Dorothy Crenshaw June 30, 2016 | 11:34:16

For PR Agencies, Does Cannes Really Matter?


The Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity – the Oscars of the advertising business – was held last week, and apparently it was a big disappointment for the public relations industry, which won fewer awards than in previous years. I wouldn’t necessarily have known that, for two reasons. First, my social feeds were filled with posts of Cannes attendees at sun-dappled meetings against a brilliant Cote d’Azur, sipping Rosé and dropping celebrity names. Hard work, I’m sure. But it’s tough to feel bad because someone came home with nothing but a hangover.

PR sets sights on Cannes

The other reason is that for many PR agencies, Cannes simply hasn’t been on the radar, except when a client is a sponsor or honoree. But a few years ago, the public relations industry – led by the largest multinational agencies – decided that, in order to be competitive in an increasingly integrated marketing universe, we must be winners at Cannes, and we should work to grow the PR category to expand recognition for what we do. In 2015, PRs were heartened that three winning Lions were entered by PR agencies, and that Procter & Gamble’s “Like A Girl” campaign won the PR Grand Prix.

Never mind that the agency that dreamed up the winning campaign idea was ad shop Leo Burnett; MSLGroup, which handled the PR, was able to bask in the Grand Prix glory. For those with a stake in Cannes as a vehicle for gaining greater influence, and larger budgets for PR programs, it seemed that it was the break that PR needed.

But 2016 turned out differently. This year, despite a 38% increase in PR Lions award entries, just two “pure-play” PR agencies took home metal, making 2016 the most lackluster performance for PR shops since the category was created four years ago. The setback triggered a round of post-mortems by PR companies and advice from Cannes jurists on the reasons for the setback.

Amid the disappointment it’s worth noting that, while PR agencies took home fewer honors this year, public relations as a category is stronger than ever. Cannes used to be called the “Festival of Advertising.” Today, it’s a “Creativity” extravaganza, and with good reason. Most campaign entries are based in PR-ish concepts executed across many marketing disciplines, from advertising to media relations to direct-marketing and brand activation. The idea for REI’s wonderful #OptOutside campaign, which won the Grand Prix, originated with the client, but it was executed by a team of agencies and was honored in nine categories.

Lions honors are still led by ad agencies

The problem here is, the work is often led by ad agencies. So the very success of PR-driven campaigns naturally makes PR people, particularly those who work in large holding company networks, paranoid that their advertising colleagues are eating their lunch.

There’s some value to the self-analysis. There are plenty of logical reasons for PR’s less than stellar performance in Cannes, including the number of entrenched creative advertising players who have been entering the Festival for years; the superior packaging and presentation skills of many ad agencies; their higher dollar investment in awards; and a pronounced preference for a specific type of creative campaign beloved by Cannes jurists. In the words of Fleishman Hillard’s Dave Senay, Cannes rewards “big, bold, disruptive, transitory, and edgy ideas, rather than strategic, effective campaigns built on long-term relationships.”

“Awards for the PR one percent”

So, as more PR agencies invest in entering campaigns for Cannes awards, we will probably do better as an industry. But should we worry about our lack of metal at Cannes? Does it mean anything? My friend and former colleague Bob Pickard calls Cannes the “awards for the PR one percent” because of the high cost of entry, both in time and cash. Then there’s the fact that the Lions favor splashy international campaigns driven by compelling creative content, which might exclude nearly all but the largest consumer brand campaigns, or well-supported pro bono efforts, which are typically favored. B2B PR, financial services, public affairs, crisis management…these categories wouldn’t be likely Lions candidates.

He, like others, sees the PR industry’s preoccupation with recognition as “awards overkill” and calls it “an embarrassing…hunger for validation that makes PR firms look underconfident.” More to the heart of the matter, he points out that the Cannes Lions Festival is a marketing awards program and that PR isn’t really about marketing.

I think there are good reasons for PR agencies, particularly the largest multinationals, to invest in a strong showing at Cannes, and to send staff to network and gain inspiration there.  For the “PR one percent”, it’s more than a party. It makes sense to engage the Fortune 100 CMOs who predominate at the Festival. These agencies crave access to seven-figure budgets as much as they want ego gratification.

So, I’m happy for the multinationals to carry the torch for our industry when it comes to creativity in integrated marketing campaigns. And it’s encouraging that, as social media and branded content grow in importance, the tenets of smart PR thinking is beginning to predominate within other segments of the marketing mix.

What’s wrong with selling products?

But there’s something fundamentally hypocritical about the Cannes celebration of the best in marketing. The jurists like to lavish praise, and bestow metal, on the types of social marketing or philanthropic campaigns that are not truly representative of mainstream marketing work. It’s as if advertising, as an industry, is ashamed of the types of programs that sell ordinary products, like cars or cake mix. These are the accounts that actually keep the lights on at most agencies. Maybe this is true of any awards program, but it seems particularly acute at the Festival of Creativity. There’s no room for marketing populism.

It’s even more complicated for PR-led campaigns because PR is far more than a support for marketing. A well-designed PR program goes beyond the customer relationship to engage and influence not only consumers, but stakeholders, employees, media, and other constituencies. It may include community relations, third-party endorsement, word-of-mouth, and reputation management. At the end of the day, a strategic PR campaign may not always fit into a dazzling creative package. I can appreciate the inspiration that Cannes offers, but when it comes to entering, I may leave that to the PR one percent.

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