The PR industry’s Cannes-undrum: Why Can’t We Win, And Why Does It Matter?
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The PR industry’s Cannes-undrum: Why Can’t We Win, And Why Does It Matter?

It's time for a serious discussion about why we still can't win consistently at Cannes—and whether it matters.

Paul Holmes

The PR industry’s Cannes-undrum: Why Can’t We Win, And Why Does It Matter?

So congratulations, first of all, to Edelman, which became the first public relations agency to get its name of the Grand Prix PR Lion since Cannes added the category six years ago. “The Scarecrow” campaign, which was entered by Creative Artists Agency, was a strong creative effort and probably the best PR Grand Prix winner of recent years.

But Edelman’s success should not cover up what was another pretty dismal year for the PR industry in the PR category. According to PR jury president Renee Wilson, about 40 percent of this year’s entries were submitted by PR firms, up from 25 percent or so in the previous year. But not one of those entries was among the 13 Gold Lions winners—and only one was among the 24 Silver Lions campaigns.

(The new Cannes rules allow for partner agencies to be credited alongside the submitting agency; most of the PR agency winners this year shared credit with an ad agency or other submitting firm. If that rule had been in place five years ago, FleishmanHillard would have been the first PR agency Grand Prix winner, sharing a Gatorade award with TBWA.)

So 40 percent of entries were submitted by PR agencies; less than 3 percent of the top prize winners were. Congratulations, then, to Publicis Consultants Italy, the only PR firm to have submitted a Gold or Silver winner this year. For the rest of the industry, it’s time for a serious discussion about why we still can’t win consistently at Cannes—and whether it matters.

A good starting point for that discussion was a meeting on the Croisette the morning after the PR Lions were announced, organized by Ogilvy Public Relations and attended by about 40 PR industry leaders, including a couple of jury members and representatives of Edelman and Weber Shandwick, the two multinational agencies represented among the Gold winners this year.

The meeting was far from the downbeat affair it might have been—Ogilvy UK chief Michael Frohlich kicked things off with a sincere congratulations to Edelman that was echoed by most in the room; nor did it turn into an exercise in self-flagellation, which occasionally happens in the PR business.

The discussion ranged across three possible explanations for the PR industry’s continuing difficulties: first, that the industry is simply not producing good enough work; second, that the industry is not entering the particular kind of work that Cannes juries look for; and third, that the industry has not learned how to package its work as well as rivals in other sectors.

Ketchum EMEA chairman David Gallagher, who served as PR jury president last year, said that watching the awards presentation this year, he began to wonder for the first time whether the industry’s work was simply not up to standard. Other suggested a number of ways in which PR agency campaigns might be falling short.

There was a concern that PR people—perhaps because they spend so much time playing defense, protecting reputation—simply don’t take as many creative risks as some of their peers. The Gold Lion winning effort from Droga5 and Weber Shandwick on behalf of Honey Maid began with an ad that created controversy because it featured both same-sex and mixed-race couples. (Yes, European readers, that can still cause a stir in America.)

The ad was created by Droga5; the ensuing social media response and crisis management work was handled primarily by Weber Shandwick. That follows a not-unfamiliar pattern: we have seen SABRE work that followed a similar ad creates controversy/PR manages controversy” template, for Kimberly-Clark (an ad that provoked the wrath of diaper-changing dads) and Aflac (ill-considered remarks from Gilbert Gotfied, the voice of the spokes-duck).

Would a PR firm have encouraged Honey-Maid to play it safer in its advertising? I’d like to hope not. The ad was a clear expression of the company’s values and the way the fallout was handled suggests the company and its PR team knew precisely what they wanted to say, what they wanted to stand for, and how they would handle the backlash—which they did superbly, hence the Lion.

There are also ongoing concerns that PR agencies are still not coming up with ideas that are primarily visual, that it is taking longer than it should for the industry to move away from its roots in print. Most of the Gold winners were strikingly visual, from the powerful stunts that made up the “Live Test Series” for Volvo Trucks, fom integrated Swedish agency Forsman & Bodenfors (and supported by PR agency Be On) to the colorful images for “Rice-Code,” for Inakadate Village, from Hakuhodo Tokyo, or even the disappearing news storieson the website for Turkish publication Radikal, from TBWA Istanbul.

And there’s a suspicion that PR agencies are still not creating campaigns that pack an emotional punch, the way that the “Bald Cartoons” campaign, designed to make children undergoing cancer treatment overcome embarrassment (from Ogilvy Brasil) or the “Sweetie” campaign against child trafficking (from Dutch agency Lemz) did.

Those are valid criticisms of the industry—we need to get better at visual expression, and we need to get better at touching hearts as well as heads—but they also speak to the prejudices of Cannes judges.

Elise Mitchell of US firm Mitchell Communications Group, said after the press conference that the jury had looked at several campaigns and thought that while they might have been good enough to win a PR industry award, the jury did not consider them to be worthy of a Cannes Lion.

My response was that several of the Cannes Lion winners—in previous years and even this year—would not have been considered worthy of a SABRE. I looked long at hard at one Grand Prix winner, and saw it as a finalist in the publicity stunt category at best. Last year’s winner would probably have picked up something in the In2 SABREs (which focus on content creation) but not as a campaign.

That’s not to say their either SABRE or Cannes has higher standards, but it is to say that they have very different standards. In addition to valuing work that is more visual—almost inevitable, given the critical role that video plays in the application process—and more emotionally impactful, Cannes appears to value creative ideas that are bold and simple, ideas that can be communicated clearly and concisely; it does not appear to value complexity or to reward process.

And while Wilson was at pains this year to emphasize that the jury was very focused on results, it is clear that previous PR juries have not always taken measurement and evaluation seriously; many successful campaigns have provided fairly primitive proof of success, from advertising equivalency to media impressions to increased friends and followers.

But perhaps the best summary of the what makes Cannes special was provided at the Ogilvy event by Rory Sutherland, vice chairman of Ogilvy Group UK, who reminded the assembled PR people: “Cannes is to everyday work what catwalk fashion is to everyday clothing.”

As a result, as Gallagher explained: “The best of our work is not always what we enter, and what wins is not always the best of our work.”

In other words, PR agencies are not always entering the kind of campaigns that Cannes is looking for, and when they do enter great work, they don’t always enter in the right way.

Underscoring that last point, I had a couple of jury members tell me that they could tell within the first few seconds of the entry video whether it had been submitted by a PR firm or an ad agency (or, presumably, a talent agency like CAA). In terms or professionalism, presentation and production values, the PR entries are simply not up to the standard set by advertising agencies.

Jackie Cooper, global vice chair of brand properties at Edelman, acknowledged as much when she discussed the firm’s Grand Prix winner. “There were other campaigns that we entered that were just as good as the Chipotle work,” she told the Ogilvy brunch. The implication is that “The Scarecrow” won—at least in part—because it was entered by CAA.

Gallagher explained the difference between most PR awards competitions and the competition in Cannes: “We are used to producing case histories. The ad agencies submit films that look like movie trailers.”

Budget may be part of the issue. Ogilvy & Mather Group CMO Judy Mitchem demurred when asked how much the ad agency spent on a typical Cannes entry, but she did concede that O&M regularly hires PR firms—not its own—specifically to make its work “famous” ahead of the festival, recognizing that campaigns that come into the competition with a buzz about them have a better chance of success.

But Cooper for one doesn’t believe the relative lack of budget is an excuse for the PR industry’s poor performance. “If [winning] is important enough, it will get the budget,” she told brunch attendees.

That observation brings us to the final question. Is it important enough? Does it merit the (not insignificant) investment? Should PR firms continue to plug away, trying to win in an awards competition that sometimes feels as if it is rigged against them? Or that wants their money, but only on its own terms?

After all, as Sutherland told the PR agency people at the Ogilvy brunch, “The world is moving in your direction.” The things that PR brings to the table—authenticity, credibility, trust, engagement, dialogue—are all increasingly valuable to marketers, and may be more critical to the industry’s long-term success than how much silverware PR agencies pick up.

That trend is, of course, why so many ad agencies, and firms with their roots in other disciplines, are anxious to compete in the PR competition. Said Wilson, after the PR Lions press conference, “What we are seeing is that all types of agencies are recognizing the power of PR. The kind of thinking that wins these awards only comes from great PR people, wherever they are working.”

On one level, we should probably see this as a good thing, a sign that the discipline is finally gaining the respect of others in the creative community. And we should celebrate great PR work, regardless of how the agency that produces it describes itself.

That trend is also a sign that the lines between the various disciplines are growing more and more blurry with each passing year. As Ogilvy’s EMEA chief executive Stuart Smith pointed out after the awards ceremony, “There were winners in the promo category that could easily have been winners in the PR category.” And many of the winners in the PR category could just as easily have been entered in digital, experiential, or promotional categories.

Indeed, several PR agencies have entered work in other categories—digital and social and branded content—that will be presented later in the week. And there’s no reason why PR firms should not, one day, be competing against ad agencies in the paid media categories. (Although it has to be said that to this point, the interdisciplinary incursions have been pretty much one-way traffic.)

And very few marketing campaigns are the work of a single agency in a single discipline; the credit must increasingly be shared among different firms. And as Coca-Cola group director, global brand PR, Judith Snyder—one of just a couple of clients attending the brunch—pointed out, most clients don’t care who gets credit for the work as long as the work gets results.

That may be true, but Public Relations Consultants Association’s Steve Miller was also at the brunch, and his organization recently produced some disturbing research suggesting that 55 percent of clients would consider buying traditional PR services from a non-PR agency. One reason is surely that many marketing clients continue to believe that big, bold creative ideas are more likely to come from the ad agencies.

But clients are not, perhaps, the most important audience when it comes to awards success. The war for talent is where the really critical action is these days. Those agencies that are able to attract the best creative talent are going to generate the best creative ideas, and those firms that generate the best creative ideas are going to earn the (no pun intended) lion’s share of the client’s budget—as well as the central role in developing brand strategy.

And make no mistake, PR firms are now competing for talent with ad agencies and digital and social agencies and every other kind of firm represented at Cannes. And talented people are competitive. Many of them crave recognition. And in the creative community, a Cannes Lion remains the most meaningful kind of recognition. It signifies a genuine commitment to building a creative culture, where their abilities will be valued and nurtured.

If they don’t believe they can find that recognition and that kind of culture working for a PR firm, many of them will take their talent elsewhere.

For that reason, the post-mortem that began at Ogilvy’s morning-after brunch needs to expand into a full-fledged forensic examination of what wins PR Lions and why. That way, the industry can turn 40 percent of the entries into 40 percent of the Lions—which frankly ought to be the bare minimum standard for success.

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