Earned media dominates Cannes, but PR firms don't have a monopoly on it

The winners of the 2018 PR Lions exhibited very similar characteristics to previous years, with creative agencies dominating PR firms' home turf once again - but there was encouragement in other Cannes categories.

AMV BBDO London scored the PR Grand Prix for its Trash Isles campaign with LADbible.
AMV BBDO London scored the PR Grand Prix for its Trash Isles campaign with LADbible.

So, the bottom line is there was only one significant PR presence on stage this evening at the Cannes PR Lions ceremony in the south of France.

FleishmanHillard scored gold for its joint credit (with the client) on the Turning Beer Into Water activation on behalf of Anheuser-Busch, aimed at encouraging disaster relief water donations.

The only other PR presence in the gold category was two PR credits for Freud’s support for KFC’s ‘FCK’ crisis response when it ran out of chicken in the U.K.

Although initially dismayed about the lack of presence for PR firms in their own Lions, Richard Edelman, president and CEO of the largest PR agency in the world, was more sanguine on reflection.

"The FCK program and the FleishmanHillard activation for Anheuser-Busch are both representative of work we have to aim for," he said. "But our best work shouldn't always be the product of crisis situations.

"As an industry, I want us to do more work like the 'This Coke is a Fanta' campaign in Brazil. That was great and those three campaigns were my favorites. We should get out of our swim lane and have a more ambitious view.

"The awards went to ad agencies doing stunts, crisis is where we dominated. The Ecuador lawyer campaign is a PR idea, not an advertising idea. We have dozens like that."

He also noted that the ad agencies have an in-built advantage at Cannes due to their more comprehensive global coverage.

"There are relatively few entries from developing markets in PR," he explained. "The ad guys are so much stronger in the developing markets - PR is relatively small there."

Jury president Stuart Smith believes the PR sector needs to double down on Cannes and simply enter more. He points out that in year one of the PR Lions there were 431 entries, 28% of which came from PR firms, about 120. In 2018, which is year 10, there were 2,100 entries, but only 10% came from PR firms, or 210.

While the overall number of entries has increased five times, PR agencies have only upped their entries by 40%.

Edelman agreed: "We're going to keep at it. We need to be braver about producing ideas. We have to come up with concepts where we lead but not necessarily in crisis situations, like we did with CVS and REI in previous years." 

Smith also noted that the judging is all done "blind," so jurors don’t know the names of the agencies involved when they are assessing the work.

Fellow U.S. jury member, Ketchum's director of client development, Denise Kaufmann, said: "Unless it was your own work, you didn’t know if it was led by a PR firm or not. We never talked about it, not once. In previous years, the debate was about that. It never clouded our thought.

"The integration factor cannot be downplayed, it’s so interwoven. Earned at the core was a big part of our thinking. Could this have achieved the same impact without PR, or going that extra step? If it could, we wouldn’t consider it for a medal."

Once again, there was no Gold Lion awarded in the media relations category, with Kaufmann adding: "Media relations is our bread and butter – that’s what we do. There was some really solid work, but nothing that took it to the Gold Lion level."

Smith also weighed in on this: "Media relations is a category that no one else does, but it is underrepresented, under-entered. There’s just not enough entries in that core product [of PR]."

Here’s what Weber Shandwick CEO Andy Polansky made of it all: "Our approach to Cannes is to continue to do great work across marketing sectors and across different categories. We’re happy to be recognized across different categories, but we want to see all firms do well in the PR category. We’ve developed our creative chops and we might emerge as a winner in any category.

"We should concentrate on celebrating great work, not navel-gazing and questioning why PR work doesn’t end up on top of categories. We should just be celebrating great work.

"I’m not sure it’s just about not entering enough. We’re in an environment where what we do as a discipline is more important than ever and earned engagement at the core is a critical part of any campaign. I see work at Cannes with a strong PR orientation, whether in PR or other categories. There is broad recognition of that.

"We had some great work that was recognized in other categories that wasn’t recognized in the PR Lions."

I wrote about the danger of navel-gazing around Cannes in 2012, and you could pretty much reprint that piece now and it would still be relevant. But Polansky is correct that PR is now over-indexing in other categories and that earned activations is where the industry is heading.

Barri Rafferty, president and CEO of Ketchum, reiterated this trend: "With the blurring of lines across disciplines, we are now competing with agencies across the full communications spectrum.

"Most of the PR Lions winners were visual in nature – clever stunts like emptying the shelves of a grocery store, flipping McDonald’s M to a W on National Women’s Day, and turning KFC to FCK. These tactics are not new, but they were well-executed. It was nice to see Fleishman win a Gold tonight as well.

"Gender equality needs to still be addressed in Cannes, as men continue to dominate the stage in all categories, even as #SeeHer gains momentum and companies like P&G, HP, and AT&T bring attention to the issue. I’m thrilled our delegation is over 80% women, and they are representing our firm well."

At the time of writing, Ketchum had snagged 25 Lions so far this week – eight Gold, seven Silver and 10 Bronze, across 10 different Lions shows – but not a single one of these was for a lead idea creation credit.

Cannes was definitely a lot quieter this week. Entries were down over 20% and it felt as though there were at least 20% fewer delegates this time. There were still plenty of sponsors around the place and my understanding is that revenues from that source were up about 10%, boosted by an incredible installation booked late in the day by Philip Morris International, which is trying to reinvent itself as a smoke-free company.

In the midst of all this, PR pros will no doubt regroup and come back for more next year, but it feels as though they need a reinvention themselves in the way they turn up.

Renee Wilson, president of the PR Council, summed it up thus: "Our agencies are getting stronger at the Festival overall, as is evident by the number of times we shortlist and win in all categories.

"Perhaps there is opportunity to spend more time on developing our entries in our own category. Are we doing better in other categories because we are creating our entries slightly differently to position ourselves to win? Are we looking at the entries differently in other categories? It’s something we should explore as an industry.

"I continue to believe we are on a journey and will get there in PR. Overall, our agencies are making great progress. Earned is where it is at."

* This article was updated on 6/22 with comments from Richard Edelman.

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