Cannes 2015: The view from the editor-in-chief

The much-hyped, media-saturated Cannes Lions week is over for another year and it is easy to forget that, beyond the glittering yachts and the Yves St Laurent (apparently), the whole point of this 'international festival of creativity' is to be the showcase of the best campaigns from around the world.

Is Cannes still a good pointer for the cultural zeitgeist? Does it feature the very best advertising and PR campaigns globally? Annoyingly, the answer to both is probably (a rather expensive) ‘yes’.

The glory that Cannes still lavishes on victorious brands, agencies and individuals prompts strong entry levels from very many countries, preserving its position as the pre-eminent exhibition for contemporary creative campaigns that exists anywhere… for now, anyway.

The good, the bad and the mediocre

But were there any truly great campaigns on offer this year? And what did we learn about the type of work that is prevalent in 2015?

Having studied the 20 or so Grand Prix winners, and dozens of Lions D’Or, 2015 was the year of girl power campaigning.

But it certainly has a very different feel from the bubblegum shoutiness of the Spice Girls (nearly 20 years ago now, frighteningly).

Rather, this year’s campaigns were an encouraging evolution of recent drives to foster female self-esteem, such as Dove’s truly groundbreaking Campaign for Real Beauty, which dominated Cannes a few years ago.

Five of the Grand Prix winners had a women’s issues bent in 2015: Always – #LikeAGirl (PR category); Under Armour – I Will What I Want (Cyber); Procter & Gamble India – Touch the Pickle (Glass); Vodafone Istanbul – ‘Red Light App’ for Domestic Abuse (Media); Sport England – This Girl Can (Health). And there were many more examples among the lesser Lions.

Can we explain this dominating theme?

One can’t help thinking that these campaigns do indeed touch the zeitgeist, particularly in fast-developing economies such as India and Turkey, where women thankfully are finding their voice.

This is also the case in the Western world, where feminism is also gaining a more mature and powerful influence. As a father of a young daughter, and with female self-esteem challenges all too obvious in today’s media and wider society, these campaigns are highly laudable.

Of the examples on offer in Cannes, the closest to budding greatness is the #LikeAGirl example. While clearly heavily influenced by Dove’s CFRB – ironically from P&G’s arch rival Unilever – it is nevertheless a moving and worthy campaign that feels close to being a seminal movement, thanks to the simple and clever concept behind the strapline.

Despite the idea apparently coming from an ad agency (Leo Burnett), this is essentially an ongoing conversational and multi-stakeholder (PR) campaign with bags of future potential and international scope.

The PR agency, MSL, has done a great job in maintaining the conversation so far, but one senses it will require consistent creative, technological and genuinely international input in the years ahead to keep developing the campaign towards greatness.

Room for improvement

The other big winners, with the possible exception of ALS’ phenomenal Ice Bucket Challenge (Grand Prix for Good), felt a little lacklustre compared with 2014, when Chipotle’s Scarecrow, Honey Maid’s This is Natural and Volvo’s Epic Split (which picked up the Creative Effectiveness Grand Prix this year) were all outstanding creative, conversational and ethical examples.

John Lewis’ Penguin (from the world’s hottest ad agency, London-based Adam&EveDDB) which deservedly won the Film Craft Grand Prix, just goes to show how little great competition there was elsewhere this year. After all Penguin, while a beautiful and emotional short film, was just the latest incarnation of a long-running and much-awarded campaign for the trusted British retailer.

Many of the other winners were nice campaigns, just that really. Apple’s poster work for the iPhone 6’s camera function is a brilliantly simple idea (Outdoor Grand Prix); Volvo’s Life Paint (Promo & Activation) is a worthy and on-brand attempt to make cycling in cities safer; the Nike Jordan Re2pect campaign (Integrated Grand Prix) is strong, if a tad predictable; while the Titanium Grand Prix was won by a Domino’s campaign enabling consumers to order their favourite pizza by tweeting emojis – God help us.

The fact that there were no Grands Prix awarded in either the Branded Entertainment & Content or Creative Data categories – surely both examples of where the marketing sector should be going – was another sign of a paucity of this type of work this year (or that there are simply too many categories at Cannes while the disciplines are converging).

All that said, overall entries are up and the global ad industry is booming. Confidence among the ad creatives remains high.

PR muscles in

Can the same be said for the PR business?

Well, certainly the PR agencies are throwing themselves into Cannes as never before. With Edelman and MSL now on the Cote D’Azur in force each year – joining comparative stalwarts Weber Shandwick, FleishmanHillard, Ketchum and Ogilvy – it is little surprise that PR entries are one of the fastest growing categories in terms of entries.

The very fact that they are there – rubbing shoulders with Sir Martin Sorrell, Google bosses and the big advertisers – is a healthy sign for the PR industry if it wants to be taken seriously.

Whether the PR work is being sufficiently recognised is another long and rather tiresome story.

Even the big global PR agencies as such are still failing to win Grands Prix on their own terms; with their own intellectual property dominating winning campaigns.

Part of that is because they simply don’t have the budget, the confidence or the ability to make the sort of films that win at Cannes. Part of that is because they lack the top-level relationships with the right sort of clients.

But it’s no longer worth agonising over that. Cannes is Cannes. Instead the aim for PR agencies must be to strive to create great, powerful, effective campaigns for their clients.

And these campaigns should indeed be inspired by the best Cannes winners in recent years, from Dove’s CFRB and #LikeAGirl, to Australian rail safety campaign, Dumb Ways to Die.

They must seek to make willing, enlightened organisations look and actually be more ethical, more sustainable and better overall citizens.

Add today’s required technological and media nous and – that still too rare thing – a truly insightful, big, creative idea, and you have the formula for a campaign of which you can be proud: a campaign that can change people’s behaviour for the better.

If that should also lead to a shiny accolade at the Grand Palais at some point, then that indeed would be a nice bonus.

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