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Picking out the winners

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Three days, 24 judges and numerous categories. Ant Gould explains the daunting process of judging the awards and identifies some common entry errors.

There can be no doubt that the economic climate has changed immensely since this time last year but all of this year's British Insurance Awards entries prove the general insurance sector is definitely alive and kicking. In fact, despite some internal concerns that the recession would impact the overall appetite for entering awards, the number of entries was in excess of previous years, as was the quality of most submissions.

Almost all the entries for 2009 were serious, well thought out, thoroughly researched and clearly presented, with many looking as if they had as much thought and management time put into them as many businesses' five-year strategic plans. This made judging a tough challenge.

This year saw a new chairman step up to the plate, the former RSA stalwart, Chartered Insurance Institute grandee" and sometimes outspoken" Rick Hudson. He took the role from outgoing chair Ashton West, the highly respected chief executive officer of the Motor Insurers' Bureau.

Being chairman involves a hefty time commitment, entailing not only having to read hundreds of entries but also keeping order over the panel of expert and opinionated judges, skilfully guiding them to a conclusion on some of the more tightly contested categories. To the relief of all the judges, Mr Hudson also delivered on another major task in ensuring each judging day ended either ahead of or on schedule.

The judging itself took place over three days at one of Incisive Media's London offices, with the first two days dedicated to reducing the number of entries by filtering out those not quite up to the mark. One category, for example, had more than 30 entries and whittling this down fairly and consistently was no mean feat.

As always, a handful of entries in most categories are eliminated early because they have fundamental flaws. A common fault for those that do not make it beyond the preliminaries is that the project or initiative entered is too new to have proved itself, so lacks evidence that it has been successful, has met its targets and is sustainable. The panel tries to be as lenient as possible but generally adopts a risk-averse attitude to unproven claims of success and delivery.

The judging panel itself is designed to ensure that there is genuine knowledge in every category, with that expertise shared by at least two judges, partly to spread the load and partly to ensure no prejudice, gaps in know-how, or conflicts of interest that could cloud the decision-making process.

The panel is therefore quite large" 24 members this year" but any difficulties managing that number are worthwhile to gain the quality of discussion and analysis at the judging sessions.

Each category has at least two lead judges responsible for leading the discussion on judging days. The lead judges review all the background material sent in with the entries, which is, of course, also made available to the other judges via the secure website and on the judging days.

The first two sessions are known as preliminary judging days, with half of the categories dealt with on each day. The aim of these sessions is to reduce the number of entries in each category so that the final round of judging concentrates on a manageable number of high-quality entries.

This can be simple in some categories, where there might be half-a-dozen that stand out; however, in other categories, there may be all manner of issues involved that result in prolonged discussions.

The judges are encouraged to try to avoid making marginal or controversial decisions at the preliminary judging. If there are entries that raise tricky issues, these are normally aired and debated so that everyone is aware of them, though the decisions are left until the final judging session.

One problem often highlighted in the preliminary judging stage is with entries that appear to the judges to be in the wrong category. Each year, there are several of these; typically, people put a marketing or technology initiative into a category that is meant for a whole company.

The judges will then move entries into the category that seems most appropriate and, on occasion, request additional information to support an entry in the new category.

Another problem sometimes faced is the same entry appearing in two categories. It can be hard to choose a category: is it underwriting or e-commerce, for instance? Identical entries (as opposed to the same project put into different categories highlighting completely different aspects) will not be judged in more than one category, so a decision has to be made on which is the most appropriate.

The final judging day comprises an all-category review with the aim of drawing up the shortlists and, as far as possible, deciding the winners. The latter objective is not always achieved because there are occasional outstanding issues with some categories that need to be addressed afterwards by e-mail or telephone.

Some categories are dealt with quickly and easily because the top-class entries are obvious and there is an outstanding winner. Others take more time, further debate and detailed consideration and re-consideration of all the background material before a decision can be reached. The number of categories that are easy to judge and those that are difficult varies each year.

Often, entries also fail to address the factors set out for the award. These criteria are reviewed directly following the awards ceremony every year and care is taken over the wording; every requirement needs to be addressed. Judges also face entries that are hype rather than substance: 'the best', 'the biggest'" says who? Too much presentation but too little content is also a common problem" many judges are irritated by over-packaged entries that make it hard to find the content. Simple, clearly presented and well-written narratives work best.

However, everyone involved understands how much work goes into each entry and takes great care to assess their merits and judge them fairly. The workload may be high but it is always an enjoyable process delving under the skin of the industry. We look forward to reading your entries next year.

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