Reviewing Cannes Lions 2019: Who won what and why?

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Each year, after the Cannes Lions festival, thenetworkone takes a few days to reflect on the events and look for the key themes and patterns which emerge. Here is our take on Cannes 2019.

At its heart, Cannes is an awards festival. A little like the Oscars in the movie industry, a glance at the major prize winners reveals much about how the industry sees itself right now. The major prizes are the Grand Prix, and this year just 30 were awarded: from around 30,000 entries in all. So yes, they do mean something.

Two major trends are clear. First, Cannes is now dominated by the English-speaking world in general and by the US in particular:


  • More than half of the Grand Prix winners (17 out of 30) are based in the US
  • 12 of these 17 – 40% of the total – are based in New York alone
  • Of the 14 winners who are not based in the US, 11 are local subsidiaries of the large US/UK holding companies: WPP, Omnicom and IPG


Simple maths tells us that just two out of 30 Grand Prix winners – Publicis Marcel from France and RBK from Sweden – were created outside the US/UK, by companies headquartered outside US/UK. Although UK agencies didn’t win any GP’s either: probably with Brexit rolling ever onwards and business investment in UK down 40%, UK agencies can’t afford the entry fees. But that does not explain the lack of winners from India, Africa, Southeast Asia, Korea or Japan.


So, what's the reason?

Part of the problem – and it is a huge problem, for a festival which aspires to global significance - is the Cannes Lions Organisation itself. While they will fairly point to a diversity of judges on the various juries – 50 nations were apparently represented. But as Campaign Asia calculated, 24 out of 27 chairpeople of the Cannes Lions juries are currently working in either the US or the UK. One is working in continental Europe and two in APAC: none at all in Africa, the Middle East or Latin America.

Chairmen and chairwomen guide and set the tone of the judging debates. As Golin co-CEO Jonathan Hughes told the Holmes Report: “Every chairman of every jury... they all seem to start out by defining what the category means.” The consequence is obvious.

Diversity is not only about gender and ethnicity; it is also about culture. 89% of jury chairs currently working in the US or UK; 94% of Grands Prix won by US/UK-owned or -based agencies.

And the problem is not restricted to the Grands Prix: Campaign Asia calculated that around 120 Lions were won by all APAC agencies combined, whereas 310 were won by the US alone. Hmm. Two thirds of the world’s population live in Asia and Africa, and if they abandon Cannes, this global festival will no longer be global.


So far, so good

The second trend is the nature of the winning work. It’s great to see the advertising and marketing communications community stepping up to the plate, in supporting causes that do good in society. But now it almost seems that to win a top prize, the work has to be socially driven, and work aiming to increase a brand’s sales is no longer admired. By our count, 22 out of 30 entries were primarily driven by societal purpose.

It’s easier to list the ones which were not: Burger King’s Whopper Detour (3 GPs,) Wendy’s Keeping Fortnite fresh, Nike’s Air Max Graffiti Stores in Sao Paulo and the two GPs awarded for music videos. You can make your own count as lists of the GP winners are easy to find.

Is this a positive trend? Opinion is divided and arguably, this is another dangerous West/East divide.

Saurabh Varma, CEO of Publicis South Asia (and a Creative Effectiveness juror), said to Campaign: “Cannes has become too cause-y. This is not advertising any more. The Western World is saying, ‘We have too many things and less is good – less is more.’ When less is more, you start looking at causes all the time. In India, it’s still about winning things, acquiring things. It’s still about the rat race. There’s a certain joy in growing.”

Of course, a campaign for a social cause can also have a commercial benefit for a company. Microsoft were clear that in its GP-winning entry for its game controllers adapted for people with movement difficulties, "we were not concerned to sell more game controllers, we wanted people to think better of us as a company". Today, social responsibility and commercial advantage are linked. But if 75% of the top prizes go to campaigns for social causes, people will stop entering commercial work and that will be a loss.

There are good arguments either way and this is not an issue only for Cannes. My own company, thenetworkone, runs an awards program for independent agencies. Last year, an entrant from France told us: “As soon as I saw the entry from Finland (in support of a social cause), I knew my entry, designed to increase my client’s sales, would not win.”

This year, we have changed our rules to separate social purpose from commercial purpose. Perhaps that will be better, perhaps not. But judgments of merit, require comparability. Let’s see. Right now, we are all a little unsure what to do.


Corporate social purpose: whose mindset?

Time magazine hosted an interesting seminar deep in Palais 2 and far from the main stages. The theme was the growing disconnect between people and politicians. With regard to the US specifically, it said: “America is getting younger and more diverse. Its leadership is getting older and whiter. The Trump cabinet is the oldest in history. Companies need to start conversations about these issues.”

And they are. One of the most widely discussed speakers at Cannes was Alan Jope, the new CEO of Unilever. Jope is putting Purpose front, left and centre of his leadership agenda. He lambasted the Cannes Lions content team who “specifically asked us not to speak about purpose, which is why we had to come up with the ridiculous talk title about walruses”.

He challenged Unilever’s agencies not to accept briefs which do not walk the talk on purpose. He had no sympathy for “middle-aged white men” displaced by women in senior roles. He undertook to divest from Unilever’s portfolio, any brand lacking a clear and meaningful social purpose. He cited the continuing social commitment of Ben (Cohen) and Jerry (Greenfield), founders of the ice cream brand, who ‘still come to work’ and have recently called out the injustice of “white people [in the US] getting legally rich from cannabis, while a lot of black people are still in jail for using it.” The man has a point there.  

If Mr Jope seemed a slightly isolated voice in Cannes, that is only because most CEOs (as opposed to CMOs) no longer attend. However, several of them were recently at Vivatech, the rival show set up by Publicis, which now takes place in May.

Last year at Vivatech, A-List CEOs like Marc Zuckerberg of Facebook and Dara Khosrowshahi of Uber were notably ‘on the back foot’, defending their reputations against accusations of moral misdemeanours. This year’s CEOs were better prepared and much more positive.

Ginny Rometty, global CEO of IBM, talked about their partnerships with governments and corporates to tackle global issues like food safety, food waste and human slavery trafficking; and was joined by Stephane Richard, CEO of Orange as they talked about "relationships with big companies based on shared visions and values". A succession of other CEOs – Vas Narasimhan of Novartis, Thomas Bubert of Axa, Ken Hu of Huawei and most notably Jack Ma of Alibaba, all talked about their companies’ social purpose programmes. Was there a sub-text about taking over the role of government in some of this? I was left wondering. It would make sense in the current political climate of National Selfishness in some western countries.

Certainly, the CEOs see social purpose as crucial to their corporate success in winning and retaining both talent and customers. And clearly, this needs to be formulated judiciously and communicated skilfully. So maybe the Cannes juries have a fair argument. But still, it cannot be right that 89% of Grands Prix go to countries representing 5% of the global population.

But let’s move on. What else did we see, hear and learn at Cannes this year? Read our seven major trends from this year's festival.


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