Competing for the Cannes Young Lions: why your first idea is your worst idea

Ditch your first idea and don't pitch like a robot, say the winners of the U.S. Cannes Young Lions PR competition.

Creativity is a core skill in communications—one you can’t practice enough. Every year, the U.S. Cannes Young Lions competition gives creative professionals under 30 the opportunity to put their minds to work solving big challenges.

In categories including digital, film, media, print and PR, participants receive a creative brief from a nonprofit client and are asked to develop ideas that have the potential to break through the noise and truly raise the client’s profile.

While the nonprofit client won’t actually buy the winning campaign, the stakes are still very real: The winner of each category goes on to represent the U.S. in the global Young Lions competition at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in France.

This year, we went up against dozens of other teams in the U.S. PR competition and were honored to be selected as the winners for our PR campaign for End Allergies Together (E.A.T.), a nonprofit working to fund food allergy research. As we prepare to compete on the global stage in Cannes, we’re reflecting on what we learned along the way:

Don’t go with your first idea. When you first read the creative brief and learn about the audience, campaign goals and challenges, you’ll have immediate thoughts about your submission. Your first reaction will likely be other people’s first reactions, too. Take a step back and think about how to approach the issue from a different angle.

Remember what the campaign is about. Typically, the competition requires submissions that raise awareness for a nonprofit and drive donations. It’s easy to become too focused on visibility and forget about the donations—or vice versa. Build a campaign that makes it easy for people to donate. Grabbing their attention alone won’t be enough.

Tell the client something they don’t already know. You need to study and understand your audience in order to develop a campaign that speaks to them. The nonprofit client may provide research about the group they’re trying to reach and you should respect and consider their perception of the audience. But it’s always good to be able to tell the client something they don't know.

Understand what an insight is. The key to a great campaign is a great insight; a fundamental truth driving the behavior of the people you’re trying to reach. An insight is not what you’re trying to get them to do. And it’s important to remember the difference.

For example, the creative idea that brings your campaign to life or the action that you want your audience to take are important elements of a campaign, but they are not the insight.

Prepare for the final pitch—but don’t over prepare. Being selected as a finalist is exciting, but also nerve-wracking. After all, it means you’ll have six to seven minutes to present your campaign to a group of judges—and then field their questions. It’s easy to over prepare.

Of course, you need to know your stuff. But you also need to be authentic and show your personality. If you over-rehearse, you’ll sound like you’re reciting a script from memory and the judges will notice.

In PR, we have the opportunity to flex our creative muscles on a daily basis. The skills we develop can be applied not just to future Cannes Young Lions competitions, but to many situations, from business pitches to client projects.

Thinking creatively is more important than ever. You can’t practice it enough.

Niklas Laabs is a senior account executive at VOX Global in Nashville. Fellow competitor Amy Jacobsen is a digital production manager at VOX Global in Dallas.

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