Meet the compers: Steve Middleton

I’m not entirely sure why it’s taken so long for me to interview Steve Middleton for SuperLucky! Steve has been comping since way back in the 70s, and is so passionate about the hobby that 10 years ago he took on the role of Compers News Editor. Fondly known to many CN subscribers as Smid, Steve is a wealth of knowledge on the ins and outs of prize promotions – and can occasionally be spotted on Twitter (@cornucompia) and Facebook too!

Hi Steve, and thanks for joining me here on SuperLucky for a Q&A!
My pleasure. I thought you’d never ask!

How and when did you start comping?
My first prizes came in the mid-1970s, when I regularly sent jokes and letters to my favourite comics and scooped the occasional 50p or £1 Postal Order to supplement my meagre pocket money. The first ‘proper’ comps I entered would have been advertised in those same comics, and my first real prize – a Timex watch – came from a comp that Pritt ran when the product first launched in the UK. This gave me the comping bug, and as a paper boy I soon realised that I was surrounded by comps in the newsagent where I worked. I discovered that there was even a magazine dedicated to compers and comping – the Competitors’ Journal – and I excitedly ordered my (then weekly) copy. I was hooked!

What’s the biggest prize you’ve won, and how did you win it?

Although they’re illegal now, comps on cigarettes used to have some massive prizes, and it was always easy to find the empty packets you usually needed to enter. My biggest prize (and probably one of the most unusual!) came from a Marlboro comp… a day trip to Las Vegas with £10,000 to put on red or black at a casino. Luckily, they just gave me a cheque for the £10,000 and didn’t insist on me actually gambling it!

How did you end up working as the Compers News Editor?
When instant win comps first hit the UK, the technology was pretty basic and it was sometimes quite easy to spot a winning pack. Most promoters in those days just produced a single batch of winning packs and gradually released them into their normal production line, so a slightly different shade of packaging, Best Before date or batch code – any little clue, really – could often identify a winner. I used to share my tips and theories on the Compers News chat forum, and the editor at the time asked me to write an article on the subject for the magazine. This went down so well that I was given a regular monthly column, and when the magazine got new owners they asked me if I’d like to take over as editor.

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Steve at work in the (unusually tidy) CN office!

I know from experience that readers can ask some rather odd questions! What’s the strangest letter or email you’ve received since you joined Compers News?
I’ve had a lot, but the maddest was probably when a copy of the magazine was returned to me along with a toilet roll and the question “which one of these is best to wipe my *#$* on?” It turned out that the writer was a keen caravanner and thought he was subscribing to a magazine called Campers News!

What type of prize promotion do you personally enjoy most?
You still can’t beat a well thought out on-pack promotion, preferably with actual labels or tokens having to be collected and mailed in to stop the cheats and chancers in their tracks!

I know you love the nostalgia of competitions from days gone by! Which competition type would you love to see getting a revival?
The Health Police would probably never allow it these days – and online swap forums, eBay etc. would take some of the fun away anyway – but I used to love a good ‘collection’ comp! These were comps where you needed to collect sets of questions, symbols etc. to qualify for entry, and quite often the task was pretty huge. I remember one Mars comp where you had to collect and answer 100 different questions from inside wrappers, for example, and a beer comp where you had to collect a complete pack of 52 playing cards printed underneath the ring pulls (that particular summer is still a blur!). These weren’t like the recent Walkers Spell & Go comp where some packs were mega-rare and almost impossible to find; everything was printed in equal quantities, but because of the sheer number of different packs you had to find it was always a challenge.

What’s your favourite prize, and why was it so special?
I can’t choose one prize in particular, but I proposed to my wife at the top of the Eiffel Tower on a prize trip to Paris, saw my daughter almost explode with excitement when she met the real Father Christmas in Lapland, and I’ll never forget the beauty of Bulgaria in the days when it was still a communist country and most people were still driving around in horse and carts. That was most definitely a holiday destination that I’d never have even considered had I not won a wine trip there, and it was a fantastic few days. So it’s fair to say that comping has given me some brilliant moments!

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Steve and family on a prize holiday to Lanzarote

Are there any types of prize promotions you’d like to see more or less of?
It’s difficult for promoters to do anything too imaginative or ‘different’ these days, as people simply don’t read instructions or rules. But on the other side of the coin, some promoters seem to go out of their way to deliberately bamboozle people with lengthy Terms & Conditions! So, I’d like to see PR companies and promoters thinking outside of the box a bit more, being more honest, and ALWAYS giving away all the prizes they advertise – to a named charity if necessary. If you’re a PR company that deliberately sets out to give as few prizes away in a competition that you possibly can, then kindly leave the arena – and let’s see an end to this “prizes are available to be won…” nonsense!

One of the best things about sharing competitions and tips is when your readers get in touch to tell you about amazing prizes you’ve helped them win – have you got any stories to share about  Compers News readers’ successes?
The best letters are those from readers who are so happy and excited to win even a small prize. Regular compers sometimes have a tendency to take prizes for granted and to ‘throw ‘em in the box with the rest’ when even something quite valuable turns up. So when someone genuinely appreciates and says thank you for even a modest win, it makes my day.

Steve presenting a prize car to Compers News reader Angie Reynolds

Steve presenting a prize car to Compers News reader Angie Reynolds

Is there a prize you’ve tried to win but it has always eluded you?
The ‘holy grail’ prize for any comper is, of course, a car. I’ve never managed to win one, but since I don’t drive it’s probably not much of a loss!

You’re brilliant at finding instant win promotions – what’s the most exciting prize you’ve won via this method, and did you take a screenshot?!
My most exciting instant win prize came before the internet, and although it wasn’t my biggest (that was a £5,000 winning moment in a Nestlé comp) it was by far the most satisfying. Kodak were running an instant win comp on their film at Boots, and a work colleague was desperate to go to Australia for a friend’s wedding. The prizes in the comp were holiday vouchers, so I suggested – half jokingly – that I’d take her to Boots one lunchtime to find her a winning pack. One of the boxes on the display seemed slightly paler than the rest, so that was the one I suggested she chose… and sure enough, it was one of just 3 winners! And, if ‘Kodak film’ isn’t enough to date this story, the Congratulations message was hand-written on the inside of the box too!! Happy days.

What do you think the future holds for comping?
Who knows? If you’d have told me just a few years ago that we’d be checking codes on computers, pointing phones at things, sending photos and videos instantly etc. to enter comps, then I probably would have laughed. So I certainly can’t predict the future! But I think that comping in some form will always be here. The optimist in me hopes that, as shoppers get bored with straightforward price cuts – or prices simply can’t go any lower – then companies will start looking at different ways to grab our attention and a well targeted, well run comp could be the perfect solution. It’s that ‘well targeted, well run’ bit that worries me though – the old, specialist PR companies and handling houses have long gone, and the vast majority of today’s equivalents either can’t or won’t run a comp properly, and seem to want to give away as few prizes as possible! So ideally we need tougher legislation and a much more effective, knowledgeable regulator – the Advertising Standards Authority simply isn’t up to the job at the moment!

In some cases you’re able to spot winning packs on the shelves by checking codes or looking for subtle differences in printing (‘Smidding’!) – has this technique ever got you into trouble with supermarket security?
Ironically, the only time I’ve ever been stopped by security was when I picked up a discarded neck collar from a shelf and was marched through a packed store to the manager’s office! I can only assume that the security guard had nothing better to do that day, but I can assure you that he probably wished he’d picked on someone else. Let’s just say that his and the manager’s knowledge of the relevant laws was robustly enhanced! Mind you, although this was the only time I’ve actually been stopped, I dread to think how many CCTV cameras I must have appeared on looking somewhat shady over the years.

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Steve and Gabriella on a VIP prize trip to the London 2012 Olympics

Do you have any funny stories related to comping?
I’ll never forget the first time Peperami gave away their Fanimal toys. The very first model was a lot more sensitive than today’s version, and the slightest noise or movement would set it off. I won about 50 of the blighters, which the promoter decided to send to me all on the same day – sadly I was out when the postman tried to deliver them, and they were returned to the local sorting office. On the day I went to collect them, I could see a sack in the corner shaking and squealing – yep, you’ve guessed it! After a lengthy explanation, I then had to walk home with the still yelping and shuddering sack over my shoulder… I’m still convinced that people thought I was a mad kitten killer on the way to the local canal!

Finally, what would be your top comping tip or piece of advice?
Try your luck at comps that require a bit of effort. In the old days, that might have meant hours of research at the local library, or cunning wordplay to come up with a killer slogan. But these days, comping ‘effort’ needn’t actually be much effort at all. You’d be surprised at how many people are put off by having to buy even a popular, cheap product to enter a comp, or writing a quick postcard. So, even the tiniest ‘effort’ like this will immediately put you at an advantage. Oh, and I’d also thoroughly recommend a magazine called Compers News too!

Thanks so much for your time Steve! If any readers would like to subscribe to Compers News, you can do so using my referral code SUPERLUCKY at compersnews.subscribeonline.co.uk.

15 Responses

  1. Leila Benhamida says:

    Great interview. I was lucky enough to win a couple of trips and many exciting prizes. I was one of the 20 winners for the Olympic 2012 also. We were wearing red Eurostar tshirt. Next I will love to win a car.

  2. Marie Evans says:

    Loved reading this i to remember those good old days when it seemed easier to win then.Great interview.Thinking about what he said about checking out the products on the shelves,I bet i must of looked like a bonkers woman going through things to try & find those instant wins but i was never a winner,Hubby used to walk in front Embarrassed lol.

  3. jeremy stern says:

    Some good insight. Whilst he is right that many promoters or their agencies do not know what they are doing when it comes to running good and fair promotions, asking for more legislation is not the answer. It will simply put brands off running any form of activity, good or bad. Just look at how few promotions are run in Portugal or Italy that has onerous restrictions ( and winners have to pay tax on the value of their prizes !!) But I do agree that the ASA needs to be tougher in enforcing the rules that we have, and have more sanctions available to deal with naughty people !

    • Good point Jeremy – if UK rules & regs do gets stricter, we’ll see a lot less brands bothering with prize draws and competitions. And I still speak to a lot of PR agencies who have never heard of the CAP Code – there’s still a lot of educating to be done there by both CAP and the ASA!

  4. toadfinder says:

    Great interview, and am curious following the security story – is it actually ok to pick up discarded neck collars then? Have often wondered…when I find one I end up buying the product anyway just so I have a receipt!

    • I honestly don’t know – if it’s nowhere near where it should be, then I can’t see the harm – but whether it’s illegal, I have no idea! As you say – usually you DO need a receipt to go with your collar!

  5. rebecca beesley says:

    this is hilarious – it has really made me laugh about the ‘campers’ news and the pepperami story! And how tidy is his desk! my comping desk is a huge mess. x

  6. Lisette Davidson says:

    Why oh why oh why oh why didn’t you do this years ago, Di?! What a super little interview, and lovely to hear the benefit of Smid’s many years comping. Great interview, both of you! xx

  7. Caroline Cordery says:

    What is the advantage of Compers News magazine over what you can find on the internet? Not being facetious, genuine question!

  8. Alison Roome says:

    Thanks Di for this interview, Steve’s reminiscing, reminds me of my Grandad who would send me out in the 80s looking for discarded sweet / chocolate wrappers etc as he would be in the middle of one of the “collection comps”. He won some great prizes and it was always fun when you found a wrapper he needed. Though he did also send me out looking for discarded cigarette packs too, those were the days, lol! Will look at the compers news subscription too.

  9. Emma Fox says:

    Thanks for the interesting interview Steve and Di – loved the story about being stopped by security in the supermarket!! I also wonder what I might look like on CCTV. A few weeks ago, I was in a big Tesco super store and removed all the Blitz kitchen rolls to get to the back of the shelf to find any remaining ones with the on packet promotion on – found four!!! Worth the strange looks 🙂

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