News & Views

Why Are There So Many Bloody Clients At Cannes?

by Arif Haq

Until last year I had been a client at PepsiCo UK and Europe for just under ten years. Until this summer I lived in West London but then moved to East. Until this month I had never had a dog.

This year has brought some changes. (I mean I still don’t have a dog but I really am *this close* to getting one.)

It has been a year of wide ranging personal adjustment – not least the realisation that what Hackney really actually needs is MORE BLOODY TUBE STATIONS but also that all of these life changes pale in comparison to what I now realise is the momentous fact that, for the first time since 2008, I did not go to Cannes this year. It was a wrench I must admit, but a family wedding in the middle of Cannes week left me little choice.

Something that struck me on my return to work is how different the experience of distilling the critical signals from the general Cannes noise has been this year. You’d think it would be harder to work out what the key learnings were (y’know not actually having been there). But actually it’s been the opposite.

Partly due to the quality of my editorial colleagues’ post-Cannes briefings as well as the brilliant Lions’ archive, I’ve been able to review the creative work, presentations and jury press conferences quicker and better than ever before. And I suppose that makes sense. Like the perspective afforded by being in a helicopter above the rainforest, rather than walking through the middle of it, the relentless cycle of seminars, screenings, parties and nostalgic Carlton Terrace reunions probably does, upon reflection, make it harder to understand the big hairy strategic learnings that actually matter (those who doubt that there are any big hairy strategic learnings – shame on you – please do come to one of Contagious’ now-famous Cannes Deconstructed sessions.

The inevitable chat that comes after every Cannes goes along the lines of ‘Can we make Cannes more relevant to the actual business of modern marketing’ or more pointedly ‘When is effectiveness going to be taken more seriously at Cannes?’ – and this year is no different. Articles like this one cite less than robust measures of impact being used in all entry submissions (e.g. ‘…it was picked up by media all over the world’, or ‘…we had thousands of YouTube views’), even those from the Creative Effectiveness category itself – launched in 2011 partly in response to similar criticism.

And while I have some sympathy with this view (certainly the growing celebrification of the seminar schedule reflects an element of detachment from the serious issues we face in the industry today  while Courtney Love, Jared Leto, David Hasselhoff, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Ralph Fiennes might certainly deliver bums on Palais seats, not many would argue that these sessions had anything compelling to teach us about the business of marketing communications. Or am I wrong? Please feel free to comment below if you disagree), nonetheless I say this – people who go on about Cannes Lions needing to focus more on effectiveness really are missing the point.

At best the question forces the Lions team to get distracted from what they are the best at doing  – that is, providing a north star of creative inspiration to show us the way forward in the industry. In an often cynical business, Cannes Lions is where we can be truly open to the power of possibilities rather than the restrictions of reality. In fact, over-focusing on effectiveness will actually result in the constriction of creative inspiration by insidiously elevating the familiar over the original, and the importance of relentless success over occasional failure.

But here’s the really bad bit  at worst, such criticism waves a red flag in the air which many will seize upon to show that the link between Creativity and Effectiveness hasn’t been made or isn’t already proven, when in fact, the opposite is true. One only has to study the recent research of Peter Field and Les Binet or James Hurman to see that the link between Creativity and Effectiveness has already been made, and that Cannes Lions needn’t have to prove it again every year. Lions is the best place in the world to look for advertising creativity. If you want to understand the link between advertising creativity and effectiveness you’d be better off simply checking out the IPA’s peerless collection of case studies. They work together, they don’t compete.

And before you start thinking that I sound like I have gone native and drunk the Kool-Aid of the hip, mouthy advertising consultancy for which I now work, the evidence for my point is ably made by the increasing numbers of traditional clients who make winning a Lions a critical part of their brand strategies. (This, we should remember, is a stark turnaround from before the millennium when many of the world’s biggest advertisers such as P&G didn’t even send any staff to Cannes.)

Why the change of heart from clients? Because they realise that creativity has become one of the last remaining unfair competitive advantages in the marketplace. It is exceptional creativity – the defeat of familiar habit by the truly original – that, due to the supercharging abilities of today’s digital communication landscape, can beat the old world assets of scale, access to capital and supply chains. This is very different from even just a few years ago when audience attention could be bought with the size of your media budget. Today, ‘Creativity is King’ is not a meaningless slogan but a strategic call to arms since advertising is an industry whose output the audience will pay to avoid (we are unfortunately unique in this regard among the communications industry) and, rather annoyingly, today they actually have the ability to bloody well do so.

Of course we’ve always known that simply having an original idea that gets you noticed is not enough on its own. Bill Bernbach was spot on when he said If no-one notices your advertising everything else is academic but so was Dave Trott when he updated David Ogilvy’s ‘gorilla in a jockstrap’ schtick in his own inimitable style by reminding us that Just being different is not enough  if you’re advertising Sara Lee, a picture of a turd isn’t gonna be a viable alternative.

So if you’re a creative, the next time you see a client at Cannes you should smile, applaud and maybe even buy them a drink (ex-clients also count by the way…). Because it means that they finally get that not only do awards play a critical role in incentivising the best creatives to want to work on your brand (like duh – but it took me a while to realise this at the start of my career), but that creativity itself has been elevated as a topic of discussion in corporate boardrooms. Which ultimately prepares and educates all our clients to sign off braver, increasingly creative and, lest we forget, more effective, work.