coast landscape image of Cannes, France

Cannes PR Lions: 5 Thoughts Post-Judging

I’ve just completed judging Cannes PR Lions entries for the first time, serving on the ‘short-list jury’. My fellow short-listers and I judged sub-categories within PR and got to review somewhere between 200-250 entries online, each in a two-minute video format. Our scoring is now being tabulated to land the jury with the work to consider for recognition in France in a couple of weeks’ time.    

I saw some really great work. I also saw some less-great work. So goes judging. I did have high expectations, however, that entries into Cannes would be treated with more care and respect than, say, entries into The Global Plumbers Association Best Drains of the Year. It was also clear to me that some entries were punts by advertising agencies entering work across multiple categories within PR. More work may need to be done by the Lions organisation before ‘short-list’ judging to ensure entries are slotted into their rightful categories.  

Ok, now on to my 5 thoughts:

1. An apology

Holy smokes, John Clinton, I am sorry (said with a Canadian accent).

My pal and former colleague, John, chaired the PR jury at the 2016 Lions. After sitting through the awards presentation, I was appalled at how many PR Lions went to advertising agencies and/or work that was clearly ‘advertising-led’. And, of course, I wrote a blog on it and shot my mouth off about ‘an ad guy’ chairing the jury. First, John is way more than an advertising pro. He has had (and is having) a terrific run with the PR industry, now applying his skills in creative, video story-telling and cross-platform communications to PR.

More to the point on the apology, it is clear to me after going through the cornucopia of video submissions, that the best stories about the work were told through an experienced video storytelling lens and were either broadcast advertising-led or had some clear, mainstream advertising support. So, John, now having (kind of) sat in your seat, I want to clearly say I am sorry for rushing to judgment. The jury cannot be held responsible for advertising agencies submitting better looking work that has significant production value and TVC support.

2. When is advertising PR and vice versa?

The apology leads to my second point and the question above. I am not allowed to reference specific work until after the awards, which is unfortunate because I think this point and the following point would be better with work examples. That said…

After the 2016 PR Lions, there was such an outcry about ad agencies dominating the category that a new definition for PR Lions emerged – earned at the core. That did not necessarily mean an ad agency couldn’t do the work, but it did mean that earned was supposed to be the driver of the work. A lot has happened since 2016 in our world. Media fragmentation has continued at pace, resulting in the modern practice of PR requiring mastery of the entire media ecosystem (which, in my view, spans paid, earned, owned, social, experiential and search).

So, I wonder now if we don’t need a broader definition instead of a narrower one. Harold Burson, formerly of Burson-Marsteller, has said for decades that PR is anything that communicates about a brand, company or organisation (my paraphrase). I think that definition has never been more accurate. Within the context of the PR Lions, such a high percentage of the work was anchored in paid and/or TVCs that the Lions organisation (and/or Jury Chair Stuart Smith) may want to examine it. This is true, in particular, when the Lions judging site for PR Lions has on each entry “advertiser/client” to introduce which brand has entered the work

3. What are the differences between 'brand purpose', 'cause-related marketing' and, simply, 'doing the right thing?'

Speaking of definitions, PR Lions entries across sub-categories are flooded with work that can be broadly described as either ‘brand purpose’ or ‘cause-related marketing’ or any other descriptor you would like to apply to what I would suggest is ‘doing the right thing’. This year I spotted work in the PR sub-categories that I judged that covered these causes/issues: Female empowerment, LBGTQ rights (one absolutely brilliant entry here), senior empowerment, mental health awareness, sexual abuse prevention/recovery, disaster relief, teen anxiety prevention/treatment, visual impairment and broad physical impairment.

All of the work is hugely important and, from my vantage point, a large percentage of the work was done with societal outcomes in mind over commercial outcomes. I would suggest this is, largely, brands ‘doing the right’ thing. Thinking long-term. Creatively addressing big issues. Brands should get credit for this from stakeholders critical to their long-term success and from the PR Lions. I am not certain, however, that this work belongs across all sub-categories in the PR Lions. My friend and industry pundit Paul Holmes has written on this point.

While I enjoy and want to celebrate the efforts of brands ‘doing the right thing’, I would like to see that work in its own sub-category covering let’s say, Brand Purpose and Society.

4. Where is the great technology brand and B2B work?

I was hugely impressed with the overall quality of the work entered into the Travel and Tourism category. Wildly creative. Unexpected. And, for the most part, measurable. I was equally disappointed with the lack of entries from big tech brands in the sub-categories I judged and the lackluster work in the B2B category. I saw work that was unquestionably short-list worthy from two tech brands – both pieces consumer-facing. I saw nothing from tech brands that was worth a 6-9 rating on the 9-point judging scale in B2B.

I suspect part of this is that the Lions are viewed as a consumer showcase instead of a B2B showcase. I would call on clients and agencies to really focus on B2B next year, as there is massive creativity happening in the space, in particular when considering Tech B2B. I know I will encourage teams at our agency to look closely at B2B next year for our potential entries.

5. Anyone been to China lately?

In the subcategories for PR that I judged, Brazil, India, Japan and Colombia entered good work and had multiple entries. New Zealand (hello, David Brain) had three pieces of work that absolutely stood out for me. South Africa had one brilliant entry. I recall seeing a single entry from a Chinese brand (and that was work executed in Hong Kong). I do not recall any work (or at least any outstanding work) from China.

I don’t know if there is a language issue or a Cannes-relevance issue in the PRC. I do know that as I travel the world, the work that I see that is consistently cutting edge in terms of working across the entire media ecosystem and that is measurable to purchase-impact is done in China. I feel that there is a real miss with dramatic underrepresentation from China in the PR Lions.

On balance, in considering the thoughts above, I do feel that the industry is increasingly better represented at Cannes. See you there.

May 30, 2018

Alan VanderMolen
Former President, International & WE+