Big PR shops fail to shine but it's not all doom and gloom in Cannes

It has been another disappointing year for PR agencies at Cannes, but some comms shops are indeed proving their creative chops.

©Richard Bord/GettyImages
©Richard Bord/GettyImages

So another year covering the PR Lions awards at Cannes; another year when the world’s established PR agencies fail to land a Grand Prix in their own category.

Weber, Edelman, Golin... Scholz & Friends: PR Lions winners revealed

Instead the PR Grand Prix went to Scholz & Friends, a Berlin-based integrated agency for a campaign called ‘The Tampon Book: A book against tax discrimination’. The campaign was from The Female Company, a start-up, values-driven, sanitary products firm.

Don’t get me wrong. The winner thoroughly deserves its prize, because like all great campaigns it has a powerful idea at its heart: by packaging tampons in a book – a highly visual metaphor - The Female Company could dodge ‘unfair’ tax legislation in Germany (and indeed many countries) which sees tampons taxed as ‘luxury products’.

The campaign was not simply to sell TFC products but to raise the issue in the media and apply pressure on the German parliament. And it worked.

As the winners were announced, I spoke to Cannes PR Jury president, Michelle Hutton (below), a senior director at Edelman. She was adamant that the Grand Prix campaign was the best ‘earned media’ entry from around the world this year.

It should be remembered that Cannes juries use ‘blind judging’, not knowing the agencies which had entered particular campaigns. But on learning the creative agency behind the Grand Prix, Edelman’s Hutton told me she had no qualms about giving it to Scholz & Friends.

"It was a clear winner with a great earned media idea. I don’t believe we were ever going to give the Grand Prix to an ad agency," she said.

Indeed Scholz & Friends describe themselves as ‘Germany’s leading agency for orchestrated communication’. They pride themselves in having a public affairs division and accomplished comms people within their ranks.

Nevertheless, if you do run a more established PR network such as Edelman or Weber Shandwick, and have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds over the years on Cannes entries, you would be somewhat miffed that you still aren’t winning the top prizes in the main earned media category.

PR Lions: Edelman, Weber, Ketchum lead the comms charge in lists heavily dominated by ad agencies

That said, there was genuinely good news for Weber sister agency, Golin, which won a PR Gold Lion for its ‘Big Mac 50th Anniversary’ campaign for longstanding client McDonalds.

This was an impressive campaign from Golin Chicago, which came up with the idea of introducing a food-backed currency called the MacCoin, which it claims lifted McDonalds’ global sales by six per cent. Golin also won a PR Silver Lions for another aspect of this campaign.

The PR jury was also impressed with (Weber Shandwick-owned) 3PM Agency New York’s contribution to the Gold Lion-winning ‘Wind never felt better’ campaign (above) from Budweiser. The idea credit however went to Miami-based ad agency, David.

Interviewing the PR Jury members afterwards, they said they were genuinely impressed by the level of earned media thinking in this year’s awards, and specifically that of many PR agencies that entered.

However the Jury argued that what made the tampon tax campaign really stand out was "the level of creativity and inspiration, which set it above even the six Gold winners".

London-based PR Jury member Simon Shaw, Hill+Knowlton’s global chief creative strategy and innovation officer, told me: "We were determined not to award the many campaigns that made us cry but really look at the ideas, the strategy and the effectiveness." This surely has to be admired at a festival often accused of placing heartstring-tugging campaigns ahead of effective ones.

It was somewhat surprising then that Iceland’s brilliant ‘Rang-Tan’ anti-palm oil Christmas campaign hasn’t so far won a top gong at Cannes. But it did take home a PR Silver and a PR Bronze Lion as well as a Social & Influencer Silver Lion.

For this purpose-driven campaign, which has created such an impact in the UK over the past year, credit for the essential idea divided between the ad agency Mother London, the media relations agency Weber Shandwick Manchester and the activation agency, Taylor Herring. All deserve credit for a truly impressive collaborative effort.

When I asked the PR Jury why ‘Rang-Tan’ had not won the Grand Prix or a Gold Lion, they said it was because they "were not convinced that earned media was at the origin of this strategy".

Hill+Knowlton’s Shaw said: "We could only judge the entry here and it began as a film made with Greenpeace. It was only after this ad was banned that the earned media element really took off. We have no evidence that Iceland or its team set out to get the ad banned."

Also announced today were the winners of the PR industry’s other ‘home category’, the Social & Influencer Lions. And it was a similar story for the established PR agencies.

The Social & Influencer Grand Prix went to hamburger chain Wendy’s for its ‘Keeping Fortnite Fresh’ campaign by WPP-owned ad shop VMLY&R in Kansas City. Ketchum New York did get a credit for its PR amplification on this campaign, which focused on Wendy’s community management.

The seven Golds in Social & Influencer went to established ad agencies, especially Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, US, which continues to pull in numerous gongs for Nike’s landmark ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign from last autumn featuring Colin Kaepernick and Serena Williams.

As well as Iceland’s ‘Rang-tang’, other notable Social & Influencer winners included Gillette’s polarising ‘We believe; the best a man can be’ effort from earlier this year, which takes home a Silver Lion. This purpose-driven campaign was created by ad agency Grey in North America. PR agency MMK+ New York received a PR credit here.

So in summary, yet again it wasn’t a great year for established PR agencies when it comes to taking home the top prizes. But there is more evidence at Cannes of the big PR agencies entering strong campaigns where it did come up with the core idea.

Cannes Lions: PR Lions entries plummet to lowest level in six years

As Edelman’s Michelle Hutton says: "PR is a craft, not a channel, and it’s a craft that matters more today to businesses and brands and society."

But Cannes Lions still tends to view PR as a channel, which is why it places earned media categories in the ‘Reach’ stream alongside Media and Direct. This is tangibly unjust when the campaigns winning big at Cannes this year – such as Nike’s ‘Dream Crazy’ - generally have earned media ideas at their heart.

It’s just a shame that, a decade after PR was first introduced at Cannes, well-known PR agencies are still not being seen to being the natural hub for these winning ideas for brands.

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