PR agencies again fail at PR Lions in tenth year, but does it really matter?

British consultancies had a very strong year in the earned media element of Cannes Lions 2018. Unfortunately, they weren't PR agencies.

UK PR shops have other opportunities to prove their creative credentials, says Danny Rogers
UK PR shops have other opportunities to prove their creative credentials, says Danny Rogers

The PR Grand Prix went to UK ad agency AMVBBDO for its Trash Isles campaigns on behalf of Plastic Oceans/Ladbible.

This clever idea – which got the United Nations to recognise huge floating ‘islands’ of rubbish as bonafide nations, and therefore created an international responsibility to clear them up – came from creatives at the London-based ad consultancy, without any PR specialists even being credited.

Ironically, there is an element of public affairs in this campaign, in which many PR firms specialise. More of that in a moment.

Likewise, the Social and Influencer Grand Prix was awarded to Wieden+Kennedy London for its compelling Nothing Beats a Londoner film for Nike, which champions the gritty diversity of the British capital linked to sport. Again, no PR agency was involved in this campaign.

At a Gold Lion level in these two earned media categories only one PR agency was credited with the idea creation role – Fleishman Hillard New York for Anheuser-Busch’s internal comms programme around its disaster relief water donations (Turning Beer into Water).

Few British PR agencies came away with any accolades at Cannes. Freuds’ work around KFC’s humorous apology strategy during ‘chickengate’ earlier this year gave it a share of a Gold Lion - although the main credit for the idea for KFC’s ‘FCK’ campaign went to another UK ad agency, Mother London.

In non-PR categories W won five Lions – including one Gold - for its work on Project 84 for Calm, which targets male suicide. But again it was an advertising agency, Adam&eveDDB, credited with idea creation.

Another UK PR shop, Stripe Communications, picked up Bronze in the Entertainment Lions for the To the Wildlands and Back campaign for Ubisoft. It was jointly credited, along with Manchester ad agency Chief Productions, with coming up with the idea.

So the narrative is that in the tenth year of the PR category appearing at Cannes, PR agencies right around the world have so far failed to win much, even in their own category. And they cannot even claim bias against PR firms because the PR Lions use blind judging, where the judges are not aware of the agency that worked on the campaign.

But does all of this really matter to the PR industry?

It depends which view one takes. It is certainly a shame that Cannes has not provided the much-hoped-for global platform for PR agencies to prove how creative they can be.

Over the past decade many PR consultancies have tried – and there have been some notables successes, such as Weber Shandwick for Brutal Cut last year and Brooklyn Brothers for its Tourism Iceland work a few years back – but with little consistency in creative appreciation.

On the other hand, earned media ideas continue to drive the world’s best campaigns. And it is interesting to see British ad agencies, in particular, seizing that mantle.

The implications of this are probably more serious for big global PR agencies, because if ad agencies can produce powerful, earned media-led campaigns then – in theory – what is the point of PR firms?

Interestingly, the PR Jury President this year was Stuart Smith, who works for Ogilvy, an agency that has recently announced that it is scrapping the former PR division's P&L status, replacing it with a truly integrated holistic consultancy approach.

The death of PR agencies is rather overstating the point however, because while ad agencies can win awards for earned media ideas, they are unlikely to end up running the sort ongoing reputation management programmes in which an Edelman or a Weber Shandwick would specialise and excel.

Nevertheless, the latter agencies are indeed frustrated that despite their expensive efforts they have still not cut through at Cannes, where the world’s CMOs increasingly assemble.

This is important; in a world of convergence in the way clients communicate with their audiences, PR professionals do need credibility with CMOs. Thankfully, Cannes is not the only place where their creative chops can be proved.

Update: since this piece was written, a couple more Grand Prix were awarded on Friday at Cannes. Most notable was the Glass Lion for Change - again this was won by British ad agency AMV BBDO for the idea of Blood Normal campaign for sanitary product maker Essity. At least in this case, PR shop Ketchum London did receive a PR credit for this campaign.

Read more on who triumphed on the Med last night

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