Sex and death. “Two things that come once in my lifetime,” quipped Woody Allen. At this year’s Cannes Lions both happened- and that was just on the Croisette. The fatal car accident involving a Google executive and Twitter’s gleeful smuttering over a couple caught eloping on the red carpet after one too many melon balls overshadowed much of the creative powwow that is this Mad Men sur-la-mer. Rather than appealing to Woody’s aforementioned corporeals, many of the wares on display aspired to a higher kind of social purpose.
To follow the festival on twitter is to be removed from the backslapping delirium and to experience the hype–from the highfalutin to the just plain stupid- through a glass empty. From a Bedouin-chic tent off the promenade a tweet proclaiming that brands can make the world a better place and agencies can inspire social movements might make sense. To rest of the world –if they were listening- the platitudes collapsed under the weight of their own 15kg man-pregnancy bellies (yes, really a thing).
The focus on the theme of brands with a purpose seems to complement a lack of confidence in digital advertising — another big talking point of the festival. Once the future of the industry, the digital backlash now appears to be in full swing. Leading the pack is a Google study saying that nearly 50% of digital ads aren’t reaching their target audiences. Unilever’s Keith Weed spoke of the failure of our metrics to accurately capture the value of digital.
All of this was surely music to the ears of PRs- experts in good old fashioned reputation crafting. Yet there seemed to be a disconnect between this year’s topic of purposeful brands and many of the 1,969 PR entries that went full pelt with an idea without having decided on a point. The Wi-Fi-blocking pepper grinder from Dolmio may be an idea –releasing family-time from the tyranny of our mobile devices- but, as Michel Gondry’s dictum goes, even good ideas can pass the verge of being stupid.
The winner of the PR lion, Leo Burnett Chicago and Proctor and Gamble’s Like a Girl campaign for Always summed up the kind of vanity project that was the plat du jour. Interestingly the jury made a distinction between the thoughtful attempts to affect social change and the raft of stunts that dupe unsuspecting folk on the street before the big reveal that makes them reconsider, say, using a tanning salon or buying a gun.
Authenticity was the magic slogan at Cannes. It’s about, to quote Weed, “connecting with people” and “representing trust”. But as the fate of the candid camera style prank demonstrates authenticity at Cannes is more about what seems fresh at the time. Now that the heartstrings-yanking formula of stereotype busting is out we should expect next year’s production line to be filled with the likes of #BeingAMan and #SeniorMoments.
Outside of the Cannes bubble it is not obvious that people expect brands to be do-gooding NGOs. As professionally done as the Like a Girl campaign is, it ultimately ends with a plug for the brand, awkwardly shoehorning consumerism into the empowerment message. More cynically, with Domino’s concert for deaf people we see the use of corporate social responsibility as a marketing opportunity.
As with much of the work on show, it is not clear how the isolated campaign –the concert- fitted into the broader communications of the brand. This is related to an industry-wide problem of multiple specialist agencies working for the same brand; many do sterling work but operate in silos. One of the more illuminating discussion points around which the festival coalesced was the need for agencies to deliver fully integrated brand communications. As Weed said in his talk the current fragmentation isn’t just a fragmentation for the industry, “it’s a fragmentation for our brands.”
Ultimately the only question that should count at the festival is what does Cannes tell us about creativity in 2015? Well, it’s less about original ideas and more how a plethora of different brands can be articulated –to varying degrees of plausibility- through a limited number of current trends. There are ideas that are designed to make a headline or shareable screenshot but that disintegrate on contact with the oxygen of second thought. A tinder for pets by an animal rescue charity? Don’t ask- just swipe. An alarm clock infused with bacon-scent delivery? Passed on as quickly as it’s forgotten.
For 2016 our work should ditch the novelty froufrou and reclaim from the Croisette some of the essentials of being human- like, sex and death.
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