Confusion at Cannes

Too small? Too big? Too soon? It wouldn’t be Cannes if there wasn’t some controversy over what won. But this year feels different. This year’s festival and the work that won has prompted some more fundamental head-scratching about the ad industry and where it is headed

Judging the Cannes Lions Promo & Activation category. Image: Cannes Lions

Too small? Too big? Too soon? It wouldn’t be Cannes if there wasn’t some controversy over what won. But this year feels different. This year’s festival and the work that won has prompted some more fundamental head-scratching about the ad industry and where it is headed.

There are two separate but related themes here. The first, as flagged up by both Dave Trott and Jeff Goodby ahead of the festival, is that the where once advertising was part of mainstream culture, something that everyone saw and talked about, now the work that wins is often small-scale and inward-looking.

In a widely shared interview with Adweek, Dave Trott complained that “Ad festivals prevent creativity. You’re not doing advertising for six million people in the street anymore, but for ten people on the jury, and for a few clients.”

This view was echoed by Jeff Goodby in a piece for the Wall Street Journal. “It used to be that the business was about doing things that were big and famous and mind-blowing. Everybody knew about them…. No one knows what we do any more. For the most part, we are famous from only one end of the Croisette to the other.”

Related to this is the nature of the work that it is winning. In a piece for The Guardian, Tom Goodwin of Havas Media argued that Cannes and other awards “celebrate the worst of an industry that’s in love with technology and itself, not the people it purports to sell to”.

Prior to that, he says “I’ve never met anyone who has seen a vending machine reward them for laughing, I’ve never walked through a door marked ugly, got a Coke from a drone, or been offered a crisp packet with my face on. I’ve never had a friend share their personalised film, I’ve not seen outdoor ads that are also street furniture or had an ATM give me a funny receipt. I’ve not received a magazine with a near field communication thing and I’ve not had a virtual reality experience outside advertising conferences. I’ve not once seen a member of the public 3D print anything. 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.”

Two winners in particular this year have caused concern, though they are symptomatic of the wider issues Goodwin raises. In typically robust style, TBWAMedia Arts Lab CD Ben Kay claimed that “at least three Grands Prix awarded to work of utter, steaming bullshit: two for the Volvo Paint excretion and one for the Iron Fish mendacity“.

On LifePaint, he says: “They played the game and won. And that’s all this is: a game. For every Epic Split or [iPhone] World Gallery … there’s a scamtastic, industry-cheapening cack heap to create a big gain for the people involved but another step back for the credibility of advertising as a whole.”

Let’s look at the “it’s the pictures that got small” argument first. Yes, there are a lot of vending machine/drone/QR-code ‘bullshit’ projects round that generate lots of noise within the industry. They are very shareable, very tweetable and are made hugely seductive by the artfully deceptive case study videos that accompany them.

But hang on, this is also the industry that had the whole country talking about a penguin called Monty – a commercial that generated as much press coverage as a Hollywood movie. And what about Sainsbury’s Christmas 1914 spot? It prompted an entire episode of Radio 4’s Moral Maze plus countless think pieces and media debates. Not to mention the 58 millions views and counting that Always’ Like A Girl has picked up on YouTube, or the phenomenal viral success of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which was impossible for anyone on social media to avoid. So don’t tell me that advertising has disappeared from popular culture.

Advertising is still capable of big, popular work that the woman or man in the street will talk about. But it’s also an industry that loves novelty and, in Twitter, has the perfect platform to unthinkingly disseminate those ideas. The drone/vending machine-type stunts thus make a lot of noise, very quickly. But does anyone subject them to closer inspection than a passing ‘Huh! That’s clever’? Do they have any impact at all in the ‘real’ world?

And here’s the problem when it comes to creative awards – a lack of any meaningful scrutiny by organisers or juries, particularly for projects that make grand claims to be changing the world or saving lives, and are honoured on the basis that they have done or will do so.

Awards juries, used to evaluating craft skills or concepts, are not given the tools to make that judgement – locked in a room for days, a well-made (often partial) case study can prove compelling, seductive and difficult to challenge.

Matt Eastwood, worldwide CCO of JWT, and Promo and Activation jury president, described LifePaint as a product that had made a “‘positive contribution to humanity” and will “genuinely save lives”. Really?

It may achieve those aims in time, but so far it has only been available in limited quantities at six shops in London and Kent. Even though Grey does state that, following interest in the campaign, it will roll out further, it’s surely too early to make such grand statements.

Previously, the responsibility to actually achieve something tangible was the realm of effectiveness awards, but these projects are different. Any evaluation of them surely has to include some assessment of whether they have been designed in such a manner that they will deliver on their promises? Current judging mechanisms really don’t allow for that.

And nor are judges from ad agencies necessarily interested. At D&AD this year I had a conversation with someone who had been on the jury for Colgate-Palmolive’s ‘turning packaging into advertising’ project. The idea was to print public health messages inside cartons distributed to small shops. Those cartons, supposedly, once emptied would be passed on to local schools who would put the posters that were printed inside up on their classroom walls as teaching aids, which were backed by lesson plans accessible via mobile phone.

Turning Packaging Into Education from Young & Rubicam Group on Vimeo.

Someone else on our group who was familiar with the country concerned suggested that retailers there tend to save cardboard boxes and use them for storage in their shops, so she thought it highly unlikely that many of these clever and beautiful posters would ever make it to schools. The case study video makes no mention of how the boxes get from retailer to school, nor of how many have been produced. The CD had obviously not considered any of this – he said it wasn’t his concern. It was a ‘great’ idea, that’s all that matters – but is it a great idea if nothing meaningful comes of it?

Perhaps the answer is to alter the time frame over which such projects are judged. That way, some proper scrutiny of their impact could come in.

Another part of the problem this year was the ever-expanding list of winners – 22 Grand Prix awards were handed out – and a lack of any one runaway success, which has meant that projects such as Like A Girl and LifePaint have been awarded on the same footing, despite the disparity in their reach. It has resulted in a sprawling list of winners with more attention paid to the controversial cases than the accepted ‘best work of the year’. To remedy this, perhaps, as Archibald/Williams Sydney ECD Matt Gilmour suggests in a recent column in Little Black Book, it is time to introduce one overall winner at Cannes, a Palme d’Or of advertising if you like. That way, one piece of work could shine above the rest and represent the ad industry to the wider world. Although, if it did happen, we’d no doubt all row about the winner of that too.

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