Sabrina Sanchez
Jun 7, 2023

Cannes Lions 2023: Judges must raise the standard on purpose work, creatives say

Purpose work will still be prominent this year, but it needs more scrutiny in the judging room, creatives agree.

Cannes Lions 2023: Judges must raise the standard on purpose work, creatives say

As the world recovers from a global pandemic and faces ongoing civil unrest and widespread environmental and mental health crises, advertising creative in the past three years has reflected this consumer reality.

The rise of “purpose marketing” is nothing new, but in the past three years, the pendulum swung heavily toward work that touches on themes of diversity, togetherness, sustainability and inclusion — placing brands from companies like Unilever, P&G and Google at the heart of societal issues.

It’s a strategy that has proven both moving and effective. 

According to a 2020 study conducted by Zeno Group evaluating more than 75 brands that produced purpose work, consumers globally are four to six times more likely to trust, buy, champion and protect those with a strong purpose.  

As purpose work has risen in prominence, it has also become the object of many accolades. Last year, at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, 28 of the 32 Grand Prix-winning campaigns were purpose-themed. 

While the effectiveness and emotional power of purpose work is proven, some creatives have expressed concerns that brands are too focused on developing work that pulls on heart strings — and wins awards — versus creating work that can move the needle for their clients.

A purpose-centered Cannes

Purpose themed campaigns dominated Cannes again last year as brands sought to connect with consumers navigating a world in turmoil. 

Among last year’s winners, Sheba’s “Hope Reef,” by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, took home the Grand Prix Industry Craft and Media by promoting the danger of losing the world’s coral by using a reef restoration system to spell out the word “Hope.” Meanwhile, Google’s “Real Tone,” by New York Times’ T Brand Studio, which highlighted how standard cameras have failed to capture darker skin tones and introduced a solution, took the Grand Prix in Mobile. 

Other purpose-driven work awarded last year included Michelob Ultra’s “Contract for change,” by FCB New York, which promoted sustainable farming and took home the Grand Prix for Creative Effectiveness. And Nike’s “NikeSync,” by R/GA London, won the Entertainment Lion for Sport with an app that allows users to tailor their workouts to their menstrual cycles. 

The sheer volume of purposeful work among last year’s Grand Prix winners in Cannes prompted the Institution of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) to demand more rigor and evidence around the effectiveness of brand purpose. 

As a result, the UK-based advertising trade body outlined five points to help drive discussions about effectiveness in the jury room. Recommendations included evaluating the effectiveness of the campaign on non-financial measures, asking what parts of the outcome were driven primarily by the purpose behind the campaign versus the creative messaging and proving the longevity of the campaign. 

But still, as advertisers from around the world gear up to return to Cannes this year, creatives don’t expect purpose to be any less prominent – despite the widespread desire for levity as the world emerges from the pandemic.

More scrutiny on purpose

Advertisers might, however, see more rigor applied to the judging process around purposeful campaigns, said Judy John, chief creative officer at Edelman and an eight-time Cannes Lions judge. 

“We'll continue to see a lot of purpose campaigns and I would say that's because the world is probably more messed up than it has been in the past,” she told Campaign US, noting that purpose is more than just environmental, social and governance (ESG) work. 

“But… it’s not just about what you're saying. It’s about what you’re doing: What is the action that you're creating behind it? What is the company's commitment over time? 

She added that when judging purposeful campaigns, it's important for the jury to determine whether a piece of work is a one-off stunt, or a cause the company supports long-term.

It's a question that Vida Cornelious, VP of creative at New York Times’ T Brand Studio, said she hopes judges are asking this year especially, as research shows diversity initiatives are dying down and brands are going quiet on certain causes. 

“In the year of George Floyd, that was the cultural heartbeat, or trend, to be supportive of Black Lives. Does that die down when the next butterfly shows up?” she asked. 

“There was a lot of conversation in the room at some point about the philosophical approach to putting your stake in the ground to support something,” she continued. “How do you make it a part of who you are as a brand and not just something that you're doing at the moment?” 

Having judged at Cannes several times, Cornelious noted that it's important to ask what context the viewer is seeing the work in and think about how they might be feeling, whether a brand has permission to be in that conversation and how well the work resonates with moments happening in people’s lives, as well as whether it solves a real problem for people. 

Still, many fear that for a lot of purposeful work, the standard isn’t high enough yet, and as a result, inauthentic work is too often getting recognition it hasn’t earned. 

Luca Lorenzini, co-founder of Small Agency and founding partner of By The Network, believes that the emotional impact of purposeful campaigns often sways juries into awarding the ability to pull on heartstrings versus the ability to make a real impact.

“It's easier to give a high vote [on things like] peace talks, representation, environment issues and stuff like that because it's something that we all feel very strongly about,” he said. “It's very difficult to remain [neutral] and vote with your brain and not your heart.”

Purpose still has a place at Cannes

While Lorenzini hopes that this year’s juries are more discerning about purposeful campaigns, he warns that brands that revert back to “normal” after championing purposeful causes do so at their own peril — and advises brands against launching purpose-driven campaigns simply to win awards. 

Cornelious, on the other hand, believes that this year, purpose will show up in more innovative and technological categories, like gaming, as they become more mainstream. 

“[Gaming] would have never been a space where you would have had anything purposeful, but there are very smart campaigns coming from that space,”she said, citing the Gender Swap campaign from Women in Games, in which male gamers were invited to swap their voices for female gamers and watch how harassment began to unfold when they mic’d up. “It shows there is still a fun way of doing something that is incredibly purposeful.” 

Both Cornelious and John said that judges have become more discerning about the longevity of purposeful work in recent years.

John noted there is a conscious effort in upcoming cohorts to ask about whether ideas actually turned into action. 

“Impact is definitely part of judging, and it's happened over time… What was it set out to do? Was it effective? Did it change minds and did it change opinions and people? Did it drive policy change? All those things are really important to show that the work works,” she said.

Campaign US

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