Less cynicism, more humour… more weirdness? What to expect from (virtual) Cannes Lions

The International Festival of Creativity is almost upon us. Creative PRs share their thoughts on the new virtual format, and discuss what themes and campaigns they expect to dominate.

Tipped for Lions glory: 'Womb Stories' for Essity (left) with 'Mouldy Whopper' for Burger King (top right) and Mastercard 'True Name' (bottom right)
Tipped for Lions glory: 'Womb Stories' for Essity (left) with 'Mouldy Whopper' for Burger King (top right) and Mastercard 'True Name' (bottom right)

Glamorous parties, opulent yachts and late-night strolls along the Croisette will sadly be missing from the 2021 iteration of the Cannes Lions, which will be online-only due to the pandemic – having been skipped entirely last year.

But the PR industry can still expect plenty of insights into major trends in creative marcomms, as we learn which campaigns impressed the jurors across the multiple Lions categories. This includes the PR Lions, winners of which will be announced on Tuesday (22 June).

Entry numbers are down slightly this year – 29,074, versus 30,953 in 2019 (this year's event includes two years' worth of campaigns). Despite this, Phil Thomas, president of Cannes Lions owner Ascential’s marketing division, which includes the Lions, said: “We were happy [with the level of entries]. It was above what we expected. It was very, very hard to predict what was going to happen because you’ve got the two years together."

While there was strong growth for categories such as the Social & Influencer Lions and the Creative eCommerce Lions, entry numbers fell for others, such as the Creative Effectiveness Lions and the Creative Strategy Lions. Ascential said this suggests "companies have shifted to short-term strategy in the face of unprecedented circumstances".

Time will tell whether PR agencies will win more accolades in the PR Lions than their adland peers. What we do know is that Hope&Glory PR creatives Gigi Rice and Elle Bellwood have become the first UK winners of the global Cannes Young PR Lions competition, announced yesterday – congratulations to them.

Below, we ask comms professionals for their thoughts ahead of the official start of the Cannes Lions on Monday.


Eleanor Sullivan, managing director, Innovation + Creative Hub, London, Hill+Knowlton Strategies

What are your thoughts on Cannes Lions being held in a 'virtual' format?

The splendour of a pilgrimage to the South of France in honour of creative excellence is undoubtedly something we’ve all missed. However, enabling a more diverse range of people to access the event in its virtual format can only be a good thing. I hope we see the opportunity for more equal access in attendance data.

What do you predict will be some of the main themes and trends among the winning entries?

While there’s much award-worthy creative that has taken place in the unique circumstances of the pandemic, I hope COVID-19-related themes aren’t the only trends to take home prizes. Of course work campaigning for social justice and celebrating human resilience will dominate, alongside innovative craft achieved in confinement. But let’s hope the downright funny and brilliantly effective work get lauded too.

How do you think PR agencies will fare in the awards vs recent years?

The festival represents only a proportion of the kind of creative thinking that PR agencies offer, but I still expect we’ll continue to see the slow upward trend of PR both entering more and winning more. At H+K we talk about ‘applied creativity’; creativity that impacts client assignments right across our firm… sometimes these projects do not easily fit within the categories at Cannes.

Aside from your own campaigns and those from sister agencies, which campaigns do you think will be the biggest winners?

Two rather old ones would be on my list. First, 'Womb Stories'. For craft, for storytelling and for continuing the great mission of normalising menstruation. Yes, it was an ad, but it was so much more than that, and really captured the attention of the mainstream. Second, the 'Mouldy Whopper', and for some similar reasons. It broke conventions in the category, it started a conversation and it showed people something that isn’t normally seen. Who knew wombs and Whoppers had that in common?


Tom Beckman, global chief creative officer, Weber Shandwick

What are your thoughts on Cannes Lions being held in a 'virtual' format?

I had the privilege to chair the PR jury at Eurobest, which was said to be a pilot for an all-virtual Cannes. The experience was quite good. I hope that the virtual format will lead to more focus on the work. Cannes is about defining the development of our industry and bringing insights to clients. You shouldn’t go to Cannes to drink, you should go there to sober up about the work.

What do you predict will be some of the main themes and trends among the winning entries?

The pandemic sped up many existing trends and themes, in particular the coming together of politics, business, culture and technology. Standout work this year will be defined by those intersections.

I expect to see the return of humour as one of humanity’s best coping strategies. I also believe the concept of sustainability will be broadened to include happiness. And that we’ll see a surge of ideas that are more weird, human and full of fantasy as a reaction to the number-crunching rationality we’ve seen recently.

How do you think PR agencies will fare in the awards vs recent years?

I’m less concerned with what type of agencies are behind the winning work, and more focused on the type of ideas that they’re winning with. And a major shift the last decade has, of course, been toward earned creative. Most Grand Prix in recent years have earned their place in culture. Work that is designed to live in the society, and not only in paid channels. Moving forward, our industry needs to play in the jungle, not in the zoo.

Aside from your own campaigns and those from sister agencies, which campaigns do you think will be the biggest winners?

I’m certain that Grand Prix contenders will include Diesel 'Francesca', Mastercard 'True Name', the 'Mouldy Whopper', Essity 'Womb Stories' and WWF 'Eurythenes Plasticus'. But it’s equally rewarding to unpack the golds and the silvers, that I’m sure will include work like 'Hard Pill to Swallow', 'The Baby that changed HIV', GMR 'Play Connected' and 'Helpy Hour'.


Carolyn Paul, EMEA Health Practice chair, Edelman, and Cannes Lions Pharma jury member

What are your thoughts on Cannes Lions being held in a 'virtual' format?

This year, of course, the pandemic has meant that being a juror is rather different, but the actual judging process feels very much the same. The conversations about the quality of the work, what breakthrough creativity looks like and whether something raises the bar are just like in previous years.

What do you predict will be some of the main themes and trends among the winning entries?

As far as the work itself goes, what I have seen in the pharma jury room feels much the same, which is odd considering how different the world has become. For example, far fewer pieces of work addressing some of the major social issues have risen to the fore than might have been expected. There is also very little that deals directly with the pandemic. There are perhaps more animated than real-life films, but that’s the only tell-tale sign.

How do you think PR agencies will fare in the awards vs. recent years?

It is disappointing to see so few entries that are PR-led or which have PR at the heart of the idea and execution. Sadly, this seems to be a continuing trend. I know there is great pharma PR work out there and would just love to see agencies be bolder in presenting it and talking about it. Earned has a uniquely trusted role, more today than ever before, so I hope to see more creative PR campaigns in the Lions next year.


Lotte Jones, creative partner, Freuds

What are your thoughts on Cannes Lions being held in a 'virtual' format?

In a weird way, it could be quite a refreshing change for 2021. The balance will necessarily be on the work rather than the partying (AKA networking!), which is likely to make for richer sharing and learning. The mood will also be necessarily different, given the timbre of the campaigns likely to surface, so it feels fitting to keep the focus on the work and brands’ responses to the world around them over the past year.

What do you predict will be some of the main themes and trends among the winning entries?

The interesting area will be tone. We’re likely to see more sensitive and emotive campaigns, which chime with international moods; perhaps gentler, less cynical or reductive humour and less brashness. Production values will obviously have been hugely hampered, so it will be interesting to see the ways certain campaigns have navigated restrictions and changes.

How do you think PR agencies will fare in the awards vs. recent years?

I think with the restrictions put on production in 2020-21, it means that agencies and brands have had to be craftier and more tenacious with how they get their messages out there. This more stealthy toolbox fits well with the heritage of PR, and in a year when the moods of nations are set by media reportage, it will be interesting to see how judges consider earned-media campaigns. In theory, this should stand us in good stead.

Aside from your own campaigns and those from sister agencies, which campaigns do you think will be the biggest winners?

Some businesses have made moves and behaved in ways that aren’t just neatly true to what they are, but made a difference. That would be nice to see recognised. I think about LVMH turning perfume factories into sanitiser production lines; the speed and fervour with which brands like Ben & Jerry’s clearly denounced white supremacy; and Broadly’s recent creation of a queer image library are all examples of campaigns that deserve recognition.


Andrew Soar, creative director, Ogilvy

What are your thoughts on Cannes Lions being held in a 'virtual' format?

Let’s be real, there is no other choice. As someone who believes creativity should be celebrated, I am glad it’s back. I am excited to see what wins, as well as the pyjamas as outerwear looks!

I have to give a big up to Ilaria [Pasquinelli, VP marketing, Cannes Lions] and the team, too, as the new Lions Membership looks great for anyone interested in creativity. A fantastic platform to be inspired and geek out on brilliant work and soak up all the epic talks.

What do you predict will be some of the main themes and trends among the winning entries?

I expect a celebration of social issue-based creativity. The big winners will be those who delivered thought-provoking work with purpose around important social issues.

It’s been a year when having heart and the courage of your convictions has shone through, both in our world and the real world, and bold examples of this deserves recognition.

How do you think PR agencies will fare in the awards vs. recent years?

I used to be obsessed with the PR vs ad agency fight and who gets the credit, but I think those days are done. You simply can’t win a Lion at Cannes without PR. The work has to get people talking, so, in a world of integration, all parties need to join forces to create winning ideas. I think the role of PR is far more appreciated now than before, and our craft is in a strong place, so it is just a question of who dreamt up the creative.

Our ‘Courage is Beautiful’ work for Dove, the ‘Let's Talk the Joy of Later Life Sex’ creative for Relate and ‘Supermarket’ for Bombay Sapphire are all great examples of creativity without borders.

Aside from your own campaigns and those from sister agencies, which campaigns do you think will be the biggest winners?

I hope there will be some surprises but I think in reality, there are some that stand out and they will do very well. 'Womb Pain Stories', 'Boards of Change', 'True Name' and 'You Love Me'. I love 'The Call' by EmpowHer New York and 'Invisible Loneliness' by the BBK Foundation in Spain, so I will hope they do well too.



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