Pining PR industry holds out hope (again) for Cannes Lions glory

Is this the year PR firms finally break through?

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

PR pros are once again holding out hope that the industry will finally earn its share of hardware at next week’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, especially in its own category.

Asked about the industry’s Lion-winning prospects, Betsy Quinn, partner and global awards director at Ketchum, says, "I think it’s about the same as any given year."

She notes that the shortlists for the best-of-show Glass and Titanium Lions are the entries bound to sweep other categories, including the PR Lions. However, as in years past, there are few PR firms credited with idea creation or media work in the two categories.

"I look through it and maybe not surprisingly, there’s not a lot of PR companies even listed in some of that work," Quinn says. "That’s not any different from years past."

There are three major challenges hindering PR’s ability to compete. For one, communications agencies don’t enter the same volume of work as advertising shops. Secondly, Cannes is a festival for ideas, and PR is less often in the driver’s seat when it comes to ideation. Finally, how Cannes structures its award system is another wrinkle, Quinn notes.

"What makes it challenging, too, is you have Social and Influencer Lions that they introduced a couple of years ago," she says. "That adds to the complication of ‘what belongs in PR.’ PR and social and influencer -- you mean to tell me those are mutually exclusive?"

Despite communications firms’ lack of trophies, PR as a discipline is being taken seriously in the South of France. Experts from across the industry contend that earned media is at the heart of every great campaign across categories.

"PR agencies had lackluster showings in the past, but PR has shined," says Bryan Specht, managing partner and chief growth and innovation officer at ICF Next, via email. "If you look at the work that’s winning across categories, it’s work that is rooted in and fueled by earned media. So in that sense, Cannes does honor some of the best earned media work anywhere."

Earned media’s star at Cannes has been rising for several years. One of the most famous examples of this trend is State Street Global Advisors’ Fearless Girl campaign, notes Caroline Dettman, chief creative officer at Golin.

"[It] didn’t have a big TV spot at [its] center," Dettman adds. "That doesn’t mean other agencies aren’t submitting in the earned idea space. They absolutely are. Not just PR. And I actually think the [entries] have gotten stronger year-over-year."

The fact that advertising firms are winning the bulk of hardware in the PR category underscores another uncomfortable truth: communications does not have a monopoly over its own function.

Cannes Lions MD Simon Cook notes that the number of entries in the PR Lions is down slightly from last year, though the drop is "not significant and in-line with the overall numbers we’ve seen across the Lions this year."

"Advertising agencies are still submitting heavily into the PR Lions, but we’re also seeing PR agencies submit work into a broader range of categories," he notes, via email.

PR firms are also looking beyond their own comfort zone to other categories, in particular the Creative Strategy Lions, which Cook says have seen a rise in entries from communications agencies. He notes that the festival has also added a Culture and Context category in the PR Lions this year, which has "chimed particularly well with PR agencies who work on localized, culturally specific creative work."

Still some agency professionals are pondering the necessity of the PR Lions category.

"What I would question is: do we really need the PR Lions to exist?" says Jeremy Mullman, partner at ICF Next. "If you look around at what’s winning across different categories, earned media is everywhere. We find the PR Lions redundant because earned media is well represented in the larger mix at Cannes, or it should be."

Cannes juries have struggled with what to do with PR, and communications agencies pining for their share of Lions have advocated for and won a series of remedies. Specht once turned up his nose at the "confused definition" of the PR Lions and declined to attend them in 2016.

Mullman notes that much of the work winning PR Lions is winning in other categories, as well, which is why his firm submitted no work for the PR category.

"The things that are winning in the PR categories look an awful lot like the things winning in all the other categories," he explains. "In many cases, they’re the same programs. It feels redundant to me. I think there are plenty of chances for work that is really earned media to get honored."

Not all experts are as dismissive as Mullman about the future of the category. Quinn calls the perspective "rather insulting to our profession." Dettman contends the category "absolutely has a place" at the festival, saying, "It’s less about earned media and more about the earned idea at its core."

Other agency executives feel that PR has a duty to defend its turf in Cannes, while being opportunistic in other categories.

"The [entries] that the PR Lions recognize are ones that were intentionally designed to earn media attention," says Candace Peterson, SVP, partner and global MD for brand and consumer marketing at FleishmanHillard. "Having a category that celebrates the craft of earned-centric ideas that tell a story, mission or purpose is something we should be protective of as an industry. Meanwhile, PR can continue to add to the scoreboard in other categories."

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