Many British advertising and PR leaders privately admitted this year that it felt wrong to be discussing societal and behavioural trends against the glitzy backdrop of the French Riviera while Grenfell Tower still smouldered in London.
Yet Cannes remains a uniquely large, diverse and stimulating festival with significant value to PR professionals around the globe.
Having attended since PR was added to the awards programme in 2009, I have seen the evolving – often uneasy – relationship that professional communicators have had with the festival. How you evaluate it depends on your firm. US-based consultancy networks seem to be spending more than ever on Cannes, and probably get more out of it. But that’s part of a problem for the wider sector.
The world’s most powerful PR executive, Richard Edelman – who first attended in 2014 – tells me his agency spent more than ever at Cannes this year and will continue to invest.
Edelman was certainly the highest-profile PR brand at this year’s festival, its eponymous CEO appearing on stage with Reverend Jesse Jackson and at The Wall St Journal’s fringe discussion on media. The firm also sponsored an interesting interview with fashion photographer Mario Testino and launched its Earned Brand report.
Meanwhile, Ketchum had its most successful Cannes yet, in terms of awards. The Omnicom-owned network’s haul of 26 Lions included one Grand Prix and eight Golds. Crucially, the agency picked up awards in ‘non-PR’ cat-egories such as healthcare and creative data, which it can argue make it a serious choice for CMOs and CTOs.
Weber Shandwick, the world’s second-biggest PR firm, faced a leaner year on the awards front, but was similarly upbeat about the festival. Global CEO Andy Polansky said: "This year was encouraging… in 10 of the 11 campaigns for which we were shortlisted, we were responsible for the central creative idea. And, as we know, PR agencies so often have played second fiddle to the ad agencies in terms of the winning campaign ideas."
Global festival, US dominance
The most striking statistic of Cannes 2017 was that 57 per cent of the Grands Prix – 16 out of 28 – went to firms from the US, which boasts only 4.4 per cent of the world’s population. Indeed no other country won more than two Grands Prix.
As Julian Boulding, president of The Network One, a collection of independent agencies that have been going to Cannes for decades, articulates: "For a global festival… there is clearly something odd here. Have the majority of the world’s best creatives moved to the US? Or is Cannes no longer attracting the diversity of participants it used to?" It is clear that Boulding is firmly of the latter opinion.
Certainly UK and European PR firms had a disappointing year, with few award wins and little obvious presence. Many consumer PR executives continue to attend – to view the work, learn and network. Leading UK independents Freuds, Brands2Life, Taylor Herring, W and Lotus were among those at the 2017 festival; Engine agencies MHP and Mischief have pledged a better next year.
But Cannes could secure its future by becoming broader and more political in outlook. Yes, it should remain at heart a festival of creativity, but PR is all about social context, so why not more directly involve comms consultancies with a broader, more gritty perspective?
Indeed, some of the best sessions at this year’s event had political themes: Edelman’s with Jackson; an excellent Crispin Porter & Bogusky session on the Trump election campaign; Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF, being interviewed by Maurice Lévy; and Juan Manuel Santos, the President of Colombia, on changing the government’s dialogue with FARC guerrillas.
The Lions are increasingly criticised for being obsessed with campaigns about purpose and social good, despite the fact that most entries are by multinational brands. It also tends to ignore current affairs, which disillusions the Europeans.
So it makes sense to go one step further and give public sector and political comms a more central role: it would feel more relevant to the world beyond the Boulevard de la Croisette; it would be more stimulating to those who take a more holistic view of society and the interaction between government and business; and would become far more relevant to the global PR industry and diverse array of clients and consultancies.
Such a move would only enhance the enthusiasm of giants such as Edelman and Shandwick but also engage the Portlands, Brunswicks and Teneos and their blue-chip clients.
Danny Rogers is the editor-in-chief of PRWeek UK