At last, some data behind what impresses Cannes Lions juries

Key findings from Ace Metrix's research into the emotional components of work that wins at Cannes.

Agencies invest vast amounts of time and money each year into creative awards shows. Some holding groups, including Publicis Groupe and WPP, are beginning to question the value of that practice. Yet for most agencies, and individual creative directors in particular, winning prestigious awards is both a way to get noticed and a stamp of quality.

Obviously, winning a Grand Prix at Cannes is never going to be easy. But you can maximize your chances by having a clear understanding of what judges look for. A new study by Ace Metrix, an advertising analytics company based in Mountain View, California, aims to help by breaking down the "emotional DNA of award-winning ads." It analyzed more than 25,000 Cannes-winning and non-Cannes-winning ads in the Film category between 2011 and 2016 to work out what separates the two groups.

It is important to be aware that work that impresses creative juries may not always be the most effective for clients. We are not going to get into that discussion now, but you can read a separate analysis of it by Ace Metrix’s chief executive here.

These are the top 10 emotional descriptors in Cannes-winning ads, based on responses from 500 demographically balanced U.S. viewers.

  1. Annoying
  2. Eerie
  3. Hilarious
  4. Funny
  5. Left-field
  6. Unique
  7. WTF
  8. Dumb
  9. Quirky
  10. Oddball

And these are the bottom 10 descriptors:

  1. Brand-tastic (something that shouts about a brand’s attributes)
  2. Value
  3. Learning
  4. Authentic
  5. Homey
  6. Good deal
  7. Lux
  8. Average
  9. Understandable
  10. Visual (something that is highly polished)

From these rankings, we can infer that a sense of newness and surprise—positive or negative—takes precedence over putting a company in a positive light or being true to the brand. Obscurity and minimal branding can work well because they make a piece of work stand out from the crowd.

Humour, annoyance, confusion, heartfelt emotion: these are the qualities that are present in the biggest percentages of Cannes winners—though not necessarily together in a single piece of work.

Humor goes a long way, but is not everything. While 7% of Cannes winners could be defined as universally funny, 20% of Cannes-winning ads are actually considered annoying by normal people. Cannes juries, on the other hand, can see this approach as pushing the creative boundaries. Again, an ad does not need to be likeable: the point is that it commands attention. Here’s an example:

Family (Geico), The Martin Agency, Grand Prix (2015)

Fourteen percent of winners created a sense of confusion, and maybe even require several viewings for people to be clear what’s going on. Here’s a Grand Prix winner from 2012:

Back to the start (Chipotle), Creative Artists Agency

And one from 2013:

Dumb ways to die (Metro Trains Melbourne), McCann Worldgroup

Seven per cent of winners demonstrated heartfelt emotion. If you want to make people cry or leave them with a warm glow, it’s essential to weave the brand or product into the work in a realistic or authentic way, otherwise it’s likely to fall flat. Dove doesn’t always get it right, but here’s a time when it did:

Sketches, Ogilvy & Mather, Grand Prix (2013)

In conclusion, Ace Metrix says brands need to set their priorities: do they want to be seen as ‘creative’ in a pure sense? Or do they want to resonate with traditional audiences? It can be difficult to do both. That is why awards shows are blamed for encouraging the scourge of scam advertising—work that clients refuse to pay for or often even run at all, created with the express purpose of winning awards. If you are a niche brand with a very-well-defined audience that appreciates quirkiness, you have a distinct advantage when it comes to Cannes.

A version of this article was first published by Campaign Asia-Pacific.

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