From the editor-in-chief: Ignore the spin, Edelman’s sporting Grand Prix at Cannes reveals an evolving PR industry

Having covered the Cannes Lions awards scheme and festival extensively since the PR category was introduced back in 2009, I was pleased to see some PR agencies doing well in categories other than PR and Social & Influencer this year, with at least one massive success and possibly more to come.

From the editor-in-chief: Ignore the spin, Edelman’s sporting Grand Prix at Cannes reveals an evolving PR industry

But first to address the all-too-obvious angle on Cannes for comms professionals – that PR agencies are still failing to win much in their ‘own’ categories.

This remains just as true as ever, sadly. According to my records (the countless articles I’ve penned about Cannes Lions over the past dozen years), no classic PR agency has won a PR Grand Prix with sole credit for generating the central campaign idea since the PR category was introduced 12 years ago.

It’s also now six or seven years since a PR agency even played a central role in a Grand Prix-winning campaign in that category; the examples that spring to mind are MSL, which worked with sister Publicis agency Leo Burnett on Always’ ‘Like a Girl’ campaign (back in 2015), and Edelman, which shared a Grand Prix with Creative Artists Agency for Chipotle’s ‘Scarecrow’ initiative (2014).

Naturally, this week’s Cannes revelations did not change that narrative.

The two Grands Prix announced in the PR Lions on Tuesday, for both 2020 (when the festival was cancelled altogether) and for 2021, were ‘Contract for Change’ for AB InBev's Michelob Ultra Pure Gold brand, and 'The Bread Exam', for Spinneys and the Lebanese Breast Cancer Foundation.

Both were extremely clever and inspirational campaigns based on earned media campaigning nous.

In ‘Contract for Change’, the brewing multinational incentivised US farmers to switch to organic by offering uniquely generous terms and guarantees. It was full of empathy, oozing in business strategy.

In ‘The Bread Exam’, meanwhile, Middle Eastern supermarket chain Spinneys helped tackle taboos to encourage Lebanese women to regularly check for breast cancer. Classic modern purpose work, displaying creativity and cultural sensitivity.

However, the credit for idea generation for both these earned-media Grands Prix once again went to advertising agencies, rather than PR consultancies. 'Contract for Change' was by FCB in Chicago/New York and 'The Bread Exam' was by McCann Paris.

Does this really matter?

After all, PR agency behemoth Weber Shandwick was credited with handling PR for both winners (in the guise of 3PM Agency/Weber Shandwick for the AB InBev campaign), which I suppose makes sense because Weber is owned by Interpublic Group and is therefore a sister agency to both FCB and McCann.

Indeed, the chair of the PR Lions Jury this year was Gail Heimann, the global chief executive of Weber Shandwick, although there is certainly no implication that she directed the 30-strong panel of international judges in favour of IPG work.

On the contrary, Chris McCafferty, the UK CEO of Publicis-owned PR firm MSL – one of the judges on the awarding jury for PR Lions this year – told me he and the rest of the panel were quite comfortable with choosing the two Grands Prix they did, because both were highly creative and effective integrated campaigns.

McCafferty says: “I’d argue the best work in our business these days is integrated and shows the primacy of earned media. The best ideas today are genuinely multichannel. Both these campaigns absolutely demonstrate that your business strategy is indeed your comms, and your brand reputation. We didn’t know what sort of agency had come up with these campaigns when we judged them. It was a blind judging process.”

Of course it’s galling for the PR industry that, despite juries consistently comprising PR agency bosses, it remains ideas from ad agencies that continue to pull in the big prizes in this category.

The same can be said of PR’s other natural ‘home’ category at Cannes, the one that focuses on shared media: the Social & Influencer Lions.

Here the 2020/21 Grands Prix went to Burger King’s ‘Stevenage Challenge’, where the burger chain sponsored tier-four English football club Stevenage as a way of targeting young gamers; and Reddit’s ‘Superb Owl’, a US Super Bowl campaign to promote the social media firm. The former campaign was created by WPP-owned creative agency David (Madrid office), and the latter by IPG-owned digital agency R/GA.

But I’d agree with McCafferty that the lack of comms professionals winning Grands Prix in these two categories at Cannes is far from any definitive judgement on the direction of campaigning and communications in general.

First, because only a small minority of PR agencies even enter this awards scheme – particularly over the past couple of years, when a trip to the south of France has been an even lower priority for comms professionals around the world.

Second, because even at Cannes, PR agencies and earned media specialists are indeed winning plaudits in many broader categories.

Indeed, this week Edelman scored a major coup, winning a Grand Prix in the Entertainment Lions for Sport category on Wednesday for its campaign with sportswear client Asics, called ‘Eternal Run’.

In a pandemic year the campaign challenged the concept of a traditional race by removing the finish line and urging participants to run against nobody but themselves. And Edelman was credited for idea generation, campaign, execution and PR amplification; the whole gamut.

Global chief executive Richard Edelman points out that Edelman has this year made it on to 14 shortlists as the creative agency entrant, and across five Lions categories. It has also made 20 shortlists as the partner/PR agency.

“I’m thrilled,” Edelman told me on Wednesday, “because this proves the Edelman thesis: that we can compete as a global communications firm, having invested in creative, planning, data and analytics and digital capability, with 1,700 people employed in these roles across our 60 offices.

“We will keep showing up in Cannes with great work and we will win with ideas that are different, ambitious and start movements.”

In other words, the earned media approach, developed and nurtured by long-established PR consultancies, is not only winning awards – in Cannes, in PRWeek’s own schemes, and elsewhere – but, more importantly, this approach is being valued by brands and organisations. It is making a big difference to the world of business.

As Weber Shandwick's Heimann told PRWeek this week: “Cannes unearthed campaigns over the past two years that upheld the power and primacy of public relations; where comms professionals took the front seat and provided valuable counsel to organisations during the tumultuous events of the past 18 months.

“It also demonstrates campaigns with narratives powerful enough, and with enough values at the core, to connect in a fragmented world; with ideas powerful enough – bombastic enough, memorable enough – to earn attention, regardless of what channel was used.”

And therein lie some of the core ingredients that will always build great campaigns and strategic communications approaches. In my 2015 book ‘Campaigns that Shook the World: the Evolution of Public Relations’, the conclusion chapter came to a very similar manifesto for greatness.

Bearing all this in mind, it should be no surprise that the demand for public relations, professionals comms – earned and shared media expertise, call it what you will – has soared over the past two years.

It’s why the global marketing services giants such as WPP, IPG, Publicis and Omnicom have reported public relations arms considerably outperforming their paid media, direct marketing and experiential divisions.

It is also reflected in organisations notably promoting or hiring corporate affairs and communications directors to their executive leadership teams.

This year’s Cannes (as well as my own privileged first glimpse at the entrants to this autumn’s PRWeek UK Awards) does suggest the work coming out of the PR industry is only getting better; more creative, more effective, more influential.

Let’s hope we can celebrate all this in person again during the next 12 months – in London, in New York, in Singapore and, indeed, in the beautiful south of France.

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