Cannes 2017: Creative for creativity’s sake?

An expert panel discusses whether the best work wins, or if juries are getting played by emotional cause work.
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There’s been a popular rhetorical question at the Palais and the watering holes along the Croisette this year regarding one of the festival’s darlings, “Fearless Girl” by McCann New York: “But who is it for?”

Most of those asking can now name State Street Global Advisors, but their point is that’s only because the Wall Street sculpture has won several Lions Grand Prix.

A panel hosted by WARC on Thursday poured some cold water on some of the festival’s euphoria around brand purpose and advertising as a balm for the world’s problems, rather than a means to sell stuff. It’s not that creativity isn’t important to that end, they agreed. Rather, it’s that the wrong kind of creativity is too often being rewarded.

In the pursuit of millennials, brands and creatives are too eagerly lining up with the zeitgeist and creating brand personalities that lead to a sameness in winning campaigns, said Malcolm Poynton, global CCO at Cheil. Jurors prize the “fresh and cool” at the expense of campaigns that are good at selling products and therefore stay in market for several years, he said.

“Out in the great wilderness of society and consumers,” new isn’t as important. “The opposite is true. You build brands over time,” he said.

Too often, jurors coalesce around work with the strongest emotional pull, leading to more and more campaigns seeking the same impact, he said. “I think that’s a really dodgy thing about the industry at the moment.”

Droga5 London CCO David Kolbusz went even further in describing the impact of aspirational advertising. In an improvised presentation containing more than a little bit of self-loathing, he connected the election of Donald Trump to a brand of progressivism being pushed on an unwilling public, in part through advertising.

“A lot of the work we do kind of facilitates the darkness in the world because the world is not ready for slightly more enlightened viewpoints,” he said.

Advertisers need to be more grounded about what they think they’re making – work that at best is “glorious” but also “invades homes” and is “a blight on the landscape.” Tying brands to social causes isn’t a bad thing, Kolbusz said. “It just shouldn’t be the entire essence of what you’re trying to put out into the world.”

Kolbusz was also critical of the Cannes juries, saying the best work, which endures and actually helps brands, typically wins Bronze Lions, while the Gold and Grand Prix go to the emotional cause work.

“It’s slightly embarrassing that we’re letting our hearts contend with our heads,” he said.

Paul Bainsfair, director-general of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), said that while there is some evidence that consumers are willing to pay more for brands they care about, brands have become too specific and similar in the causes they support.

To illustrate his point, he showed a Saturday Night Live sketch where agency creatives make their Superbowl ad pitches for Cheetos: one group pushing ads with a child using American flags to climb a wall on the Mexican border, the other featuring kids horsing around in the back of a van while mom’s driving. The client is far more enthusiastic about the former.

Brands need to take a more strategic approach to their purpose, said Nigel Hollis, EVP and chief global analyst at Kantar Millward Brown, beginning by asking “How does your brand serve people?” rather than starting with the advertising.

“I think advertising is jumping straight to ‘Let’s address a societal tension, win ourselves an award in Cannes,’ rather than figuring out ‘is there a more fundamental way we can improve our brand’s meaningful difference?’” he said. “Because if there is, that’s what’s going to sell. Tangible differentiation, tangible brand advantages will win.”