Cannes Lions: From the Rear-View Mirror

I’m back to reality after spending last week in Cannes, France, at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. It's another great day in Seattle, just like it was a great week in Cannes, especially for those who worked in the "advertising" business.

Why advertising? After last week in Cannes there is little joy in the PR world. The week featured the awarding of Cannes Lions for creativity in public relations. And the vast majority of the Lions for PR were awarded to advertising agencies.

The PR community was collectively surprised and furious that this could possibly happen. Many in PR were outraged that PR awards were won by ad agencies. And even more were outraged that the Grand Prix Award for PR went to Swedish PR agency King Street for its campaign The Organic Effect for organic grocery store chain Coop, which used questionable (at best) science and “stretched the truth” to promote its client’s “healthy” foods. My personal belief is that this kind of work deserves to have a light shined on it and be challenged by PR professionals and everyone associated with Cannes and creativity.

The collective outrage continued later in the week when ad agency BBDO was accused by its client Bayer of making a TV spot just to win a Cannes award — and then doing just that, winning a bronze Lion. BBDO later returned the award, pulled all its work from its Brazil agency that created it and took a walk of shame back home to New York.

This is not the first or last time advertising has stretched the truth or made a complete fabrication just to win awards. It’s an advertising awards show, and it happens every year.

Yet the PR industry continued to be surprised by all this craziness and lack of ethics among a few who compete and win at Cannes. Really? We shouldn't be. And here's why.

First, you have to know your history. The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity began in 1954 as the International Advertising Film Festival. PR Lions were added in 2009 to ensure the entirety of the communications industry was represented in the festival. The advertising industry has been competing for Lions for a long time. It is most of all an advertising awards competition. Ad agencies enter and win their own awards competitions more than anyone else.

Second, the ad industry is really good at this event. Large global networks enter hundreds, sometimes thousands, of awards across all categories. They employ creative people whose full-time job is preparing winning Cannes entries. They spend millions of dollars on beautiful, amazing video entries. And they work extra-long and extra-hard to gather and share the incredible impact of the work — and sometimes those impacts actually include client business results. Entries are largely judged on the video presentation, and ad agencies know how to produce brilliant short-form videos.

Third, it's about the work presented. Simply put, Cannes rewards BIG ideas that are strategic, singular in focus, different and extremely well-executed. And Cannes rewards one thing above all others: emotion! Work that makes the judges feel something stands out, is memorable and scores high marks. Work that makes you laugh, cry, furious or filled with joy wins. It’s even better if a good cause is associated with that emotion. Ad agencies know how to drive emotional responses from their work better and practice it more often than most PR agencies. That kind of work wins this competition. And this year, with a perceived (though not real) absence of new products to advertise in creative ways, the advertising agencies took to presenting their work for causes in the PR category. And they won often, leading to what PRWeek and others have termed “cause fatigue.”

Lastly, there is no hard rule about what work can be entered into what category. You have advertising entered in the PR, Direct, Design and even Cyber categories. Work is entered in categories where it has the best chance to win — full stop! The advertising agency practice of “have work that can’t win in the advertising category, enter it in PR or Direct and improve your chances” is real. Is PR doing the same or are we playing only in our own sandbox, one which has been, for this year anyway, take over by the ad guys?

IMHO, if PR wants to win more Cannes Lions it collectively needs to raise its game and play at a higher level and COMPETE to win. Or, we can change the game and play differently, smarter, more strategically.

At Cannes PR may be David to advertising's Goliath, but that doesn't mean we can win. But we are going to have to individually and collectively play differently to achieve the results we desire.

That's why WE did Cannes differently. Working hands-on with young marketers, having strategic meetings with clients and prospects, sitting on Holmes Report panel discussions, meeting with the media, hosting our WE Cannes Do panel on how to put creativity and innovation to work for social good, and announcing a young marketers award for creative use of technology and innovation to drive social good. All these efforts gave us the chance to be different, play our own game, stand out and get into Cannes for the first time, make our impact and then get out. And we did just that.

The rest of Cannes was an exercise in extravagance that seems to be peaking higher every year. The big holding companies spent big money on hotel suites, yachts, beachside parties and more — entertaining largely themselves, their industry friends, and a few select clients and prospects. The media agencies and networks continue to spend even more for their celebrity-led parties and “must attend” events. Technology companies have also joined the fray with what appear to be nearly unlimited budgets. Attendance is up and the festival continues to become even more global every year, and that’s good. This year also marked a big increase in Chinese delegates searching for creative inspiration and trying to understand what this whole thing is really about. And lastly, data continues to grow in importance at the festival — both data to drive creative insights and solutions and data to track, measure, optimize and report the results of the creative work presented. And that’s a very good thing.

There’s also an observation, seldom spoken aloud but growing each year by those paying attention: All this spending is largely on the backs of clients’ media and advertising budgets, and those clients seemed fewer and farther between and less interested in the whole thing than in the past. So while the advertising industry collectively pats itself on the back, and gives more awards in more categories than ever before, fewer clients are there to participate. Those clients are more likely at home trying to figure out how to grow their brand, sell their products, keep their budgets, meet their goals and build their businesses in the face of economic slowdowns, increased regulation and global terrorism. Now add to that Brexit, which happened last Thursday and set a new tone for the rest of week — not only at Cannes, but even more so in the real world in which our clients and consumers live and work.

What does it all mean? At the Cannes Lions, our PR industry has three choices. We can step up and go head-to-head with advertising and present our collective great work in a competitive (and honest) way and give it the best chance to win. We can step aside and concede Cannes to the ad industry. Or we can play the game differently — as WE has chosen to do — and make positive impacts for people, brands, clients and our agencies. Unless we disrupt the status quo, the PR industry and all of us at PR agencies risk playing on advertising's beach and continuing to get sand kicked in our faces.