'They should change the name to the International Festival of Cuteness' - PRs on Cannes 2019

With Cannes Lions starting in just seven days, PRWeek speaks to five UK Festival of Creativity regulars about the rights and wrongs of the awards process, how PR can improve its haul, and what it says about PR's creative powers.

Fearless Girl, PR Grand Prix winner 2017: 'The brief would traditionally have gone to a PR agency'
Fearless Girl, PR Grand Prix winner 2017: 'The brief would traditionally have gone to a PR agency'

Like Brexit, Love Island and floating things down the Thames, Cannes Lions is something everyone in the PR industry seems to have an opinion on.

Indeed, Brunswick partner Marshall Manson created a talking point on social media last week when he described the Lions as "BS", with some entrants guilty of "fraud" for entering "bogus" work created solely to win awards.

But the International Festival of Creativity has been changing.

Last year saw some significant developments, with the festival cut in duration and the awards structure simplified. The fact Publicis, the owner of global PR agency MSL, pulled out to focus on its AI platform Marcel also represented a change. This year, meanwhile, has seen the launch of two new Lions – Creative Strategy and Entertainment Lion for Sport.

Edelman's Michelle Hutton, who is president of the PR Lions jury this year, recently spoke to PRWeek about common entry themes at the awards, what the jurors are looking for, and why it's a "numbers game".

Below, we outline the views of other industry figures on Cannes 2019.

One type of work wins – Kev O’Sullivan, ECD, FleishmanHillard Fishburn

"I think they should change the name to the International Festival of Cuteness," says O’Sullivan, whose bugbear is the tendency for 'simple' campaigns to win.

"While the work is wondrous, enjoyable and pretty darn inspiring, I fear the leaning towards that almighty ‘simplicity’ means that only one type of work wins. Like a good knock-knock joke, the twists may vary but the format is always the same.

"Some say that creativity requires an element of counter-intuitiveness - I wish there would be a counter-intuitive winner from time to time. Somebody wins for a truly life-altering, intricate and complicated solution that can’t be summated in a punchy vid."

He also questions "how seriously PR professionals should take these awards".

"Are they for the reputation of the brands or the agencies? Sometimes it feels to me like a long-distance runner competing in the 100 metres. Yes, we may well win from time to time but is it a decent reflection on our broader abilities as an industry and a discipline.

"It may sound bitter (it is) as I don’t currently own a Lion, but I’d prefer an award for complex, sprawling work than a prize for a tidy promo. Yes, the work may need simplicity to impact its original consumer (or other) audiences but why shouldn’t the judges be hit with the arduous artistry behind the scenes?"

PR must hire more creatives - Joe Mackay-Sinclair, co-founder, The Romans

Mackay-Sinclair is crossing his fingers for Lions success. The Romans has entered two Christmas campaigns, for Twitter and Virgin trains; the former won a Wood Pencil at the recent D&AD Awards, which could, perhaps, be a good sign.

But on the question of why PR agencies don’t win more PR Lions, Sinclair’s solution is clear.

"Hire more creatives. Hire more people in full-time creative roles and we will find our creative output will go through the roof."

The issue is particularly prevalent given the increasing focus among ad agencies on earned media for their creative output. "The people having the ideas are an absolutely tiny percentage of the people in PR," Mackay-Sinclair continues. "I think the starting point of having a creative director isn’t going to be enough if ad agencies understand PR.

"I’ve seen ad agencies present work where the starting point is a press release of a campaign - it’s actually quite a good litmus test."

Back to the prospects of Lions success in 2019, Sinclair is hedging his bets. "I’ve got absolutely no idea how they will get on at Cannes. It’s very much down to who the jury are and what they are looking for this year.

"You can't get despondent if you don’t get shortlisted. We will never stop entering because who doesn’t want to put Cannes Lions win on their CV?"

Ad agencies have raised their earned media game – James Herring, Taylor Herring

Herring agrees with Sinclair’s view that PR agencies need to up their creative powers.

He notes that only a handful of recent PR Lion winners have been credited with idea creation. (Since 2017, any agency or in-house team listed in a Lion-winning entry gets a Lion. Previously, only those with an idea creation credit were deemed to be Lion winners.)

"More often than not PR Lions winners are only at the party by virtue of being an amplification partner," Herring states.

"So if the UK PR industry is going to win more Lions then we need to raise the bar and hire more creatives and place more value on the power of ideas.

"Conversely, ad agencies have of late really raised their game in grasping the science and power of earned media attention and influence. In the US brands like Burger King and KFC have been slaying it with PR-able creative work that generates tons of free media coverage and engagement.

"They have had to - because in an ad-skipped, ad-blocked world consumers are becoming harder to reach and paid channels are becoming less relevant. As such it’s golden opportunity for our industry to step up and seize the moment." [Below: Burger King "Bullying Jr." campaign]

PR, he argues, is "still worried about measurement and media relations, for right or wrong, and preoccupied with crisis and damage limitation". "It’s a great and wonderful thing [but] there’s probably a lot more than can be done by UK PR industry to raise its game [around creativity]".

"I’m not sure how interested Cannes is [in PR]. We certainly need to be much more efficient to engage with them, but they do as well. Ultimately, they go to where the money is and we can’t fault them. We have the San Francisco tech giants basically occupying the whole beach, then in the Palais the top 10 global ad agencies with their global celebrities in tow."

Herring offers two pieces of advice for Lions success.

"Firstly there’s a huge amount of creativity required to craft an award entry in the first place. Eighty per cent of the sweat to make it onto the shortlist comes from the all-important two-minute case study film. Your entry lives or dies by this. Highly persuasive film-making is not native to the PR industry skillset. Of course, adland does this brilliantly - day in day out.

"Secondly, once you have entered there is the added challenge of cultural nuances. There’s usually only one British judge on a panel of 20 or so. If the international judges don’t instantly know your client, and understand the brand perception or business context, then good luck to you. This why so many winning campaigns tend to be attached to a ‘cause-for-good’ with universal appeal."

But on the latter point, he argues the "public are running thin on tolerance for brands that lazily co-opt buzzworthy causes to sell stuff". It's a topic that Herring says will be discussed at the PR Lions fringe event this year - alongside the question of why PR agencies seem to find the creation of integrated campaigns so challenging.

It’s about kudos and inspiration - Claire Bridges, founder, Now Go Create

Bridges - who this year is working in the Cannes Lions School overseeing the Young Lions Competition 2019 – says there are two different aspects to consider around Cannes for the PR community.

"There’s the kudos and reputational value if you win a Lion - and then there’s being inspired, educated and motivated to do your best work back at the ranch, informed by what you discover when you’re there.

"Of course there is major kudos in winning at Cannes. Not least because finding a direct correlation between creativity and effectiveness is the Holy Grail. And certainly the other disciplines are increasingly looking to bake PR and earned into the heart of their campaigns. You only have to look at work that’s won gongs in recent years - The Art Institute of Chicago Van Gogh Air BnB, Meet Graham [see video, below], Always Like A Girl - all campaigns combining what PR does best: enhance reputation, show thought leadership, provoke debate and drive conversations.

"I heard the ECD of McCann talking at Cannes about how the team devised [2017 PR Lion Grand Prix winning campaign] Fearless Girl for State Street Global. He said they often work backwards from the press release as a key part of their creative process - work out what the headlines are going to be from the idea. Not ‘work out where we’ll place this ad’. There was no advertising around that work, which brutally distilled was effectively a very bold stunt and installation against a corporate reputation brief, exactly the sort of brief that would/should have traditionally gone to a PR agency."

Despite the organisers announcing plans to help with costs, Bridges says the festival is, simply, "not a cheap exercise" but one "entirely worthwhile" – "for the inspiration, the networking, being exposed to radical ideas and filling the brain with mental ‘dots to join’ at some point in the future".

"I’m now attending for my sixth year and am sure I will still come away feeling motivated to do the sort of the work that changes lives and brand fortunes alike. Where I look at the work and feel that stab of envy, why didn’t I come up with that?"

Run for the hills - James Warren, strategic development director, MSL

The bustling Croisette, picturesque sea views and lavish yachts may be the iconic images of Cannes, but, for Warren, PR needs to set its eyes elsewhere to make the most of the Festival of Creativity.

"The real business at Cannes is done up in the hills, far away from the beach where the PR industry is pickling itself in rosé. And therein lies the rub – I’m not convinced yet our clients are there in force. You may find a comms director on the beach, but the real action is still taking place up in the private villas, where the CMOs camped out."

Warren believes that "while Cannes claims to be about general creativity, in reality it’s the advertising industry’s territory and always has been". "Its scope has broadened in recent years, but the cynical view about that is the owners realised they could make more money by opening up the categories and encouraging non-ad shops to participate. And that rejuvenated things, to an extent."

On the question of whether PR agencies can compete with the best of adland, Warren’s key point is: "The ad shops are set up to deliver creative solutions; we’re set up to solve problems.

"I’m not saying you can’t solve problems using creativity, or that a creative solution can’t be thoughtful. But there’s a reason why there are PR agencies and ad agencies, and I can’t see that changing any time soon. And thank God for that."

"It’s a festival of creativity", he continues, "and with the best will in the world, we have to concede the ad guys are still better than us at that.

"And why wouldn’t they be? They sell posters and films; we sell influence and impact. Their product is guaranteed exposure thanks to paid media budgets; our product is earned through advocacy and changed/challenged perceptions. In order to arrive at their product they have teams (and teams and teams and yet more interchangeable teams) of creatives; we have expert consultants with a deep and rich understanding of both our clients and the perception environment in which they need to communicate."

One noticeable trend has been ad agencies having a greater understanding of - "and perhaps even respect for" - the role for PR within integrated projects.

"And it goes beyond standard PR: our employee engagement expertise is top of the agenda when the ad guys talk to their clients about big ideas. They recognise the biggest ideas have to start inside, out. And that they need to earn engagement.

"Because as everyone knows you can’t win at Cannes unless your ad gets picked up by the media, earning trad and social media mileage. The Grand Prix films always end with evidence that the idea was so big it earned coverage. Proving that the only ideas that win awards are ones that work from a PR perspective."

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