Cannes Roundtable: Is the campaign dead?

A broad group of agency and in-house marketing leaders joined PRWeek editor-in-chief Steve Barrett at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in a Weber Shandwick-sponsored roundtable to survey the present and future of the PR campaign.

From left: Chris Perry, Ami Anderson, Gaston Legorburu, Steve Barrett, Torrence Boone, Christine Cea, and Joe Sinclair
A broad group of agency and in-house marketing leaders joined PRWeek editor-in-chief Steve Barrett at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in a Weber Shandwick-sponsored roundtable to survey the present and future of the PR campaign.

Ami Anderson, director of marketing excellence, General Mills
Torrence Boone, MD, agency business development - The Americas, Google
Christine Cea, senior director of marketing communications, Unilever
Gaston Legorburu, global chief creative officer, SapientNitro
Ellen Ryan Mardiks, vice chair, GolinHarris
Mari Kim Novak, senior director of global marketing, Microsoft Advertising
Chris Perry, president, digital, Weber Shandwick
Joe Sinclair, UK creative director, Burson-Marsteller and Cannes PR Lions judge

Is the campaign dead?

Steve Barrett (PRWeek): Most of the work that won Cannes PR Lions this year was tactical, short-term activity, so is the campaign dead?

Christine Cea (Unilever): Not necessarily. We saw a brilliant idea and execution, but not necessarily the whole context for it. That's an important starting point for campaigns. What is the context? Where does it start? Where does it end? What exists alongside it?

If the campaign has shifted, changed, or reinvented itself, what do we call it? If we have “always on,” is campaign a finite or an extension? We might have to define what we are talking about to determine if it is alive, dead, or on life support.

Ami Anderson (General Mills): The campaign can never die. We still need to communicate with people. The campaign has evolved. In the past, it's been more about advertising, about fireworks. Now, it's not about fireworks – it's also bonfires. It's about starting that fire and relationship with consumers. And you need to have both of them, not just the campaign. You need PR to keep the message going, which gets you into the paid or earned world.

Joe Sinclair (Burson-Marsteller): As a [PR Lions] judge, you prioritize the idea. Gone are the days where you just slap on this much coverage or this many retweets. We're looking for things that change people's behaviors. To me, that's what a campaign is.

Chris Perry (Weber Shandwick): It's all about the clients. I can't think of one that doesn't require a creative solution to their business problems. How are we going to market in an interesting way? But it's also about how you put your pieces together in order to make that happen.

We think about the business need and how we approach it from a brief standpoint. Then, what are some unique combinations we can bring to the table that may involve different folks in our practice areas, but also different partners you typically wouldn't see a PR agency bring on board.

Torrence Boone (Google): Campaigns have atomized. You have to think of “small” as the new “big” in a lot of ways. And smaller campaign ideas can grow into something bigger and become that bonfire Ami mentioned. But it doesn't have to be epic and precious. The agency and client don't have to go into a corner for months to ideate and figure out that big idea.

Today – and Silicon Valley has informed this – there's more focus on being prolific, fast, hitting the market quickly, prototyping, and not being afraid to fail and recover. That's the model that defines how entrepreneurs are funded in the Valley. Players such as Google and Facebook have pushed that into the marketing ecosystem. We call it “agile creativity” - the agility to be prolific and get to that breakthrough idea and insight.

Mari Kim Novak (Microsoft Advertising): Technology is the reason for a lot of the change and simplification. The campaign is smaller because it's more relevant. You don't have to go so big to hit a few people. The campaign is more targeted and effective than ever because you are speaking to the person you want.

Technology has also allowed consumers to be storytellers. Now you have the brand telling its story and – through social media – the ability for a two-way conversation.

The campaign will never die. We've just seen an evolution because technology advancements give us an external relationship with our consumer.

Ellen Ryan Mardiks (GolinHarris): The campaign isn't dead or dying. It's just changed. Definitions don't apply how they used to. I liked this best: “A connected series of operations designed to bring about a particular result.”

The idea of connectivity is so right. What has changed is this notion of who is engaged in this effort, this campaign. It's not just the brand. It's certainly not just all of us supporting the brand. It's people. You might want to call them “consumers,” but I just call them people for whom that brand is designed or targeted. We're going to be talking more about the idea than the campaign.

Gaston Legorburu (SapientNitro): One of the challenges with the definition of a campaign is it infers it has a beginning, middle, and end, but really you are always building on something. There is no end.

Mardiks (GolinHarris): Let's look at one of the [Cannes PR Lions] awards winners, American Express' Small Business Saturday. Very good idea, designed for a particular purpose and audience – small business owners. And it involved every element of the mix. I would describe that as a campaign, something specific, with a beginning, middle, and end, but who knows where that end is going to be because it's a long-term thing.

Legorburu (SapientNitro): That's the beauty of it. You understand the essence, the purpose behind American Express. When you look at the point-in-time problem or opportunity the agency and/or client have to go after, they solved it in a very clever way, but always serving that organizing purpose or idea. That's what's important – when you drive that connection and recognize you may be dealing with an individual chapter.

We talk about nonlinear storytelling, which PR is more comfortable with than an advertising agency. It's like the Bible. Few people read it from page one, but you might drop in and have one story, which serves a purpose but also the bigger story.

Merging disciplines

Barrett (PRWeek): The AmEx campaign won two Grand Prix – in Direct and Promo. It also won a bronze in PR. Are these categories dead? Are they all going to merge into one?

Cea (Unilever): Maybe the PR campaign is dead. I say that because the way we build PR campaigns is a series or a collection of a media strategy. This is what the release or the angle is going to be, so rather than thinking about it as a campaign and saying, “Here's the idea. Now where do we take that idea?” That's where the atoms come in. You start with that basic building block of matter.

Perry (Weber): We've seen some success from thinking like programmers versus campaign-builders. When you move from an episodic to a more sustained way of communicating, you have to put your media hat on and think about what are the bigger events or campaign moments that are naturally going to be a part of what you do.

But how do you fill in those gaps with the lighter-weight executions, smaller-scale content, and social media things we do? You're really delivering an “always-on” premise that, for some folks, is a pretty big shift. Just tweaking the language, the mindset, and the manner in which people approach problems in a fresh way.

Anderson (General Mills): There are so many different categories and they're all blended together. At the end of the day it's about ideas, not touch points, and how it comes to life. The idea drives the strategy and that idea can live forever.

One of our brands is Cheerios. It is finger food and heart-healthy. We've had this heart-healthy idea for about 12 years and we're not done talking about it because it's still news. It's brought to life in several different ways, through PR, digital, some other things, but the old way we used to talk about PR is a big stunt. It is like, “We're all going to do something. We are all going to show up. It's going to be great.”

That's not the way it is now because, if you look at the AmEx program, that was one day. But now you opened up my eyes to, “I need to start paying more attention to these small businesses in my neighborhood.”

They talked about it for one day but it was part of a movement. That's the world of PR. It's the continuous relationship, then what you do to follow up.

Cea (Unilever): The thought “That's a stunt” crossed my mind several times watching the awards. And some were incredibly effective stunts, so I admired them. We shouldn't necessarily view “stunt” in a derivative way, except when PR gets relegated in people's minds to being the “stunt.”

A stunt can be celebrated for the impact it can make. When we talk about ideas, we also want to have that impact, but a lot of what we're trying to do in driving conversation is to drive talkability.

Anderson (General Mills): Sometimes it might be a stunt, but it lives on in the industry. Look at the hug machine from Coke. It's something they do as a stunt then put on the blogosphere and people pick it up, put it on YouTube, and share it.

It was one PR event, but it goes on. “Did you see the hug thing Coke did?” It starts the conversation because that's what people love. They want stories. It's still about storytelling, whether it's PR or advertising.

Legorburu (SapientNitro): We need to celebrate craft. Malcolm Gladwell said, “You need 10,000 hours to be great at anything,” but we want to do things that have never been done before on time, on budget, and at a high level of quality. Those things are at odds.

Look at the category concept. If an idea fits in multiple categories, it's probably an organizing idea. Then look at the individual tactics within those categories to say, “It's showing a deep level of craft within that particular bit.” If you have a set reference to the bigger organizing idea and you see craft, that's a winning piece of work.

Sinclair (Burson): I wonder if PR practitioners are changing rapidly enough. Why did so many advertising agencies win Cannes PR Lions? They're really specialized, whereas PR isn't. A PR person who has the idea is often the person who calls up the client to chase the invoice.

Perhaps there's something to learn from the way ad agencies structure themselves? Do we need to have creative departments in PR? Do we need strategy departments? A lot of agencies are moving toward that model.

Perry (Weber): What can we learn from the Microsofts and the Googles of the world, too? It's not just looking at other agencies' disciplines, but thinking in a more technology- or startup-based mindset might be a good way of evolving our business.

Boone (Google): Some of the leading digital and innovative agencies across the board are reexamining the creative team and collaboration process. Creative teams are being reduced to the entity that creates the seed idea or spark. Where it was art directors and copywriters, now you see art directors and technologists.

Rei Inamoto [global creative director] of AKQA talks about art and code instead of art and copy. That unit is changing and connecting to a broader array of specializations and bringing those in at critical points.

There's a fundamental reexamination of the way that team is structured. How people organize in terms of collaboration is enabling a more rapid-fire cauldron of back and forth around ideas. At Google, we have this notion of “fail fast.” Our engineers are in very small teams. It's all about this rapid iteration that is infusing itself in the way creative is done.

Novak (Microsoft): We're pulling back and reexamining. When you look at the new Windows platform, you see screens disappearing. You can now take your phone and look at your Xbox and they're talking to each other.

Creative has to look at this in a new way and say, “This is all branding.” The brand just continues from eyeball to eyeball. It never leaves. It's all about the consumer experience. We're breaking that down to reeducate ourselves and looking at that creative community to give it this new canvas.

This has to be completely collective now. We must work in partnership to allow that creative advancement. The creative community is really open to it. They love the ability to have new canvases to work on and be asked to contribute. The relationship technology has with the creative community is stronger than it's ever been.

Barrett, Boone, and Anderson (l-r) engage in conversation on creativity

Boone (Google): It used to be that technology was behind creativity. Five years ago, there were all these things we wanted to do, but technology didn't enable it. It's totally the reverse now. Technology is ahead of creativity. The more we can connect as far upstream with that ideation process, the more you get breakthrough things you would have never imagined.

Anderson (General Mills): Back in the day, we would sit in the conference room and figure out who likes the idea best. You would then look at the most senior person and whatever they like is what you

Now we're testing ideas on the Internet and seeing what consumers like because they are, at the end of the day, the boss. We can put out a couple of ideas, see which one gets the most traction, and guess what? That's our big idea. Technology does that. But again, it's leveraging technology that aligns with your idea and your brand.

The benefits of failing

Barrett (PRWeek): Unilever's marketing director has given you permission to fail and take a few risks. How is that changing what you do? Is there a tendency to overanalyze data, squeeze all the creativity out of it, and miss a groundbreaking idea?

Cea (Unilever): You're right. It came from our chief marcomms officer Keith Weed and Marc Mathieu, our SVP of marketing. But it's also been adopted in the States by our president who says, “If you fail once, I'll give you a bottle of wine. Just don't collect a whole cellar.” It's finding the balance. How do you fail – big or small? Do you fail in a public way? It's a tall order to be given that permission to fail.

We give our agencies permission to be the thinkers for us, not so much to fail, more to say no. The permission to say, “You know what? You want to go that way, but it might not be right.” And permission to be a true partner.

Perry (Weber): There is still the expectation that you're going to refine anything new you do. As much as we want to put the perfect plan in place, once it gets to market you know there are going to be some unexpected twists and turns.

If you throw new ideas to the market and shut it down at the first sign of going off track, that's a waste. But if you put stuff out and learn and refine, you actually get far more value than you initially thought.

We've had success with a number of partners, but it required the faith and trust of a great client to give us breathing room to see the campaigns play out in the real world.

Data study

Mardiks (Golin): Data is misused. It's becoming a safety zone for people because it's complex. Data is information and information is power, but information without instinct is dangerous. We now have so much data we must decide, “Is this in fact information?” They may not be quite the same. Reusable information, I guess we should say. Applicable information.

But within all that, as marketers and creative people we have to respect gut and instinct. We should do research and analyze data. And this is why technology and creativity should coexist beautifully.

Sinclair (Burson): Gone are the days when clients asked us to get live pieces of national coverage. That is not data. We're getting back to that big idea of changing perceptions, actions. And that comes from understanding the situation and bringing as much research to bear pre-, during, and post-campaign.

I still believe campaigns exist. I'm using that to assess the success of the campaign. Coverage doesn't matter anymore. As we reach this convergence where more and more disciplines are eating PR's lunch, we need to get better at finding new ways to talk about our success. That boils down to behavioral change.

Boone (Google): Obviously, we live and breathe data, but we see clients running away from data, ad agencies running away from data. We're always trying to push the envelope, “Here's what this data can show you and how it can help drive your business more effectively.” We find clients and agencies intimidated and actually resistant.

Even at Google, we haven't done the best job packaging that in a way that leads to marketing-driven insights that allow you to go and do better work. It's something we're working on, but collectively we all need to step up and carve out that difference between the two because when we don't, when we blur it, we get into trouble.

Novak (Microsoft): Actionable data is the Holy Grail. That can lead to the insight.

Determining Facebook's value

Barrett (PRWeek): General Motors withdrew its ad spend from Facebook, which some say brings into doubt Facebook's role as an advertising medium. Is General Mills going to follow suit?

Anderson (General Mills): It's always about social media and people love sharing, “I saw a great idea.” “I got this really good deal.” “I tried this new product.” There's so much chatter online about these products and one of the biggest platforms is Facebook.

It's a sharing capability and that will never go away because online is where people socialize now. Will we ever walk away from it? Probably not. Maybe it's not Facebook, but maybe it's another social medium where you have to be because that's where people are chatting and discussing – and you want your product to be part of that.

Legorburu (SapientNitro): Facebook is an engagement, not an advertising platform. Social is not connectivity as much as it is conductivity into people. The idea of taking some posters and putting them on Facebook – that's not working. That's advertising, as opposed to engagement.

As we mash these things together, we gain some things but dilute others. Media buying and planning are important pieces of the holding companies, but when digital media was something new we needed to understand and learn, we treated it differently.

Putting it on the same spreadsheet, with the formula of a trading desk managing a $100 million buy on Facebook the same way they're buying pages in Condé Nast. That's crazy, right? GM pulled its money off Facebook because it was treating it like Condé Nast, like buying TV – and that's silly.

Barrett (PRWeek): This brings up the paid, earned, shared, and owned mix. Perhaps GM is just not doing it right?

Cea (Unilever): You must have a strategy on Facebook. You need to put a lot of work into “always on.” How do you sustain an ongoing conversation?

You also need to understand what the true metric is. Were they really in it long enough to do what these platforms are designed to deliver, which is brand equity, share of voice, share of consideration? You might not sell the number of cars they wanted to in a certain time frame, but other carmakers are more at a consideration set because of the engagement.

Perry (Weber): This is what happens when we have conversations about a platform first – “What should we do on Facebook? What should we do on Pinterest? What should we do on whatever the network is?” Almost dropping media into windows the way we've typically done in broadcasting in the past.

It's about content first. What's the story at a higher level? What are you trying to do? And how do you use the tools at your disposal to get as much visibility, reach, and engagement as possible? Whether you're buying ads or sharing content on Facebook, you might not have to buy those ads to get people to engage.

The rush to judgment around what's working from an advertising context might not be the right way of coming at it. It's more about determining what you have to share in the first place. Was it meaningful? Did you fully leverage the media at your disposal?” 

Novak (Microsoft): It comes back to the idea again. What's the strategy? What does success look like? It's not either or. It's probably both. We're seeing a bit of lopsidedness now because it's so easy to drop the paid aspect in this economy, with everybody trying to find ways to cut.

Cea (Unilever): There's an interesting parallel with campaigns and where some of these moments or spikes fit in. With the spike that can drive talkability, you can continue there for a while, and then perhaps spike again. We recognize you need to give people a reason to stay, and you may not need that next spike because if you've done enough to keep that community really engaged, it will grow organically as people share.

Dove won a Silver [at Cannes for a campaign that] used Facebook advertising as part of its message. It empowered women to take an ad they saw on Facebook and say, “That's not how I want body images portrayed.” Dove gave them a series of other ads they could use to replace them. Imagine the talkability and shareability of that.

It is part of a campaign, but it's really about the brand equity Dove has built since the origins of “The Campaign for Real Beauty.” Even though we might call it something different now, essentially that's still what it is.

Anderson (General Mills): GM probably didn't have the right idea for that venue and that's why it walked away. Nutella just announced its Facebook ads were more effective than TV related to [a recent campaign] around an Advent calendar [application].

It's shareability, excitement, and, again, it's engaging. And it's the idea. It was more effective and got better ROI on Facebook than TV. GM probably didn't have the right ideas to help people connect to them.

Roundtable continues in front of captive audience

Barrett (PRWeek): We're talking about content, about altering the way you do things. Ellen, you changed the structure of your agency because of that.

Mardiks (Golin): In fact, we reinvented our agency precisely for the reasons we're talking about here – a greater need for specialty and a deep expertise so we are not trying to be all things to all people, because that's not realistic.

We created four communities of specialists to provide insight that can lead to the idea that is communicated in a holistic and engaging way and through an overarching “campaign.” I can use that word now.

We recognized how important it is for PR firms to compete in this age of the idea. That's where we are now. It's about the idea, not in isolation, but it has to come to life. It has to be based on the right insight.

Perry (Weber): We've been going through a change in structure for years. In terms of the long-term vision of how digital and social will transform our business, we invested early in people you typically wouldn't see in a PR agency.

We brought in producers early in the content game. We brought in lots of people to think about user experience from a digital standpoint. We've scaled a digitally and socially oriented group that would be one of the biggest and most successful standalone social agencies if it was outside Weber.

Clients see we aren't trying to separate new-age and traditional thinkers. They really blend together to achieve scale and run programs how they need to be run these days.

Sinclair (Burson): I want to hire disruptors, people that really scare me, unusual people you wouldn't normally find in a PR agency. Producers, information architects, people from fashion and technology, people who know what PR is but add something unique that's going to disrupt and help people rethink how we've done things in the past. It's a really exciting time to work in PR.

Barrett (PRWeek): Are there legacy groups of people at PR agencies that are not relevant, that do not have the right skills?

Sinclair (Burson): No. There's this process of osmosis. Everyone needs to be digital. It's through that osmosis that we can upscale. In doing that, we can compete more readily with the so-called “creative hotshots.”

Perry (Weber): It's not an either-or scenario. It's adding as much diversity to the talent base as possible that reflects what clients need, which is everything PR agencies have traditionally done with that account planning and creative layer. And additionally borrowing from traditional agencies and having the mindset of the Googles and Microsofts to be more nimble in how we think, push campaigns onto the market, and test things in the real world. To do that successfully on that scale requires a lot of different people at the table.

Cea (Unilever): The activation we did for Hellmann's at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic is a good example. The content was captured by Weber Shandwick's production team, whereas normally one of our brands would have looked to a branded content agency to provide that. So that gives you a level of seamlessness.

They also did a lot of the negotiation with the media property, which was Food & Wine magazine. They understood what content could do, what the publicity of this could do for the Classic and for Food & Wine in a very different way.

They brought so much to the table that would not have been the case had we thought along traditional PR lines, but still, at its heart, knowing we were going to amplify this through earned conversation and PR and media coverage.

Boone (Google): I would encourage agencies to think about the velocity at which those changes happen. We sit between clients and agencies and the resounding theme is that agencies are not moving fast enough. I know clients have their own challenges in terms of their level of sophistication, but they have direct relationships with us. We live and breathe by speed. I know structural transformative change in an organization is tough, but I would emphasize the point “fast.”

Cea (Unilever): I don't disagree, but PR agencies are some of the fastest, most nimble movers I see from the disciplines in our house and the way our brand marketers think about timeframe. I'm always saying, “We can do that in X number of weeks.” And they are like, “No. No.” And I'm like, “Yeah, we can. Our agencies can.” It's a distinction about the internal structure versus how quickly they can respond, but there's no faster rapid response set of companies than PR agencies.

Final thoughts

Cea (Unilever): One of the first things I did when I came to Unilever six years ago was visit our agency partners and see some of the work presented. They would lead with, “This campaign was successful. It had 4 million impressions, or 40 million impressions, or 4 billion impressions.” And there was no context.

So, in conjunction with our agency partners, we created a proprietary measurement system that didn't include impressions. It looked at three key pillars. What message did we want to communicate? What medium did we want to use? Then we looked at something we called “providence,” which is an endorsement factor. Impressions didn't even factor.

Anderson (General Mills): At General Mills, we have “create, learn, scale.” We don't necessarily have the idea in our conference room, but consumers know what they like. Let's give it to them.

It's a journey. But that's where we're going to get better ideas. Consumers vote with their clicks, eyeballs, dollars, and that will help us drive big ideas. You need a lot of small ideas to spark, a lot of little bonfires that will help build that big bonfire we all gather around. Then the fireworks are going to come, along with that other fun stuff.

Cea (Unilever): I'm wary of labeling ideas small. In looking at [Cannes PR Lions], there was one idea that was so impactful, I wouldn't begin to try and label it big or small.

Samsung gave cameras to a small group of blind people and had them touch things in nature. Then Samsung realized those as pictures, but also as 3D reliefs so the blind people could feel their pictures come to life in a way they understood, because they couldn't see the photos.

Was it big in scale? Was it small because it had a small number of people? But the idea really struck me. For me, the ideas that resonated were the ones that were brilliant in their simplicity and yet combined with incredible impact.

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