Cannes gets serious: Looking back on a more somber Lions festival

Important societal issues affected the tenor of the event this year, starting with the moment Keith Weed stepped on stage.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

A shortened five-day program and simplified awards structure weren’t the only aspects of the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity that were different this year. PR executives in the South of France described a different, more subdued vibe and few standout moments.

Karen Strauss, chief strategy and creative officer at Ketchum recalls "less revelatory content."

"There was no Kanye West or Monica Lewinsky moment," referring to past appearances at the festival, "and many of the big themes carried over from last year," she said. "I think this festival had less kinetic energy."

The leader of Strauss’ agency, Ketchum president and CEO Barri Rafferty, agrees.

"With the backdrop of what is going on in the world, you can feel a bit more subdued mood," she says. "From a content standpoint, I have not yet had a session that hit me emotionally like some in the past – for example, the first time Madonna Badger shared her story to launch #womennotobjects."

However, Rafferty was heartened to see female equality as a priority at Cannes, noting that Ketchum’s Cannes delegation is more than 80% female. Procter & Gamble rolled out partnerships with the likes of journalist Katie Couric and actress and musician Queen Latifah to spotlight female stories and create a pipeline of women directors. Rafferty also spoke on a panel hosted by fiverr that addressed role modeling diversity in work.

Dallas Lawrence, chief communications officer at OpenX, agrees that "the overall festival was noticeably quieter this year," and not just in terms of easier restaurant reservations and fewer extravagant parties. He says the tone was affected by first-day speaker Keith Weed, chief marketing and communications officer at Unilever, who called out a lack of online transparency, particularly in influencer marketing.

"We need to take urgent action now to rebuild trust before it’s gone forever," Weed warned.

As sobering as his comments were, Lawrence says the industry needed to hear them.

"This led to a more somber atmosphere, but also one in which the call to action has never been clearer and more welcomed," he says, adding that brands need to create "not just brand images, but individual images we see in our daily lives that shape the perceptions of who we are and what we can be in life."

It wasn’t quite doom and gloom. Executives say they’re returning to their offices feeling encouraged by the potential of the industry and having networked with new contacts.

"I appreciated all the affirmation of the theme ‘To Thine Own Self Be True,’" says Strauss. "It’s not necessarily new, but was assuring to hear from many creative and business heavyweights."

They included Apple’s retail chief, Angela Jean Ahrendts, who referenced the famous quote from Hamlet, film director James Marsh, and late-night host Conan O’Brien, who each espoused the belief that their job is to trust their creative instincts. O’Brien, for instance, said he never makes content with the goal of it going viral, only what he finds funny.

The work
While the winners of the 2018 PR Lions again were predominantly creative shops, attendees note that PR firms won in non-PR categories and other award-winning work had earned media at its core.

"Whether the ideas come from an ad agency or a PR firm, what’s important to recognize is that the value of earned media is firmly planted on center stage...This is a vitally important takeaway not to be underestimated or overshadowed by discussion of where the ideas came from," says Zeno Group CEO Barby Siegel. "I think we are all in agreement that the onus is on us as the PR firms to seize the opportunity to be the creators and architects of these big, winning ideas that drive real business outcomes."

WE Communications founder and CEO Melissa Waggener Zorkin, who hosted a panel on brand purpose, says this year she "loved seeing brands showcasing purpose in hugely creative ways, evidence that these brands are beginning to view purpose as a business imperative and competitive edge."

"I want to see more focus on the measurable impact of all this great work," she says. "Whether we bring people to tears, laughter, or anger, our job is to impact positive business and societal outcomes."

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