Cannes: PR needs to redefine the battlefield of creativity

We earn it: As we rush to compete on creative, let's not forget to celebrate what makes PR unique in the marketing mix.

Ogilvy PR's Stuart Smith and KFC global chief marketing and innovation officer Jennelle Tilling at a PRWeek panel in Cannes
Ogilvy PR's Stuart Smith and KFC global chief marketing and innovation officer Jennelle Tilling at a PRWeek panel in Cannes

The Cannes Lions have come, roared, and left again, and the postmortems appear to be following the usual pattern.

There are the useful "here’s what you missed at Cannes" (spoiler alert, apparently VR is still a big deal), and there are the "it’s just people drinking rosé" (self-explanatory), and the more recent "the tech companies are stealing our budgets" (did you see Snapchat owning the Palais?).

And just like The Economist measures the momentum of an economy by the number of cranes on the skyline, creative agencies should take a breath and decide if they need to be worried by the size of tech and platform companies’ beach pavilions.

Cannes is an amazing, inspiring showcase. It may not reflect the day to day of life in our world, but it does shine a light on the work that is pushing boundaries and gives us a feel for the direction we need to head as an industry - in the same way haute couture eventually finds its way to the High Street (sorry cousins, Main Street.)

There was much to discuss. But, thinking positively, the big news this year was not how PR agencies aren't winning PR Lions, but rather how PR firms were winning Lions outside the PR category.

For too long we've allowed our industry to be boxed and defined in narrow terms that suit our competition. And worse, somehow, we have allowed others to assume PR was not a "creative" discipline.

Shame on us all for allowing that to happen. But there is hope. There are now 24 categories in Cannes with numerous sub-categories in each - many are ripe for entry by PR agencies. It's time to see more submissions in Promo, Activation, and even newer spaces such as Product Design or Digital Craft.

My dream would be to see a PR-led campaign win the Creative Effectiveness category. But frankly that will take a long time to come since, as a PR industry, we have had a collective failure to be curious about why what we do works so well.

CMOs want more of what we do and, if we want a larger share of marketing budgets, we will come under pressure to prove what we do sells. As David Ogilvy said: "If it doesn't sell, it's not creative."

However, a note of caution to PR agencies competing against other disciplines for Lions (and increasingly in pitches as well.) As the PR industry finally recognizes the importance of Cannes to our future growth, we must remember one thing: Cannes is about creativity.

As we rush to prove we are creative, let's not forget that we do something other disciplines cannot. PR is unique because we earn attention. We earn influence on behalf of clients’ brands and companies.

This is something that cannot be bought directly. So, as the silos between what disciplines do continue to collapse, let's hold onto what makes us different and valuable.

Stuart Smith is global CEO of Ogilvy Public Relations. PRWeek teamed up with Ogilvy PR at Cannes to conduct a panel in our Haymarket Cabana on Earned Influence and the Power of Integration.

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