Once again, the Cannes Lions festival has induced a measure of introspection within the public relations industry, after advertising agencies dominated the PR Lions for the third consecutive year.
Yet no one should be unduly surprised by this turn of events. While entries within the category surged to almost 900, PR firms accounted for just 50 more submissions this year, taking their overall tally to 224. And although the PR category is just three years old, it is not as if we are lacking in precedent. To date, the PR Grand Prix remains the exclusive property of adland. In 2009 it was CumminsNitro, while 2010 was TBWA\Chiat\Day. This year, of course, Clemenger BBDO took top honours.
From what I understand, the Australian agency narrowly pipped Sweden’s Prime PR, whose Electrolux campaign won a Gold Lion. It would be easy, if not a little glib, to simply note that Cannes is, at heart, a festival for the advertising industry. That their agencies are winning in greater measure than PR firms should not be treated like a bolt from the blue.
Last year, I analysed some of the reasons why, in a post that now looks uncharacteristically prescient. Going by this year’s award results, though, the PR industry actually appears to have regressed. Indeed, there is one school of thought, judging by my conversations with a number of global agency CEOs, that says the festival should simply be left to those who value it most. It is hard to argue with the contention that PR people have better things to do than drain money into the never-ending swirl of the Gutter Bar.
That argument, what jury president Dave Senay calls “isolationism”, strikes me as being a little too self-defeating. Personally, I quite like the idea that the PR world’s best work could go up against other marketing disciplines and win. Not just in the PR category either. Surely the Cyber, Promo and Integrated categories - to name three - offer other opportunities for success?
Instead, I wonder if the awards competition is simply not calibrated to recognise the best that the PR industry has to offer. As Richard Edelman pointed out at our ThinkTank Live summit in Prague, “complexity is where PR agencies can win.” Edelman was responding to a question about why CMOs have been slow to recognise the PR discipline’s central brand-building ability. That charge can equally be levelled at Cannes. Winning entries often feature big, beautiful, narrative videos. Not only is that rather costly, but it also tends to reward the type of bold, visual, and simple ideas that represent the best of advertising.
Recognising instead the multi-faceted appeal of a genuine stakeholder campaign, one that is constantly adjusted to respond to the real-time impact of a bewildering range of influencers, is a different matter altogether. The prohibition on allowing non-profits to win the Grand Prix also seems obtuse. I have never heard of ‘scam PR’, and I hope I never do.
In short, the PR industry is being asked to play according to the rules of advertising. Which also explains why the quality of entries from categories outside of consumer - bread-and-butter areas like corporate, public affairs and crisis - are, in Senay’s words, “weak”.
Cannes, therefore, becomes a vehicle by which to access the marketing side of the PR equation. The opportunities beyond the awards programme add weight to this argument. The seminar component offers a chance to showcase the kind of innovation that is a feature of cutting-edge PR thinking, within an integrated mindset that can only appeal to senior marketers. Indeed, the presence of so many CMOs is not something that can be taken lightly.
Ask those CMOs what matters to them, and the answer that gains most currency is ‘collaboration’. In an increasingly cooperative marketing ecosystem, it cannot do the PR world any favours to assume that Cannes does not exist. Neither does it help, though, to see public relations defined by the jaundiced view that often limits its importance in the eyes of the advertising profession. The public relations industry must embrace the former and fight the latter if it genuinely hopes to prosper at Cannes.
The SABRE Awards is the world's largest PR awards program, running across six continents. 2016 details now available.