Cannes: If they hold it, will PR agencies go?

Don’t expect a packed Gutter Bar this year, with firms not ready to commit to sending representatives to the event.

The streets of Cannes will be much emptier than usual this June, but agencies still have their eyes on awards. (Photo credit: Getty Images).
The streets of Cannes will be much emptier than usual this June, but agencies still have their eyes on awards. (Photo credit: Getty Images).

After canceling last year, organizers are planning to hold a live, in-person Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in June. But will attendees be willing to fly to the South of France amid a pandemic? 

Most PR agency leaders say it’s too early to make a decision about attending. Some are hoping to get their hands on trophies, even if not in person. They’re also pondering what the future of the event will look like for PR shops.

“We very much will be participating in the festival this coming year, encompassing the awards,” said Edelman global president and COO Matt Harrington. “Whether we have people in attendance will be dependent upon the global standing of vaccination distribution.”

Weber Shandwick president and CEO Gail Heimann, who is also president of the PR Lions jury, did not respond to requests for comment about the agency’s plans for Cannes. A Weber spokesperson says the firm will submit work and content and take part in judging. 

“[It’s] really too early to predict if anyone will attend in person,” the spokesperson said. “Like all companies, we continue to have a lot of significant travel restrictions we face, so it’s still too early to tell.”

Like all businesses, PR agencies are captive to government restrictions, as well as internal policies to keep employees safe. They’re also monitoring the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, which is taking place more slowly in the European Union than the U.S. It could take as long as seven years for countries to vaccinate 75% of their populations, according to a widely circulated Bloomberg report.

Matt Neale, CEO of Interpublic Group agency Golin, says he is waiting on guidelines from the holding company but hasn’t heard when they could be delivered. Ketchum is also monitoring pandemic developments, including information on travel restrictions and whether organizers stick with their plans to hold a live event.

“We are definitely taking a wait-and-see approach,” a Ketchum spokesperson says. “From conversations we’ve had with our contacts at Cannes, they’re still on the record talking about the in-person event moving forward. We are thinking like everybody else that [Cannes] doesn’t appear to have a plan B, but they are probably trying to instill confidence, so we are taking a cautious approach and if Cannes is happening, we’ll be involved.”

A poll by PRWeek’s sister publication Campaign found that 51% of U.K. creative agency staffers say they’ll take a pass on Cannes this year and wait until 2022 to attend. Twenty-nine percent say their plans depend on "how safe it feels," while 20% say if Cannes is on, they’ll be there.

Havas staffers in the U.K. and Europe will likely have an opportunity to attend, but employees in Asia and the U.S. probably won’t, says James Wright, global chairman of the Havas PR Global Collective and CEO of Havas PR North America.

“I think that my colleagues in Europe and that part of the world are far more likely to attend than we will be,” says Wright, who is based in the U.S. “Flying in from any sort of distance, I think the risk is too high.”

FleishmanHillard is committed to the event but also “monitoring the situation” at Cannes, according to Richard Dale, the agency’s global planning director. Like Weber, Fleishman is heavily involved behind the scenes in the PR category with Anne de Schweinitz, global MD of healthcare, serving as Pharma Lions jury president.

“We’re just watching how everything is unfolding,” Dale explains. “When it comes to COVID-19, it seems we take two steps forward and three steps back. Until that gets resolved, we’re not making any special plans for attending Cannes in person. Though I hope we are able to.”

Questions about PR’s place at Cannes are nothing new, with the sector annually frustrated about losing the bulk of PR Lions to creative agencies, and the COVID-era cancelation of last year’s event and questions about this year’s are only adding to the uncertainty. 

Will Cannes maintain its prestige and drawing power for PR firms if COVID-19 forces organizers to cancel the event again or if most agencies stay away? Neale is not certain it will.

“I look forward to the opportunity to enter work and celebrate creativity and all those good things,” he says. “But I have to imagine some of these large-scale events, if they don’t happen for two years in a row, and for good reason, can they really come back in three years? [Especially] if all the major agencies with all the major sponsors and companies that poured millions of dollars into it are used to not making those plans and business is still doing really well?”

Neale describes Golin’s Cannes investment in years past as relatively modest, “at most maybe a dozen people.”  

“Compare that to the major ad agencies that are sending possibly hundreds of people,” he says. 

At other firms, the costs are huge. “Some groups are spending millions of dollars on it and more,” Wright says. “It’s massive and different groups handle it in different ways…To capture the full total of that spend is really, really hard.”  

Many industry insiders say PR firms simply don’t get the same ROI from attending that creative shops do. 

“It is probably true there’s a certain return on investment for creative shops like ad agencies,” says a Ketchum spokesperson. “That’s [sometimes] the sole reason why they get hired and it is a little different for PR, but Ketchum has always been known as a major creative award-winning agency. We have to be smart with our budget and that sort of thing, but I don’t see a major decision to back away from awards programs in general.”

Neale contends that even creative firms have trouble justifying the cost.

“If you’re an ad agency that’s spending millions of dollars on a piece of marketing like this, then you have to be able to justify that there is a direct link between that spend and new clients and sales,” he explains. “I have always been somewhat suspicious to how direct that link is. For us, we’re spending a fraction of that.”

Based on his own experience, Neale says the potential for ROI for PR shops is even smaller.

“When we won gold for McDonald's and were the first PR agency to win gold for an idea we came up with, rather than an ad idea we supported, we got unprecedented attention that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise,” he says. “But that was a first. Would that happen again? I’m not so sure.”

Cannes can act as a motivator, inspiring staff at PR agencies that put a premium on creativity, Dale adds. 

“We have had a really good presence for a PR agency and we do a lot in Cannes with clients,” he says. “We’ve kind of made a corporate commitment about that and feels like it’s only grown, but we believe in it and are inspired by what it represents. From our own standpoint, we have created an internal awards program as a way to submit and become our entries into Cannes. It’s our own feeder system. It is something we have had a historical presence in and that’s what makes it so sad about what is happening [with COVID-19].”

However, not attending Cannes can also have a cost.

“I’ve won business in Cannes,” Wright says. “It created opportunities and connections that led to business. It’s basically what you put in is what you get out. If you go into it to create a network, you’ll get a network. If you’re going to promote your work, you’ll get noticed.”

“There are two groups,” he adds. “The group that goes to have fun and get [drunk] and others who are really there desperately trying to progress their business and make connections and move their business forward.” 

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