A bluffer’s guide to writing an awards paper

‘So… what was that all about?’

That was the one question I always asked myself when tasked with writing the first couple of awards papers in my (still fairly short) planning career. It was also the first point I made when I spoke at the most recent Open Strategy event on strategic narrative for papers.

Because for me, your perspective is everything, and there is always more than one possible way to skin your view of what actually happened through the ups, downs, challenges and triumphs of a campaign.

And where do you look for inspiration on past perspectives? Why, historians of course…

*I must make clear now I have a geeky penchant for history*

For one you could take Toynbee’s approach that there is randomness and spontaneity to past events — that it’s just ‘one fucking thing after another’ as the character Rudge in “The History Boys” comically vents.

Campaigns can also be like that, through the chaotic malaise of getting to an idea; imaginative leaps and moments of brilliance can come from anywhere and anyone.

Or how about Macaulay, in his tome ‘A History of England’ he takes an opposite view of the past, one that is ordered, deterministic and leading towards an eventual goal.

As strategists we like to think one key decision changed the direction of the campaign and made success inevitable, whether it was framing the problem in an interesting way, a key insight, or a slick and innovative comms plan.

Then there’s Hegel, who likes to the past as the clash of opposing ideas that are eventually reconciled and synthesised; which is also true in how campaigns find their spark — turning challenges and obstacles into bigger, better and greater opportunities.

Whatever your perspective (and they’re probably way more than just three) there are three common bits to making a success of any paper:

1. Crafting your story

2. Crafting your success

3. Crafting your style

Crafting your story

All good stories all have one thing in common, they value the importance of change. Change is inextricably linked to drama — and if you want to achieve something, then you will have to alter something in order to get it.

Now, some people like to tell this in 3 Acts, some like 4 Acts, personally I think 5 acts work best.

From Shakespeare to The Godfather, the 5 Act structure has been a common framework for delivering consistent heightened drama from beginning to end.

It looks something like this…

And its also very easy to overlay a standard structure for a paper on top of it…

Act 1: The Problem and Opportunity

Set up the world and context the business faced, you can say things were going well — but move on to say that things couldn’t go on the way they were.

This could be down to internal reasons, market forces or a change in consumer attitudes and behaviours. End by setting up that something had to be done, and advertising/marketing was the thing that had to happen.

Act 2: The Major Challenges

This is your real first chance to up the drama.

After saying in Act 1 that things had to change, make achieving that seem as hard as possible. Significant obstacles stood in your way, all diverse and complex. This could be media budgets, competitor activity, practical issues etc…

But leave with a glimmer of hope, that there may be a way of overcoming these issues — there was a marketing opportunity that was missed by others, or a string in your bow that only we had the luxury of.

Act 3: The Strategy

Probably the most important chapter.

‘The Mid-Point’ in a play or film is usually the point of no return, when the protagonist learns something or does something that means going back to the way they were in Act 1 is no longer possible.

In the Godfather, it’s when Michael Corelone murders for the first time.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s when Indiana Jones finds the true location of the Ark.

In Hamlet, it’s when the Danish prince entraps Claudius and Gertrude and proves their guilt.

For your paper the mid-point should act as a supreme revelation when a strategy is formulated, that overcomes all the challenges and sets up not just the possibility of great creative work, but also business success.

It should shine a light on the right path for your campaign to take shape.

Act 4: The Creative Idea & Campaign implementation

The climax of the paper, after deciding upon a strategy, your fourth act is about how you started to realise that as a revolutionary creative idea, and how that idea started to be seeded out in lots of different forms, executions and across the channel plan.

Act 5: The Results

Finally you end by showing you get what you wanted in Act 1, and dare I say even more!

This final act though should also leave a lasting impression and also make the reader feel like that through the story they’ve learnt something new.

Usually it’s the trickiest part of any paper tough, and in some ways you need to craft your own factual story within that Act…

Crafting your success

Finding evidence of success can probably go two different ways:

1. The forensic scientist approach: Get a full and comprehensive overview of all the data and find the story from the bottom-up.

2. The criminal lawyer approach: Get clear the argument you’d like to deliver, then find the results that fit within that from the top-down.

Personally I think the latter is the best, but I know other planners that like to work the other way around. However, no matter which way you like to go about collecting data — the logical delivery should follow a similar pattern:

Your ability to answer these key questions is what any judge will evaluate your paper on.

But that’s the basics, how can you get your paper sticking in their mind more? Here I think you shouldn’t be afraid to try the emotive not just rigorous — by framing success in a creative and unconventional way.

Whether it’s showing the competition had to copy you to keep up…

(Ryanair in order to stay competitive had to adopt similar service innovations as easyJet e.g. mobile booking, redesigned website, allocated seating etc…)

Showing that key individuals and institutions took note…

(The UK Government’s response to the Amnesty International campaign ‘torture on your doorstep’ pledging their commitment to prohibit the sale of torture implements at the London Arms Fair)

Or that you managed to alleviate social burdens…

(Macmillan proved that they had managed to alleviate pressures on the NHS)

Crafting your style

The final bit is probably working out how to go about actually writing the content of the paper itself, and to that end you should probably note that…

“The first draft of anything you write is shit” — Ernest Hemingway

So be prepared to write, re-write, restart all the time, and don’t be afraid to mix up a bit. Sometimes it’s good to write things down quickly and instinctively, not unlike Jack Kerouac who smashed out ‘On the Road’ in one evening (although I should add some form of stimulant was probably at hand here). The benefits of this approach is that your writing will seem more fluid, authentic and natural.

However that said, you should allow yourself the space to write slow as well. Nick Hornby famously writes one page a day, giving him the time to reflect and write more thoughtfully and considered. Both have merits, and on different days you may want to adopt different ways of writing to strike a good balance of instinct and thought.

There are other stylistic tricks of the trade that you might want to employ in terms of punctuating and delivering your story.

1. When setting up the problem the temptation may be to show in terms of just facts, figures and targets, however don’t be afraid to frame the problem in more human terms…

This can be useful to show the tension at the heart of the brief you were originally given.

2. You can also sustain interest in your story by breaking up the prose with an original slide, the creative brief itself and the stimulus used to get to your creative solution.

Part of the strength of this is that it shows, it doesn’t simply tell. Sometimes you can let your reader get the full impact of the shift in approach by showing how far the creative had come…

3. Finally when delivering your insights it might be a good idea to balance rhetoric flourish alongside rigorous foresight.

When it came to delivering the Macmillan insight that ‘cancer can be the loneliest place’, we delivered this through imaginative writing backed up by actual quotes from the focus groups…

To finally end though, the most important advice I think is to find your own style, your own unique voice to tell your story. No matter how you craft your paper make sure that it comes naturally and intuitively.

To simply be — you.

This is the third write-up from the Open Strategy School of Planning event on Strategic Narrative.