Charting the future of public relations
Cannes Lions: Blurring Boundaries Should Not Put PR Firms On Back Foot
Arun Sudhaman
Holmes Report
President/Editor-in-Chief

Cannes Lions: Blurring Boundaries Should Not Put PR Firms On Back Foot

The idea that PR firms should become more ‘simple’ in pursuit of Cannes Lions metal is, understandably, a little disconcerting.

Arun Sudhaman

This year’s Cannes Lions festival programme has a decidedly editorial bent, featuring a number or star journalists explaining why an understanding of journalistic nuance can help marketers in their efforts to connect with consumers.

It is a lesson well worth learning, particularly in these times when brands are expected to utilise a more sophisticated understanding of content in their interactions with people. It is also one that PR firms instinctively understand, having had to grapple with the realities of earning people’s attention and trust for plenty of time now.

So there is some irony, amid a marketing environment that is moving inexorably towards a public relations state of mind, that PR firms still struggle to dominate the Cannes award category that bears its name.

We have analysed many of the reasons for this in previous years and, in truth, this year saw a marked improvement from the PR industry in terms of its awards haul. As one senior agency head noted to me, though, “we have yet to cross the rubicon.”

One reason for that, undoubtedly, is the complexity that PR firms typically trade in. Cannes favours big, bold marketing ideas, a truth that was brought home to me when I interviewed John Mescall, the executive creative director at PR Lions Grand Prix winner McCann Melbourne. “What PR agencies do best is probably not easily summed up in the first 15 seconds of a case study video,” Mescall told me. “PR is, by definition, complex. PR people are rewarded for solving complex problems. We’ve been rewarded for simplicity.”

The idea that PR firms should become more ‘simple’ in pursuit of Cannes Lions metal is, understandably, a little disconcerting. Yet there was enough in the awards winners to suggest that PR agencies are becoming much better at packaging multilayered campaigns into a simpler proposition that is more easily accessible to overworked awards juries.

This matters, because, PR firms are not (thankfully) just selling their ideas to awards juries. They are, increasingly, trying to sell them to the people that matter: senior brand building decision-makers, many of whom will hail from the marketing side of the equation. As one global agency head pointed out to me, this should not just be viewed as a ‘Cannes problem’. The risk is that senior marketers thousands of miles from the Croisette will take note of the PR Grand Prix winner and conclude that their ad agencies are best placed to lead their brand building efforts.

This takes on added resonance against a backdrop of blurring boundaries, where the same campaign can win across any number of categories. Admen like Mescall believe they are best place to lead this kind of work, posing a challenge for PR firms that aspire to a more elevated role. Ogilvy & Mather CEO Miles Young discussed the quandary when I interviewed him this week. “Content does melt the traditional boundaries,” noted Young. “I wonder if there are revenues that were classified as PR that now seep into digital or advertising agencies?”

With that in mind, perhaps the truer test of the PR industry’s capabilities will come from whether it can succeed in categories beyond its own - such as Cyber, Promo & Activation, Titanium & Integrated - demonstrating that it develops integrated work as well as anyone. To do this, a major advantage may come back to the PR industry’s familiarity with a more editorial mindset.

At a Weber Shandwick panel that explored the rise of ‘realtime marketing’, the agency’s digital head Chris Perry wondered if today’s rapid fire environment might crush the industry’s creativity. Microsoft global creative director Michael Dwan thought not, pointing out that “creativity performs well with constraints.” That is a theme we have explored in the Holmes Report before.

These are constraints that might actually work to the PR world’s favour, requiring an agility when confronted with sudden shifts in the narrative, along with an understanding of the opportunities and risks that they pose. They may require a kind of sustained cleverness or wit, rather than the creative 'big bang' that Cannes sometimes appears to favour.

They also require a deeper understanding of content marketing, as explored in our special report into the PR industry's inroads into owned and paid media. It is the kind of thinking that is evident in the best PR work, whether Weber Shandwick's Design & Technology Association’s Gold Lion winning crisis campaign or 'The Candidate' campaign for Heineken by Edelman London and Publicis Italy. It is also a source of a competitive strength if the PR industry aims to ensure that blurring discipline boundaries do not put it on the backfoot.

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