Cannes Lions isn’t advertising’s
best work - it’s a catwalk

Executive Partner John Owen responds to Tom Goodwin’s Guardian article, ‘What if Cannes Lions celebrates the worst, not the best of advertising?’

It’s June and my inbox is full of invitations to drinks parties, dinners and lunches in a certain town in the South of France. Yes, Cannes is on the horizon again.

But this year I’m not going and, do you know what, I’m relieved about that. In truth it’s never really been my cup of tea (although, it has on numerous occasions, been my glass of Bandol).

My first memory of Cannes was sitting through the print awards ceremony and being stunned by the almost complete absence of any client logo on the winning entries. Later that same week, I sat in the film awards previews and the same feeling of unreality washed over me as I took in entry after entry that flouted every regulation I knew to exist in the UK market. It’s a long time ago now, but I have a lasting memory of an actual news bulletin being hijacked by a brand — the studio plunging into darkness with the newsreader mid-sentence, panic ensuing and then slowly, from the bottom left of the screen, a ticker making its way across the chaos to exhort viewers to buy a certain brand of light bulb.

Genius, in a way. But real? Not on your life.

Tom Goodwin, who is one of the sanest and most insightful commentators on our industry, has just written another superb piece for the Guardian about Cannes. His core argument is that the festival demonstrates an industry that is only interested in itself and its own opinions about itself. You should read it, but here are my three favourite quotes, which just about sum up the argument.

1. “I did something we rarely do, I spoke with members of the public about what they felt were the best ads of the day. Disturbingly, the ones they all liked, found funny and remembered, were terrible ads. They were dancing cars, talking babies, it was clear how little they knew about what was good advertising.”

2. “The one thing that binds together the more than 200 Cannes winners I’ve seen, is that they are ads only advertising people have a good chance of seeing. I’m not sure that’s what the industry should be about.”

3. “I know Cannes is not the Effies, but this doesn’t mean we should be happy to look like idiots.”

Tom’s view is it’s getting worse — and the recent obsession with clever technologies may well be to blame. As he says, how many people have ever bought a can of Coke from a drone or ripped an NFC bracelet from a press ad?

The truth is Cannes has always been about extremes and exceptions. It would not deny this. It is there, after all, to highlight the extraordinary, not the everyday.

But the problem is that it is increasingly in danger of celebrating the fake, not the real. Which isn’t to accuse any of the winning entries of not having actually run, or having been funded by a client (although at least one network agency is known to have a war chest in the region of £300.000 to fund work for Cannes). Rather, it’s to say that too many entries have run at a very low level, in such a localised way, that a cynic might think this was purely in order to qualify it for Cannes.

At the same time, Cannes continues unashamedly to propagate an anachronistic view of how advertising works. Entries in the main categories are for individual executions — making it highly lucrative for the owners but pretty much impossible for the judges to adjudicate on anything other than craft skills. Of course, everyone is aware that this is not how brands are really built, or how ideas are brought to life. Each execution matters, but this has been a multi-channel, multi-platform world for quite a long time now. To take account of the integrated world that is real marketing, Cannes offers us the opportunity to pay three (or more) times to enter multiple executions as a “campaign” within a single media channel; and, if those executions straddle media, yet another opportunity to spend hard-earned revenue by entering the Titanium Awards. It does all of this instead of restructuring its main awards to reflect industry practice. And, from a financial point of view, it’s easy to see why.

Given this, I don’t think Cannes will change. But I wonder if it isn’t time to put Cannes in its place — as a source of inspiration and provocation, rather than a celebration of the best work the industry has done for clients in the year gone by.

I’d liken it increasingly to a fashion show.

No normal people buy the haute couture designs but they nonetheless set trends and influence high street fashion. Isn’t it best to see the Cannes winners in the same light? To set them on a pedestal and challenge the industry to do more work like this, or which takes inspiration from this, with mainstream budgets in the real world. This would be a useful filter for judges too — and might lead to the weeding out of “clever-clever” ideas that aren’t scalable.

At the same time, I do think it’s time for something to take Cannes’ place as the awards which recognise the industry’s best output each year. A creative awards show that requires proof of significant distribution, usage and impact. One which looks beyond advertising and comms to the application of creative thinking across all a brand’s touchpoints. One which rewards the ideas and the work more than specific individuals or agencies. (Craft awards, of course, can still reward individuals and should do so).

There are plenty of existing awards schemes which could challenge Cannes by revamping in this way. Will any of them do so? Or will it take a new entrant? Perhaps so. I think it’s inevitable that such a scheme would attract fewer individual entries and therefore be less lucrative for the organisers. But if it were designed from scratch with this in mind, it could work.

Eventually, if the industry isn’t going to sail off completely into its own Mediterranean sunset, someone is going to have to give this a go.

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