding Marketing Leadership!
There was a disclaimer and a huge copyright notice at the end of the email, with no link to the disclaimer, no link to their website, and no more information about this magical award – just a demanding tone to make an appointment now or lose the award. No mention of where the magic award would be given, either.
Not surprisingly, the pressure began just a day later. On July 28, the piece de resistance – an email from the same award conference that had contact me via LinkedIn but from a different person, following up on the July 27 email, to tell me I was shortlisted for the award.
- July 7: Contacted on LinkedIn about being shortlisted for the Outstanding Leadership Award
- July 11: Met with Award Committee, told I could apply for nomination.
- July 19: Received email with report saying I was the winner but must confirm my attendance at the event to receive the award.
- July 27: Received another email sequence from a different person (but this time in the state of Virginia, where my agency is located) saying I was shortlisted for the Outstanding Leadership Award…for the same conference, the same award..
- July 28: Received a second email encouraging me to meet with them to continue the nomination process.
It was, almost word for word, the same pitch.
Greetings from [Conference Name redacted]!
I hope you are doing well. This is regarding your reply to my colleague Eliza about the upcoming conference.
The Winter Edition of our [Name Redacted] is taking place at [Name Redacted] on December X. We’ll be hosting insightful panel discussions for marketing professionals and showcase some exciting innovations from exhibitors and speakers alike.
We are delighted to inform you that you have been shortlisted as a potential nominee for the ‘Outstanding Leadership Award’, I would be delighted to discuss further the opportunity if we can connect for a brief call at your convenience.”
Well, isn’t that special! It was, word for word, point for point, the exact same pitch and details as the person had sent me via LinkedIn, except this time it was via email.
Here’s my response. This person never pestered me again.
“According to what was already sent to me by someone else, I’ve already won. So, which is it?”
Follow Up: September 2022
These people don’t get the message. Through August, the original duo continued to demand a response from me and my payment to attend the conference. Additionally, despite numerous requests to be removed from their mailing list, they continued to email me.
Follow Up: October 2022
Since the original approach in July, I’ve now received two other approaches for various “awards”.
Here’s one example. They never stop.
Trust this mail finds you well.
We have an excellent opportunity we would like to share with you– a prestigious felicitation program (A “felicitation program” What is that?) is confirmed to be a part of our marketing event’s schedule (What marketing event? They never cite it by name) in the USA later this winter.
As we went through your portfolio (What portfolio? My marketing work is done under tight NDAs for clients and it never listed in a portfolio online) we recommend that you show your earliest interest (What the heck is “show earliest interest”?) in the program as you have a high chance of getting an accolade (getting an accolade” – again what accolade, why, and from whom?) owing to your unparalleled contributions to the marketing sector.
If you think you might be interested in going forward (If it is a legitimate award, you win it – you don’t have to “go forward” with anything. You are told you are the winner and if you accept, they give the award), let us know so we can schedule a call as soon as possible to discuss the opportunities this two-day marketing summit beholds for experts like you.
While on call (grammar mistake), our experts will also guide you through the application process step-by-step.
Let’s connect this week?
B (name redacted)
(and sent from a gmail address with no signature line – no organization, no conference listed, no name)
Legitimate Marketing Agency Awards
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Jeanne Grunert, president of Seven Oaks Consulting, is an award-winning direct and digital marketer with over 20 years of senior marketing leadership experience. She’s passionate about mentoring marketing managers and providing exceptional content marketing programs and services to Seven Oaks clients. Jeanne holds an M.S. (awarded with distinction) in Direct and Interactive Marketing from New York University and frequently lectures on content marketing, search engine optimization, and project management techniques.J