Melissa Waggener Zorkin, 4 women smiling for photo, Cannes Lions, WE Communications

The New Creativity at Cannes Lions: A Festival in Motion

— Melissa Waggener Zorkin, Global CEO and Founder 

While I was taking a break from the Cannes Lions festival last week, standing on the Croisette and watching the yachts bob in the harbor, I wondered what my younger self—we’ll call her Early Melissa—would say if she could see me now. I don’t think she’d be surprised by the success we’ve had or the quality of the work we do, and she’d definitely be pleased to see how much our purpose—her purpose—still drives us every day.

What would surprise her, I think, is how familiar an event like Cannes might feel: the same agencies, the same people, the same kind of work, year in and year out. Cannes was founded in 1954, and in some ways it seems stuck there, celebrating one 30-second TV spot produced by a big agency after another. In our brand-new media landscape, with all the tech we’ve invented and all the tools we’ve innovated, how can we still be defining “creativity” in the same way?

Early Melissa might be dismayed by some of what she saw in Cannes last week, but I would tell her not to worry. I think things might be changing.

As you may know, I started the agency that became WE Communications in Portland, Oregon in the early 1980s. At around the same time, Dan Wieden started his agency—now called Wieden+Kennedy—also in Portland. When WE began, my world was personal computers, stem-cell advancements and semiconductors—and sometimes, I admit, I envied Dan’s world of new cars, amazing athletic shoes, and tasty beer. (Plus, his agency had a basketball court and mine didn’t. I should definitely ask Early Melissa what was up with that.)

At Cannes this year, Wieden+Kennedy won the Grand Prix in the new Social & Influencer Lions category for Nike’s “Nothing Beats a Londoner” campaign. The work is exceptional, and the category is one of the most exciting there is—a breath of fresh air in a festival that needs it.

The new architecture of Cannes

For PR agencies, on the other hand, the theme at Cannes this year was “frustration.” As in previous years, PR agencies showed up well on the shortlist, but creative agencies dominated the list of winners—even in earned media! In fact, the only PR presence on stage at the Cannes PR Lions ceremony was FleishmanHillard, for their excellent “Turning Beer into Water” activation with Anheuser-Busch. This has caused much angst and hand-wringing amongst public relations professionals. If PR agencies can’t even win in the PR category, many have wondered, should they even bother submitting work to the festival?

My take? Of course we should. It’s a push to do great work, both for our clients and for ourselves. It’s also a push for us to think more expansively about what great work is, and to adopt and adapt to new formats and new media—just as our colleagues in advertising and digital and social agencies are doing. And we should also keep in mind what one Ogilvy exec told a meeting of PR industry leaders at Cannes a few years ago: “The world is moving in your direction.” In his account of that meeting, Paul Holmes explained: “The things that PR brings to the table—authenticity, credibility, trust, engagement, dialogue—are all increasingly valuable to marketers, and may be more critical to the industry’s long-term success than how much silverware PR agencies pick up.”

Meanwhile, if you look closer, you can see other exciting changes on the horizon. Creativity isn’t just in the work any more—it’s also in the way agencies and brands show up. The Drum had great activations, hosting events at their pop-up pub, the Drum Arms. The Female Quotient brought their equality-and-empowerment–themed Girls’ Lounge to the festival, mixing panels on diversity and inclusion with an exhibition of celebrity portraits.

Plus, WE put on Cannes Lions’ first-ever game show: Alan VanderMolen’s “Who Wants to Be a Human?” event with Contagious on the main stage. Contestants were asked to tell the difference between “real” art, like paintings and rap lyrics, and art made by a bot—and they couldn’t do it. “On the scale between technology and humanity,” Alan said, “technology is winning, and racing ahead of brands and humanity. Brands now have an imperative to start to put human values into making decisions around use of technology.” It was equal parts goofy and insightful—a refreshing, well-received break from the usual roster of panel discussions and roundtables.

And so it’s confirmed: Cannes Lions isn’t just talking heads anymore. (In fact, at one point I walked past the main stage where an old-school comms panel was taking place, and I counted just seven people in the audience!) On the contrary, breakthrough at Cannes Lions 2018 came through co-creation, interesting partnerships, humor and humanity, and purpose.

That’s why, for many of us, Cannes Lions 2018 felt like the start of something wonderful and new. We’ve made a community within a community, a crew of like-minded independent agencies, activism-focused brands and organizations, and consultancies. And that community was triumphant: Deloitte Digital was everywhere and Accenture picked up a number of awards, including the Grand Prix for Creative Data for “JFK Unsilenced.”

Most of all, this new community is checking its ego at the door. I talked to a number of creatives at consultancies who understood that trophies aren’t won in a vacuum. It’s about what gets results, what works for the client, and aligning with the right partners—even if you’re sharing the metal. They would rather have 30 people on a stage—a big, joyous group of creators—than nobody at all.

Early Melissa would be relieved to know that this new community is finally pushing Cannes to a turning point—moving away from old definitions of creative and public relations work and making room for a livelier, funkier cadre of thought leaders. Whether the old Cannes embraces this new energy remains to be seen—but in the end, that’s less interesting to me than what this new crop of innovative agencies, brands and organizations are up to. I—we—can’t wait to see what they do next year!


Read more posts from WE Global CEO and Founder Melissa Waggener Zorkin here.

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