Awards dinners: an insider’s guide to networking

Awards dinners are no walk in the park, even for a seasoned networker. Remember that not all guests are created equal and clients are not there to listen to your sales pitch.

Robert Bruce with client Freya Munro-Goodey (PPR)

Robert Bruce with client Freya Munro-Goodey (PPR)

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the TVNZ-NZ Marketing Awards with Professional Public Relations at the super ritzy Langham Hotel.

The event was attended by hundreds of advertising and marketing’s top brass (and more than a few secretaries for good measure) and was a fitting tribute to the work of marketers who had pushed creative boundaries, transformed categories, and achieved amazing results over the past year. Tough luck for anyone who forgot to enter.

There were some recurring themes throughout the night, with a handful of brands being nominated in multiple categories. Pfizer did well, and took out several gongs for its new product Avigra. Those readers not experiencing erectile problems are forgiven for missing this innovative campaign, but Pfizer has very craftily reinvented its own product under a ‘knock off’ name (excuse the pun) when Viagra’s trade mark expired. If you can’t beat 'em, join em. Someone called it a ‘pre-emptive strike’, which I thought was appropriate, if not a little ironic. To be fair, the night was full of irony, innuendo and awkward laughter care of host Te Radar (who had the unenviable task of keeping everyone quiet as the night wore on).

Volkswagen came out on top with the top accolade, Rob Fyfe (outgoing Air NZ CEO) won the new Marketing Excellence award, and Independent Liquor's Boundary Road Brewery got several mentions and a merit and in my opinion should have won a category.

But this post has a practical application beyond just listing the winners (buy your own ticket next time, or click here for all the winners), and will hopefully give rookies and veterans alike some tips on getting the maximum bang for your buck at awards dinners like these – if you even paid, that is.

The first thing one needs to factor into an awards night is that not all guests are created equal, and there are four distinct groups (call them classes if you like) all under the same roof, which in itself is highly unusual.  

1.     CEOs and marketing teams from the biggest companies in the country (the clients). They are on a company-paid outing and hoping to receive an award or at least a mention to justify the expense.  They move in packs, and individuals rarely stray from the herd.

2.     Big advertising and media agencies that crafted the advertising on show (and probably wrote the entry). They are like bodyguards, and normally move in pairs, carefully guarding their clients.

3.     Smaller advertising, PR, events, or experiential agencies (like mine) are invited by the bigger agencies (possibly due to some involvement in a nominated campaign). These battle hardened soldiers are expert networkers, moving with stealth throughout the function. They will work alone, or in pairs, depending on how many tickets they could afford or were offered. I fit into this category.

4.     Rookies are (usually young people) desperately trying to get business cards from anyone, in the hope of landing an internship or job: They are like lemmings, underfoot wherever you go, and always have a drink in their hand. We have all been there.

As you can see, there is a lot going on. An event like the TVNZ-NZ Marketing Awards is no walk in the park, even for a seasoned networker.

The first basic of awards dinner dynamics is to understand that clients are not there to network with you, because they don’t need to. So, they will not seek you out, will not be thrilled to meet you, and are only vaguely receptive in the idea of talking to anyone new. They know you are trying to sell them something, just the same as you know what NZ Invest is calling about the moment you pick up the phone (I hate that company). They have their own agenda, which may be to impress their superiors or move up the corporate ladder. 

Big agency folk also don’t really want to meet anyone down the food chain, because everyone is (rightfully) considered a threat and assumed to be poaching their clients. They also have no time to meet anyone as they are completely absorbed with entertaining clients and laughing at every joke. This must be the most stressful role in the room, in my opinion.  Smaller agencies don’t really want to talk to one another, and no-one wants to talk to rookies – until later in the night, when they can be the most fun.

So taking into account this awkward dynamic, how do you break the ice and get in front of the person you want to meet? How do you get a business card, and lock in a meeting? I have the following tips:

Don’t talk with people you already know for too long. You can’t meet anyone new if you are gasbagging to your client, co-worker, or secretary all night.

Walk up to groups, and start smiling and nodding as they talk... it’s the oldest trick in the book to integrate into a new group (especially if you are alone). Eventually the person talking will stop for air, and you can quickly insert a witty or intelligent sound bite. Basic laws of etiquette mean the group, albeit begrudgingly, will ask your name and shake hands. If you get the group laughing in your opening salvo, it is even better. Instant group cred.

Don’t talk about yourself; no-one cares. Ask people questions such as “Where are you from? What do you do? How did you get that job? What are you working on right now?”. Let them do the talking, because people love talking about themselves. This is also a useful way of instantly ‘qualifying the lead’ without investing too much of your own time. If there is no opportunity between you or they are a lemming or part of the wait staff, save yourself valuable breath by politely ‘filling up your glass' or ‘seeing someone you know’ and move on.

Don’t get stuck with one person (even if they are new) for too long. Your job is only to get a business card and ask to have a meeting, not to go over their strategic plan or life story. Start thinking like a soldier:  get in, do minimal damage, and get out. You have 700 people to get through!

Don’t cut other agencies' lunch. If you are there with an agency (bigger than you), then they are ahead of you in the pecking order of networking. If you jointly meet someone interesting, your line should be “I work closely with this agency. They are the brains, and my company just supports them with XYZ service”. This humility will go a long way, and still manage to get your message across, so you can at least contact them directly at a later date. It is acceptable to give or receive a business card.

Don’t try to pitch for business on the spot. If a client is there with their big agency (at an awards dinner of all places) you can probably assume the relationship is pretty good.  Personally, I always avoid making enemies with bodyguards: they can either let you in, or chuck you out.

Avoid getting too drunk: let everyone else do that. At these awards dinners (especially in the advertising industry) there is a propensity for taking the free grog for granted and getting a bit sloshed. You never know when  you will be thrust next to your perfect introduction in the bathroom or bar, and slurring your words or getting their name (or company name) wrong is not a great first impression.

That's my take on awards dinner networking etiquette: if you have any tips or techniques that have worked for you, I would love to hear about it! Feel free to comment below.

Robert Bruce is the managing director of premium brand activation agency SublimeNZ and a seasoned networker. If you want Robert to cover your event, contact

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