Robert Sawatzky
Jun 28, 2019

Still wondering where the Lions are

Asia-Pacific’s poor showing at the 2019 Cannes Lions might reflect a broader East-West disconnect in the global marketing industry. But it’s not time to give up.

Still wondering where the Lions are

Well, here we are yet again. Another Cannes Lions Festival has passed, another dismal showing for Asia-Pacific. But even worse this time around: 120 Lions for this region, compared to 310 for the United States alone.

Remember that last year the APAC metal count plunged by 40% from 293 to 174, but the regional industry could at least partly blame a restructured, more streamlined Festival with fewer categories and the pullout by major holding group, Publicis. Yet this year, Asia tumbled off its footstool (a very low base to begin with) winning nearly one-third less metal than the anemic accolades of yesteryear.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 2019, Publicis was back. There were a couple of new categories in Entertainment for Sport and Creative Strategy. Moreover, entries from traditional creative powerhouses like the UK, US and Brazil were declining, but Chinese entries this year were up 5% and India up 8%. It looked like this was going to be Asia’s year.

The week got off to such a promising start, too. A Grand Prix for China on the first night for McCann Shanghai’s beautiful and practical ‘Breath of Life’ campaign, followed by three gold for KFC by Ho Communications and Isobar in Mobile and Creative Ecommerce was already a huge improvement for China. It seemed inevitable China would blow past the paltry nine Lions it won last year. But it didn’t.

Could the region at least turn to incredible India with its big boost in entries, fueled by its usual strengths like the Health Lions? Not this time. Its metal count was halved last year from 42 to 21 and slipped again this year to 18. As the final gala celebrations got underway on Friday night, only Dentsu Webchutney, with its six Lions, appeared over the moon, while the stunned larger agencies were grounded in gloom. 

In the end only Pakistan and Bangladesh did noticeably better this year, with Malaysia and Singapore marginally improving off low bases.   

Why Asia underperforms at Cannes

At times like this, creative communities across Asia may turn to beating themselves up, wondering why they’re not up to snuff. We’ve listed the reasons before: lack of liberal education, lack of boldness, inability to produce compelling case videos.

If this op-ed sounds like deja-vu it’s because this author penned a very similar piece last year that focused on the makeup of juries and the lack of representation from Asia. Again this year, several jurors from this region told Campaign that cultural bias will always remain a factor to some extent.

Asheen Naidu, executive creative director at BWM Dentsu Sydney was on the Cannes Industry Craft jury this year. He saw a lot of great work from this region, but also noticed with the Asian work that “sometimes cultural nuances are literally lost in translation. If there was a way to simply explain the context of the creative, that would go a long way to improving its chances of winning.”

In particular, Naidu noticed beautiful craft work out of Japan, from posters to packaging, but noted the “strong symbolism in the thinking and execution needed to be explained to be fully appreciated.”

Western and English-speaking domination of juries has been a persistent challenge for Asia. But while there remained gross inequity among jury presidents this year, the festival improved diversity within the juries themselves, including 48% female jurors and representatives from over 50 countries, which notably made progress in correcting the vast underrepresentation of China and India.

A cultural divide

Perhaps what’s harder to reconcile is the divide between some of the major themes that dominated Cannes this year and the aspirations of the developing world. The work at Cannes this year was dominated by purpose-driven brand activism, while much of the programming inside the Palais espoused a minimalist ‘less is more’ philosophy.

Publicis South Asia CEO Saurabh Varma, a Cannes juror for Creative Effectiveness this year, says he’s noticing a growing disillusionment among his creatives with the festival and the chasm between two worlds.

“[Cannes] has become too cause-y," he says. "This is not advertising anymore. The Western world is saying ‘we have too many things and less is good – less is more’. When less is more, you start looking at causes all the time. In India, it’s still about owning things, having things, acquiring things. It’s still about the rat race. There’s a certain joy in growing.”

One could likely say the same for much of Southeast Asia and China. Much of the work from across Asia remains more commercially driven and much of it uses local platforms and technologies. It was nice to see ‘KFC pocket franchise’ out of China win three Gold Lions with the help of a clearly explained case video, since much of this ecommerce-driven work that Asia excels at rarely gets its due.

Cannes-do attitude

There will always be some elements of a global cultural divide. It may be a long time before Asian work competes on a level playing field with the West. But this doesn’t mean it’s time to give up on Cannes.  Quite the opposite. There is still great learning and sharing of ideas, concepts and methods to be had between regions.

“Unfortunately not all Asian entries made it to a metal, which is okay,” Innovation jury president and Cheil global creative director Bill Yom told Campaign. “We all know we have to do better, we have to fight for our ideas, we have to develop ourselves to grow in this industry”

Yasuharu Sasaki, Dentsu ECD and head of digital creative, who presided over the Creative Data category, noticed work in his category from Asia excelled at using innovative technologies, AI and visualisation, yet some work still lacked a strong sense of purpose. He suggests that if creatives in Asia could build closer relationships with the client C-suites, they could get the brand purpose right and make their cases stronger.

And Valerie Madon, Havas Southeast Asia CCO, who served on the Brand Experience & Activation jury, felt that the few Asian pieces of work she judged “just pale in comparison to the other entries that won big. Be it in terms of creativity, scale and even results, many of the entries from other regions really raised the bar in our category.”

So if these poor results at Cannes for Asia present a call to creative arms, perhaps the better response than beating oneself up with them, wringing hands, or pointing fingers is to roll up the sleeves, treat the Cannes Lions results with a grain of salt, and get down to making work that brings brands and people across Asia closer together.

In this annual creative safari, the Lions will be there. Sometimes Asia will see them and sometimes not.

Campaign Asia

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