Normalcy returns (sort of)
After a tumultuous couple of years in which Cannes Lions was accused of losing its creative heart and was subsequently stripped down and scaled back, the Festival made a comeback of sorts this year. The crisis and introspection of 2017 was well in the rear-view mirror, but the Festival was not without some drama and industry finger-pointing, which helped (along with some genuinely great work) to bring life and energy back this year after a tepid, scaled-back affair in 2018.
Organisers did not try to reinvent the wheel in 2019, only adding a pair of new categories, Entertainment for Sport and Creative Strategy. But despite Publicis Groupe agencies re-entering the fray, Cannes Lions entries fell for the second straight year, down 4% to 30,953. While creative powerhouses like the UK, US and Brazil submitted less work, Chinese and Indian entries were up 5% and 8% respectively. It looked like this was going to be Asia’s year to win big.
Asia wins even fewer Lions, but a few still manage to roar
Alas, false hope springs eternal for Asia. The region had its worst showing in years, winning only 120 Lions (two Grand Prix, eight gold, 34 silver and 76 bronze) across Asia-Pacific, compared to 310 for the United States alone. This was a more than 30% drop from last year's 174, when the the metal plunged by 40% from the 293 Lions APAC won in 2017.
This 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 golds 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. It didn't, but the quality of Chinese awards made it a regional standout nonetheless.
Could the region 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 larger agencies appeared mostly stunned.
In the end only Pakistan and Bangladesh did noticeably better this year, with Malaysia and Singapore marginally improving off low bases.
APAC metal tally
While the region came up empty in the Titanium Lions and the Glass Lions, Clemenger BBDO and Finch won a Grand Prix in the Sustainable Development Goals Lions, where FCB Ulka also picked up a Gold Lion, and a number of APAC shops took home metal in the Film Lions.
Brand purpose in overdrive
The above-mentioned sustainable goal wins were significant, given the incredible amount of focus on brand purpose and social causes this year, both among the work and in the stage sessions and industry events surrounding the Palais.
Brands that took strong, daring, activist stances were richly rewarded. VMLY&R and Polish media site Gazeta won Titanium and Glass Grands Prix for 'The Last Ever Issue'. Together with bank BNP Paribas and Mastercard, they bought a Polish men's adult magazine, replaced the content of the final issue to focus on women's empowerment, then shut it down.
French supermarket Carrefour won a Grand Prix in Creative Effectiveness for setting up "black market" sections in their stores that sold illegal organic produce sold from outlawed seeds, despite their obvious benefits, spurring the EU to change its laws.
And Nike may have been more smart and calculated than brave in its support of Colin Kaepernick through its 'Dream Crazy' advertisement, but jurors certainly appreciated the stand the sports apparel brand took, delivering two Grands Prix in Outdoor and Sport, to go with its many more manes.
In fact, one couldn't go anywhere in Cannes this year without hearing even more about the need for strong brand purpose. At PHD's Cannes book launch for Overthrow II, its latest publication on challenger brands, the concept was taken to a new level. Brand marketers on the panel (and in the book) included Tony Chocolonely marketing director Pascal van Ham and Oatly's chief creative officer John Schoolcroft. Unlike most brands employing marketing for selling products, both van Ham and Schoolcroft see themselves building social and sustainability movements first and then brands second. Attendees were told brands needed to have purpose on their front labels, not the back. "I have a problem with 'challenger brand' being a strategy," van Ham said.
Brand purpose hypocrisy
You can see where this is going. The overwhelming message was that brands must 'walk the walk' or be called out as hypocrites.
Unilever CEO Alan Jope took a vocal stance against 'woke-washing', saying ad campaigns that promise to improve the world but fail to take real action are having a damaging impact on the industry. "There are too many examples of brands undermining purposeful marketing by launching campaigns which aren’t backing up what their brand says with what their brand does. Purpose-led brand communications is not just a matter of ‘make them cry, make them buy’. It’s about action in the world."
So when environmental group Extinction Rebellion tried to engage with the advertising industry at Cannes but ended up protesting on the Palais until they were forcibly removed (see video below), some quickly called it 'brand purpose hypocrisy.' "See what happened when someone actually wanted to do something real about the environment," wrote one columnist, "So much for putting their company dollars where their mouths were."
Another stir was caused when a past Cannes winner sent out a photo of a Lion cut in half, claiming "I'd like to return my Lion. It used to stand for something. And now it's broken." In an accompanying op-ed, the anonymous author penned a protest against the Festival inviting ex-Cambridge Analytica boss Alexander Nix to speak on a panel. After describing the role Nix played in subverting democracy and user privacy, the opinion piece challenged Festival Chairman Philip Thomas stating "we are entering the Era of Purpose. To stay relevant brands need to find one... We need you - to take a stand." In the end, there was no need, Nix withdrew his appearance at Cannes on his own.
Piling onto the hypocrisy talk was media upstart and social media darling Gary Vaynerchuk, who argued Cannes lacks truth at an uncomfortable scale. But for him it was more about the media than the message. "We’re about to clap and award a lot of people for a lot of work that no human has ever really actually seen," he said.
In his view, the festival falls short because people continuously talk about things that aren't real and don't benefit clients or average people on the street. Normal human beings don't consume TV commercials, for example, he said, pointing to the global rise of OTT services like Netflix, and 'real people's' real life tendancies to be looking at their phones, fast-forwarding ads or doing anything other than paying attention to a TV ad when it is on.
Diversity at Cannes
It was once again hard to escape the ‘d’ word at Cannes this year, whether in Palais sessions (of which 33 were tagged under ‘embracing inclusion, equality and diversity’), awards nights or the talks taking place on the beaches and in hotel suites along the Croissette. Instagram even launched a rainbow-adorned structure on Facebook Beach to celebrate Pride Month. This is nothing new, as reflected by one Palais slot titled “Why We Don’t Need Another Diversity Talk”, which aimed to halt empty discussion by giving the stage to minorities.
But the case remains sadly true that fewer than 2% of attendees to the Cannes Lions are people of colour or from underrepresented communities. Things are improving faster among the juries: five of 27 jury presidents were people of colour this year, a slight improvement on the one who held this role in previous years, and the gender balance is now 48-52% women to men, up from 40-60% in 2016.
The Festival did launch an initiative called Inkwell Beach this year in partnership with Cannes Can: Diversity Collective (CC:DC), which was created in 2017 to boost diversity in the industry.
The spot, named after a beach in Martha’s Vineyard in the US, was designed to be a place where “everyone feels welcome”, according to CC:DC founder Adrianne C. Smith. Throughout the week, Inkwell Beach played host to stars including the model Naomi Campbell and CBS This Morning presenter Gayle King, plus industry leading lights such as P&G’s Marc Pritchard (who discussed ways to reimagine creativity through empathy) and WPP’s Mark Read (who gave his views on why equality, diversity and inclusion matter). Other talks included discussions about five key ‘isms’ that plague the advertising industry’: racism, ‘LGBTQism’, sexism, ageism and tokenism.
Despite the best intentions of the organisers, however, it was noted that many of the sessions at Inkwell Beach were “sparsely attended”. As Michael Burgi, senior vice president of PR firm DiGennaro Communications in New York, put it in a LinkedIn post: “Truth is, the road to progress is barely a footpath—and will require industry-wide commitment to widening it, paving it not with good intentions but concrete action, and effecting a real transformation of the people in this business to reflect all walks of human life.”
Social media backlash
This might well have been foreshadowed by the Alexander Nix controversy, but despite the big platforms putting their best sandy feet forward from their Cannes beach houses, what many wanted to talk about at Cannes was quitting social media.
“It’s becoming uncool to be on Facebook. And Instagram is just starting to go south. It’s becoming less and less about artistic expression, which is what I thought was wonderful about it at the get-go,” said Kathy Delaney, global chief creative officer of Publicis Health. Her fellow panelist Corinne Foxx, the actor and model who formerly worked as a creative at Ogilvy (and is the daughter of actor Jamie Foxx), shared that she deleted her Twitter account from her phone when she realised it was becoming detrimental to her own policy of “self-care”.
Even a taxi driver on the way into Cannes from the airport told a Campaign Asia editor he'd recently deleted his Facebook account, fed up with the deluge and inanity of content. Photographer Rankin spoke onstage and later to Campaign Asia (see video below) about the "needless energy" he realised he was expending on social media, saying he gave up his accounts and rediscovered "boredom" — and creativity alongside it.
In response, Jim Squires, head of Instagram Business told Campaign the platform remains a creative spark because gives you an 'in' to so many different peoples lives. "The magic of Instagram is you can follow someone you’ve never met that is living this interesting life and you get a glimpse into what their life is like. So for instance I follow [the surfer] Kelly Slater, so I get to see through his eyes what he's doing and you'd never be able to do that before.”
Meanwhile, US activist organisation Sleeping Giants, set up to draw attention to advertising on far-right news sites promoting hate and racism, was also active at Cannes, criticising the platforms for "throwing bazillion dollar parties" on the beach while "making excuses for their inability to monitor their platforms at scale". In another tweet from Cannes:
Brands, agencies and platforms naturally knew some of this was coming and did not want to appear tone deaf. All the big ones formed a new Global Alliance for Responsible Media that met for the first time at Cannes. The alliance said it is "working towards a media environment where hate speech, bullying and disinformation is challenged, where personal data is protected, and used responsibly when given, and where everyone, especially children, are better protected from harm".
Creative work that tried to subvert trolling and hateful messages found a receptive audience in the jury rooms. FCB Six's Grand Prix-winning 'Go Back to Africa' campaign below. in the Creative Data category is one that springs to mind.
Meanwhile, on the programmatic front, MediaMath teamed up with Havas and Rubicon Project to announce a new initiative to improve transparency in the media supply chain.
Less is more
Social media was not the only thing Cannes seemed to advocate dialing back on. A discernable 'less is more' ideology threaded through the Festival, underscored not only by an appearance from the Queen of minimalism herself, Marie Kondo.
Former Cannes Lions chairman Terry Savage called on the creative world to make fewer, more discerning awards entries. Havas CEO Chris Hirst called for less bullshit in leadership, Nick Law called for fewer stunts.
Apple marketing VP Tor Myhren, likely the most popular onstage speaker, explained how simplicity was hard, but was at the core of Apple's marketing success. "We chase simplicity with anything we do," he said. "Strategy is sacrifice. It's the art of reducing. Strip it down to find the truth of the product."
That simplicity, Myhren said, extended to Apple's decision to stick with one creative agency to whom it prescribes "a brief so narrow that it can dance on the head of a pin." On the media side, he explained Apple eschews programmatic in favour of placing fewer bigger ads through media like OOH, noting how picky Apple is about where they show up.
Not everyone was buying the 'less is more' mantra though. Certainly not all the adtech vendors renting yachts next to the Palais, nor Vayner Media nestled in among them. "It’s crazy. we need a complete shift in our mindset of creative. We need to stop demonising quantity in this in. Quantity does not come at the expense of quality. It's an excuse for those who do not want to do," Gary Vaynerchuk told a Cannes audience.
How well do these themes resonate in Asia?
Another person who wasn't buying into these themes was Publicis South Asia CEO Saurabh Varma, who served on the Creative Effectiveness jury. The festival, he told Campaign, "has become too cause-y. This is not advertising anymore." He continued, "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."
Varma pointed out that "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 might say the same for much of Southeast Asia and China.
Varma said he saw a lot of disillusioned creatives from India this year who felt their awesome commercial work just wasn't striking a chord with Western-dominated juries looking for purpose-driven campaigns.
Was this East-West divide one of the reasons for Asia's poor performance this year? Quite possibly. But as one Campaign editor has argued, despite lingering cultural biases, it's not time to give up on Cannes just yet. There is still plenty that Asia can learn from its global creative peers and in time, those peers will recognise more of commerical work that Asia excels at, like it did with the below triple Gold winning Lion campaign out of China, that is not at all about scaling back social media, valuing purpose over commerce or having less rather than more.