Before I explain why I think the PR awards at the Cannes Lions are still so bland, I want to make it clear that I’m overwhelmingly proud of the entire Havas PR global team for our strong showing at this year’s festival. We took home nine awards, including a gold for Media, Arts, and Entertainment, and silvers for celebrity endorsement and digital.
I give credit to our people—insanely creative and passionate folks who are linked together, allowed to play with a flexible toolbox and committed to thoughtful excellence. The mandate is fairly simple here: achieve every client’s dream scenario, have a damn good time and hopefully make the world a better place.
But now what worries me: Cannes has become too expensive and corporate for the upstart sizzlers to enter more than the occasional kick-ass piece of work. There’s still some really game-changing work being done out there, but we won’t see it being lauded by the judges by the sea. This makes me sad. It’s as if our industry went middle-aged before we had a rebellious adolescence and an outlandish post-collegiate decade. The Young Lions now belong to the mad men and women. PR has turned into a flock of more conventional folks doing as we’re told, toting up the Bronzes and Silvers, to be sure, but worrying about world domination by ad agencies that are better and making compelling video.
It was interesting to me that Australia seemed to dominate across the board this year. The communications agencies Down Under exemplify the anti-command-and-control sensibility that also serves as our ethos. That’s what seems to make greatness. The further you get from a command-central model, the less supervision and micro-management you end up with. It can be scary to loosen the reins, but the antipodean wins are proof that genius happens when creativity can run wild.
There’s a lesson here. We know that our Red Agency and One Green Bean are killer good, and we know better than to tell them anything more than “good work!” Why would we? They clean clocks. My only regret is that my favorite campaign from anywhere in the past year, the Ikea dog stool from One Green Bean, didn’t win honors. I’d really wanted the whole world to be laughing with me on that one.
But it’s not enough to congratulate these agencies on having an Aussie mind-set. There’s a lot more all of us around the world can learn from this small country full of big ideas and big executions like the ones we saw from every Australian agency this year. Perhaps there’s a correlation between small countries and big balls when it comes to creating and selling bold ideas that shake up the status quo. My agency does great work—we clean up at awards shows—and sit among the truly awarded. (My desk is drowning in the trophies and plaques that prove it.) But I wish I could say that all of our work globally is as stunningly ballsy as what I saw from Australian agencies this year.
My use of the word “ballsy” is intentional: The best Australian work exudes a great masculine energy, something we’re sadly missing over here. The American PR industry has become so feminized and so politically correct that I worry about where the edge has gone. It’s not even in Brooklyn or Long Island City anymore. We’ve institutionalized all the hot shops, softened their edges and finishing-schooled the brashness right out of them.
It doesn’t help that PR doesn’t have a star system; unlike in the ad world where there are creative “gods,” PR never promotes its stars. So it’s hard to know who to watch for and what work to watch. Sure, every year there are a few killer superstars, but it seems that many of the PR folks one meets are a who’s-who of good behavior in their country. They don’t want to rock out or question—or change—the rules, which means good-bye to the insanely obtuse dialogues, massive mutinies, overthrown systems and all the good stuff I associate with Cannes (and for that matter, the industry) past.
So the question for us all now is, how do we change it?
Marian Salzman is CEO of Havas PR North America