6 ½ Ways to Fix Cannes Lions (That Will Never Happen)

Criticizing the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity is a cottage industry. A bazillion think-pieces have been written. I did it last year with “4 Ways Advertising Award Shows are a Giant Scam.” People a lot more famous than me do it too. (Here’s another.)

A much smaller number offer practical suggestions on how to fix it. I’m going to suggest six-and-a-half ways right here.

But I’m not naïve — they have ZERO chance of being implemented. The status quo puts too much money in too many people’s pockets for the organizers to rock the boat. But they might want to think about it, before the whole thing collapses under its own weight.

There are great things about Cannes Lions. It’s fun as hell to meet and mingle with industry leaders and inspiring to see the best work in the world…some of which is actually real work.

But the gamesmanship of the competition is out of hand and undermines the festival’s purported purpose: the celebration of creativity.

I humbly submit that some tweaks to the awards would go a long way toward honoring true creativity in our industry.

1. Put all the non-profit stuff in its own category.

As has been the trend in recent years, many of the big 2015 winners were for non-profit or NGO “clients.” Even a Scrooge like me acknowledges that this is terrific work: insightful, emotional and effective. It’s creativity at its best — helping to solve real problems and make the world a better place. It should be encouraged and celebrated.

And it should have its own category. Use the one that already exists — the Grand Prix for Good — and celebrate all the great work that’s being done in the space.

But leave the rest of the categories for the advertising work designed to sell products to consumers.

Yes, there are some blurry lines as brands connect themselves to charitable works and non-profit efforts. But if the client is a charity, we should keep all that work in one place.

Oh, and how about donating ALL of the entry fee money in that category to the Grand Prix winner?

2. An entry can be entered ONCE in each category.

The Cannes organizers have done a masterful job at parsing the categories into a million subsets that overlap just enough to ensure multiple entries.

It’s clear why they do it: to collect more entry fee money. And it’s clear why the agencies play along: more chances to win multiple Lions.

But it’s also led to a complete gamification of the awards as agencies and networks comb the categories like an accountant scouring the tax code, looking for loopholes.

Why should the same thing win three different Cyber Lions? Is that celebrating creativity or the ability of the entering agency to foot the bill? Is it honoring the best work or a clever parsing of the overlap between “social” and “real time activity” and “user-generated content” and whatever other subcategory you can come up with?

Only allowing something to be entered once per category would also help the judges who are currently asked to do the impossible: navigate thousands of entries, many of them submitted multiple times. Maybe, just maybe, there would be a chance for other great creative work to get some attention instead of a few things sucking up all the available oxygen.

Got a great digital idea? Terrific. Find the most appropriate subcategory and submit away. Once. Try to submit it again and the system gives you a polite, “It looks like you’ve already entered that. There’s no need to do it again.”

2 ½. Put one-offs in their own subcategory.

While we’re cleaning up the number of entries per category, here’s a further refinement (let’s call it a .5 idea) Let’s have separate subcategories for single-location “one-off” stunts as opposed to campaigns.

Sure, “Proud Whopper” was fun. (Although, for my money, it’s a kissing cousin of last year’s GAY ATMs, designed to win at Cannes.) And it did its job: it collected more than a dozen Lions this year. But is a one-off stunt pulled together in one store on one afternoon in one city really the same thing as the global branding campaign? Does it deserve 12 times the recognition?

Even if you subscribe to the idea that Cannes is really a fashion show — celebrating innovative small ideas that work their way into the bigger bloodstream — we can still honor the best-of-the-best without letting a few buzzy stunts hijack the whole festival.

3. One win per category per campaign.

Obviously, if you implement the above, you solve most of the “multiple wins in one category for the same thing” problem.

But the Press/Print and Outdoor categories are their own special hell. These categories generate thousands and thousands of entries (in 2015: 4,470 in print and 5,037 in outdoor) and it is impossible for the full jury to look at everything.

Putting aside the fact that they are rife with scam work (after all, if a poster was up for a few hours in a client’s office, it still “ran,” didn’t it?) these are still the categories where the most games are played.

You got 10 posters for a single campaign? Submit all 10 and you could win 10 individual Lions. Organizers collect 10 entry fees and agencies love racking up a bunch of wins for their network-of-the-year competition.

I say, “Go for it.” Submit your 10 posters. But if the judges deem any number of them award worthy, you win ONE Lion for the campaign. Are only five worthy of recognition? Then the judges can highlight those as part of the winning package. But ONE Lion.

This would help bring a little order the current chaos of these categories and reduce some of the gamesmanship. And it would help align these categories with some of the others where earning a single Lion is hard-won. (Print handed out 239 lions this year; film handed out 120.)

4. With the exception of the craft categories, winners should be effective.

This shouldn’t really have to be said, but organizers should say it clearly as it will alleviate any confusion on the part of the judges or entrants. (Are you supposed to include “results” in the case study or not? Of course you should and Cannes should ask for it.)

Cannes Lions may have been a “pure creativity” celebration at one point, but it’s now about whether that creativity actually worked. Did the creative achieve the objectives outlined in the brief?

No, Cannes is not the Effies, but right now the criteria for victory is murky; let’s make it clear — in most categories, you should win because creativity was a means to an end.

There is a place for the celebration of pure craft, independent of whether or not the thing did its job or not. But let’s keep that sort of evaluation in the Craft categories only.

Of course, honoring “effectiveness” means that we’re all going to have to get a lot clearer about what’s “effective” and to that end, I suggest…

5. Standardize the effectiveness metrics for each category.

We all bemoan the bullshit “success metrics” we have to include in these entries: the “tweet storm” montage, the spinning You Tube counter, the press-mention screen grabs. But does any of it mean that the creative actually achieved what it set out to do?

Here’s a place where Cannes could actually LEAD the way.

Wouldn’t it be dreamy if we had a standard “earned media” formula that everybody was using? So that we could compare apples to apples? Wouldn’t it be nice to know if adding the number of Facebook likes a piece of content got helped or hurt your case?

Use some of that $30 million in entry fees and assemble a blue-ribbon panel that sets the criteria for that year’s effectiveness metrics, six months before the deadline.

6. Let the public pick the judges.

Lots of people (including this guy) are confused about how Cannes organizers select the juries. Let’s open up the black box.

Sure, there are a million ways to game an online voting system. (Just look at the MLB All Star voting.) But, at least it would be more transparent than the process that they currently use.

If festival organizers want to come up with the candidate list, that’s fine. Let them select 40 for each category, post their bios and past work online and let the public choose the 20 who actually serve on the jury.

A snowball’s chance in hell

Of course, none of these will ever receive serious consideration from the organizers. Why kill the golden goose?

After all, if you enacted these, you’d dramatically reduce the entries (which topped 40,000 this year), cut entry fee revenue, and eat into such moneymakers as “Buy a duplicate copy of your Lion for everybody on your team, starting at the low-low price of $1,267 per statue!”

The big networks would likely fight the changes tooth and nail, as the system is rigged to reward the money and politics that currently skew the whole thing. Not to mention that “Lions” actually equal “bonuses” in some offices; when you start messing with people’s pocket book, the claws come out.

But…BUT…if you DID, you might actually recognize a broader swath of creativity. You might make the playing field a bit fairer so that more agencies and brands join the competition. You might become more of an industry leader, driving a new era of common purpose, creative effectiveness and industry transparency!

Ah, shut your pie-hole, John, and pass the rosé.

IF YOU CAN’T BEAT ’EM, JOIN ‘EM: If you’re going to enter the competition anyway (and who are we kidding — you ARE) here are 10 tips on how to make a video case study for Cannes Lions that will actually grab the judge’s attention.


About the Author

John Kovacevich is a writer and creative director based in San Francisco. He helps creative agencies solve problems.

More from John:

15 Lessons From Two Years as an “Agency of One”

That Doesn’t Make You Creative

12 Things You Should Expect from a Creative Director