Not too many people can boast of having owned a yacht – not least one that they didn’t actually pay for. But then again, most people aren’t Martin Dove, a retired performing arts lecturer from Scarborough and a bona fide legend amongst ‘compers’ – enthusiasts who dedicate their spare time to entering promotional competitions.
He’s written three books and countless magazine articles on how to win competitions, entering thousands himself and winning his fair share along the way. Martin has 40 years of hard ‘comping’ experience under his belt, and even taught a course on it for seven years at a further education college. “In my prime, I would be expecting to win something at least every fortnight,” he recalls with pride. “I furnished my entire house with things I’d won – sofas, TVs, barbeques, the lot,” he says.
Join our club
Martin isn’t alone – there are legions of compers, often members of local ‘comping clubs’ scattered about the country. Dallas Willcox, a self-employed copywriter and proof-reader, is the chairman of the South East Essex Compers’ Club. He’s won plenty in his time, including a motorcycle. “A lot of companies running promotions don’t realise quite how keen us compers are,” he chuckles, recalling an incident in which he won £1,000 from a scheme run by ice cream manufacturer Walls on packs of its Magnum range. “We figured out a way we could wiggle the sticks out of the bottom of the ice cream which had the code you needed to log in online. How much did I spend? I can’t quite remember but I had a lot of Magnums in my freezer, put it that way.”
Kelly Dudley edits Simply Prizes, a must-read for the devoted competitions enthusiast. “The real hardcore compers will enter hundreds of competitions a month,” she says. “They’re the ones who win a lot. A lot of highly successful compers don’t work – they’re either retired, or have babies. Some even do it in place of work, and have the most fabulous lifestyles as a result.”
Not what it used to be...
But there’s a growing feeling amongst Britain’s older compers that the internet and ‘instant win’ prize draws have robbed their pursuit of some of its allure. “The golden age of competitions is definitely over," says Martin Dove with a resigned sigh. “Back in the 1970s and 80s, it required skill and clever wordplay to come up with tie-breakers. Now the internet has changed everything – it’s just random prize draws.”
Dove’s yacht win was a particular feat of skill – not to mention hard work. To win the five berth ocean-going vessel, he had to predict where the winning boat from an around-the-world race would be on July 4th. He reminisces: “I looked at the sea charts and listened to the shipping forecasts every night – and managed to predict where it would be, within three minutes.”
These days, winning competitions is far more of a numbers game. “The competitions exist now so that companies can have your email address and send you loads of junk mail,” says Martin. “You won’t find me on Twitter or Facebook - I just don’t understand it,” he grumbles. “I’m much happier with a pen and paper in my hand.”
Comp a load of that!
Now that most prizes are up for grabs through prize draws, the secret to winning competitions is entering them….a lot of them.
You’re not going to win much by just entering one here and there,” says Simply Prizes’ Kelly Dudley, a keen comper herself. “It’s just a matter of statistics.”
The truly dedicated will enter literally a few hundred competitions a month. “People say ‘oooh, you’re very lucky,” says comping legend Martin Dove. “But really I’d have a success rate of around two and five per cent. I don’t see that as very lucky!”
But there are legitimate ways of beating the numbers, says Edwin Mutton, head of compliance at the Institute of Promotional Marketing, the body which oversees promotional prizegiving. “If online competitions are giving away a certain number of prizes every hour, make sure that you’re entering during unsociable hours when less people are entering. ”This will make sure you’ve got the best chance of getting something.”
Entering early will see you in with a better shout of scooping a prize, too. Dallas Willcox recommends that in old-school ‘analogue’ contests, going the extra mile will stand you in good stead. “People who submit hand-made postcards tend to win. It shouldn’t make a difference, but it seems to make one” he says.
If it all goes wrong….
The most common comping complaint is that people haven’t received their prize, according to the Institute of Promotional Marketing’s Edwin Mutton. “Communication can sometimes break down between the company offering the prize, the agency that’s running the competition and then the manufacturer of the prize.”
While you might think that computers would have made competitions fairer and more reliable, it isn’t always the case. “Technical errors are becoming more commonplace – people have given the systems insufficient thought, “ says Mutton. The IPM also receives complaints of promoters ‘moving the goalposts’ – changing the rules midway through the competition because too many winners emerge. When competitions get oversold, it’s usually a matter for Trading Standards – “these are the sorts of cases in which luxury hotels and first class flights turn out to be two star hotels and travel on Easyjet,” says Mutton. “If it’s too good to be true, then it usually is.”
Telling a reliable competition from one which is less so often seems to be a case of bigger is better. “Competitions from the bigger brands tend to be better run. Small companies can sometimes be naïve, and fail to realise what running a competition entails,” says Mutton.
And then of course, there are plain old scams. “But be wary of fabulous prizes from outfits you’ve never heard of,” says Simply Prizes’ Kelly Dudley. “If you need to fill in a questionnaire, look the information you’ve being asked to divulge, such as whether or not you own your own home. These are things you should steer clear of. “ Then, there’s always the possibility that the prize, no matter how fabulous, is just more hassle than it’s worth…which brings us back to Martin Dove’s famous yacht. “I thought that with all the fees attached, ‘do I really need a yacht?’ I ended up selling it to somebody from down south. It never even touched the water,” he says, with a trace of regret.
Comping then, is a classic case of ordinary British people doing extraordinary things. “The best prizes are the ones that money can’t buy – the experiences,” says Dallas Willcox. “Don’t think that comping is going to change your life,” says Martin Dove, with typical Yorkshire stoicism. “It won’t! Just have fun with it. That’s what it’s all about really, isn’t it? Fun.”