PR shouldn't beat itself up about Cannes

CANNES, FRANCE: The shortlists seemed promising but PR firms' hopes were largely dashed in the final analysis as the winners of the Cannes PR Lions were handed out in the south of France yesterday.

CANNES, FRANCE: The shortlists seemed promising but PR firms' hopes were largely dashed in the final analysis as the winners of the Cannes PR Lions were handed out in the south of France yesterday.

There were only two pure-play PR agencies amongst the 69 Grand Prix, Gold, Silver, and Bronze Lions awarded. This despite the fact there were several US PR agencies on the shortlist of those in the hunt for prizes, including Fleishman-Hillard, Euro RSCG Worldwide PR, Ogilvy PR, and MSLGroup.

The first thing to say is that, disappointing though it is, there is no need for the industry to beat itself up about the results. There are distinct reasons why the Cannes Awards come out the way they do. Equally, there are lessons to be learned.

There are many factors at Cannes that militate against PR firms winning. As last year's judging jury chair Dave Senay, CEO of Fleishman-Hillard, which has won several PR Lions in the past, pointed out, the change in title two years ago of the overall festival from “advertising” to “creativity” may have actually worked against PR firms' entries.

The word “creativity” tends to reward “stunts”, or short-term activity if you prefer – there is actually a category in the Cannes PR Lions for Best Stunt – and, as Senay puts it, “those who tread on the edge of credibility and taste.” His point is that making a spectacle of yourself “is nothing to do with building a brand.”

Indeed, there was still a depressingly common theme of the successful entries framing themselves in terms of advertising value equivalency, rather than the real business measurements that most blue-chip clients now insist upon.

The eye-catching winners involved things like putting sesame seeds on Wimpy burger buns, a staged mock poster demonstration in Tunisia that could have sparked a riot, Adam Tensta's “One Copy Song” Facebook app, and, for the Grand Prix winner, changing the words of a popular song in Puerto Rico.

All good eye-catching ideas, but not necessarily couched in the long-term, strategic counsel that is the meat and drink of US corporate clients and their agencies.

Cannes celebrates globalization, integration, excitement, and The Big Idea. There's nothing wrong with that, but it needs to be seen for what it is. And Senay believes the industry should keep trying to make a success of the Cannes experience. “We should not withdraw from it as an industry,” he says.

So what can PR firms learn from this year's process? First, be aware that ad agencies start planning their Cannes entries 18 months in advance. By the time the festival comes around they are already six months into the planning process for the next year.

They actually produce work designed to win awards rather than to deliver the best solution for clients. They also come up with big ideas and match them to clients afterwards. I'm not saying this is a technique that should be copied by PR agencies – I'm just saying this is what you are up against.

Another truism is that ad agencies know how to present themselves and their case studies better than PR agencies. This is just a fact. Their broadcast roots are still showing, and they make great films that are as much about the making of the campaign as they are about the campaign itself.

They may not lead the conversation in the way they used to, but they know how to craft messages and grab judges' attention. They also know how to "carpet bomb" the different juries, often with multiple entries for the same work.

One big takeaway for me as I sat in the auditorium watching the PR, Direct, and Promo & Activation Lions being awarded was that there were many entries that could have won in any of the discipline sections. In fact, several did.

In the Direct Lions Ogilvy PR got a joint credit on the Silver-winning “The Gnome Experiment” activity for Kern & Sohn, but Ogilvy One Worldwide London was the lead firm and got to go up on stage.

American Express' “Small Business Gets an Official Day” won the Grand Prix in Direct and Promo & Activation, plus a Bronze in PR. It was credited to Crispin Porter + Bogusky's Boulder office, and well done to them for achieving such success.

But this is in essence a PR campaign and it had a strong public affairs element. So where was the credit for the PR and PA firms involved, apart from a very small end credit for M Booth & Associates? Was that really it?

Until the PR shops become the lead on these campaigns they will continue to struggle to taste glory in the south of France. But that day is coming increasingly closer and the industry should not stop trying to crack the Cannes code.

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