Cannes talk: What's in an idea?

PR firms did well at Cannes this year, but the multiple-Lions-winning Care Counts case study by Whirlpool shows just how difficult it is to give proper credits to those who work on campaigns.

Lions winner Whirpool's Care Counts proves how difficult it is to identify idea provenance.
Lions winner Whirpool's Care Counts proves how difficult it is to identify idea provenance.

The crediting system for campaigns entered into the Cannes Lions awards has been a controversial topic for a long time.

A few years ago, the media agencies got very aggravated about the fact they weren’t getting proper recognition for their work and that the creative agencies were taking all the credit.

Sound familiar? Yes, last year especially, PR firms underwent exactly the same experience and bemoaned the fact that all the prizes were going to the ad industry.

That was partially addressed by the Cannes organization this year after lobbying from the PR sector. All PR Lions entrants were emailed before the festival if they didn’t credit a PR agency, to make sure everyone was getting due recognition.

And the clause regarding the splitting of points between ad agencies and communications agencies for the Network of the Year honor was removed. The theory was that ad agencies would be more willing to credit PR agencies as they wouldn’t have to split points with them.

Another new development was the nomination of the firm that had the idea creation role in campaigns, which most people have taken to understand as the lead agency. When PR agencies are credited in that lead role, ad firms still accrue points for the coveted Network of the Year, Agency of the Year, and Independent Agency of the Year – which frankly aren’t going to a PR agency any time soon.

Those changes meant PR did indeed get a lot more recognition in the PR Lions than previous years, but it also had the consequence of somewhat marginalizing their contributions, as they struggled to be recognized in that lead idea role.

As far as I could tell, no PR firms were credited with the lead role in any of the Gold PR Lions-winning campaigns. Ketchum won three Gold Lions (Care Counts for Whirlpool and two for Cheetos Museum), IPG firm Current Marketing won one (Teddy Gun for Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence), and State Street’s in-house team bagged a Gold Lion and the Grand Prix for Fearless Girl - but none was named idea creator.

Ketchum was lead agency on two Silver Lions (Ananse’s Amazon Warriors Safe Collection and a joint lead credit – with VML – on Wendy’s #NuggsforCarter), Weber Shandwick on one (for Action Aid UK’s Brutal Cut); Edelman was joint lead on two Bronze Lions wins for Worlds Apart/Heineken, along with Publicis London; Ketchum was given a joint lead credit, again with VML, for #NuggsforCarter in the Media Relations category – although it only had secondary credit for the same campaign in other categories.

Once again, no Lions were awarded for Crisis Communications, which is shocking when you think of all the great work going on in this core area, which is dominated by PR and not advertising firms.

But what’s in an idea anyway – and how do they come about in practice?

I spoke to Rachel Carlisle from Ketchum, a Young Lion in Cannes this year from Chicago and the account supervisor and chief day-to-day representative on the Omnicom agency’s Care Counts campaign for washing machine manufacturer Whirlpool – which won several Lions and also a PRWeek US Award back in March.

She told me the initial idea for Care Counts actually came from a superintendent from a school in St. Louis, who emailed Whirlpool and said installing washers and dryers in schools would make a big difference to school attendance rates, as some kids are embarrassed to attend with dirty clothes and their families don’t have easy access to such facilities. The insight? Thousands of kids miss school because they don’t have clean clothes to wear.

But Publicis firm DigitasLBi took lead idea credit on this one. It created an anonymous "Care Counter" that was attached to each machine so the campaign team could track the data about clean clothes and school attendance, but in a discreet way that would not cause embarrassment to the kids concerned. It also produced a powerful video to kick off the program, and led on social media and production of a website.

The initiative was trialed in 17 schools across two school districts, in California and St. Louis, and the data showed 93% of participating students increased attendance in the first year, 89% increased classroom participation, and 95% of them participated in more extracurricular activities.

Ketchum and DigitasLBi have teamed up with nonprofit Teach For America to help Whirlpool scale it, and on August 17 Care Counts will be extended to 10 cities and 50 schools – 1,000 different schools have reached out for information about the program.

Carlisle led communications with each of the schools, handled the kick-off calls, methodology, school liaison, and storytelling around the program – PR was mainly used as promotion, in a low-key way so as not to draw too much attention to the kids for fear of them being stigmatized or bullied.

It’s a great campaign, a great program, and a real team effort, which is ongoing. It’s impossible to say where the lead idea came from, and that’s the fundamental problem with this form of categorization – many ideas stem from a client or external insight and are then developed by a team of in-house and external partners.

Elsewhere, I was pleased that other PRWeek-awarded work won, including Weber’s Action Aid Brutal Cut activation on female genital mutilation. Fearless Girl, which we have featured a lot in PRWeek via news and a podcast and profile of State Street’s Anne McNally, swept Lions across several categories.

#NuggsforCarter has also been heavily featured on PRWeek.com and was a great activation rooted in social media, while Edelman’s Worlds Apart video for Heineken was excellent work amid a relatively quiet week at Cannes for the world’s largest PR firm.

Other campaigns I liked that did well included Gold-winning Teddy Gun by Current Marketing, Google Sheep View for Visit Faroe Islands by Liquid Minds and Sansir with help from London's Travel PR, pitching French films to Hollywood by Ogilvy & Mather Singapore, Spanish Lessons for Netflix by Alma DDB in Miami, and Like My Addiction by BETC Paris for Addict’aide.

Opinions were divided on the Cheetos Museum work, helmed on the PR side by Ketchum. Some hated it, some considered it a stunt, and others thought it was quite clever.

Was it abreakthrough year for PR as I predicted it would be? Actually, yes, I think it was.

Overall, it was a great week for Ketchum, and a good week for PR firms in general, which represented very well in the non-PR categories and are invading the ad agencies’ own turf in that respect (see all PRWeek's Cannes content here). Whirlpool took a Grand Prix in the Creative Data Lions and Hill+Knowlton Strategies won a Grand Prix in Cyber for its work on behalf of The Bank of Aland in Sweden for Aland Index/Baltic Sea Project.

Betsy Quinn, partner and global awards director at Ketchum, outlined her top tips for putting a compelling Cannes entry together for PRWeek readers earlier this month – her techniques clearly work and bear close study.

Ketchum CEO Rob Flaherty certainly had a broad smile on his face whenever I saw him and he was a ubiquitous presence from Le Palais to the Haymarket Cabana to the Gutter Bar, when he wasn't schmoozing with actresses Laura Dern and Gwyneth Paltrow. Also very happy was State Street’s MD, global head of communications and brand marketing, John Brockelman, as Fearless Girl took top honors throughout the week across multiple categories.

The Cannes organization is at something of a crossroads following Publicis’ high-profile withdrawal from next year’s festival, which I will address in a separate blog, but PR is gaining its sea legs and representing much better than it used to on Le Cote d’Azur.

It still has some issues in getting proper credit for its work, but much of that is down to the very process of creativity and communication, which is often a team effort and not necessarily tied to one person or organization – as the example of the school superintendent from St. Louis shows.

* Ketchum asked me to add the following emailed statement by Bill Zucker, partner and managing director of its Midwest and Canada regions, and I am happy to do so:

"This was an incredibly collaborative process between Ketchum, Digitas, and our clients at Whirlpool. We could not have done the Care Counts work without each other. Both agencies partnered on the Cannes entries and agreed on the submission process, including that Digitas would enter as the lead agency."

As I say, sensitive stuff, this idea business...

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