Feeding the Cannes Lions: are industry awards worth it?

7 July 2017

When Arthur Sadoun, CEO of Publicis Groupe – one of the largest ad agencies in the world – announced the company would not be entering the Cannes Lions next year, he caused something of an industry whirlwind. Here Andy Bolter, creative partner at agency Yes & Pepper, which isn’t short of big name clients itself (Disneyland Paris, Visa, Sky), writes about the relationship between money and creativity, and questions the value of all industry awards.

The furore that Publicis generated with its decision to give the Cannes Lions festival (and I assume other awards) a wide berth next year has died down a little, leaving me to ponder the response from Ascential Events, agencies and the press. If you’re a small to medium advertising agency with billings below £2 million, it’s old news. Awarding creativity in advertising and marketing has long been a plaything for the rich and networked. That’s not to say a lot of the work on show isn’t amazing. Fearless Girl is one of my favourite pieces of work ever to win a Lion (or four). And the fearless women from McCann New York who created it couldn’t have been more humble.
Cannes Lions left a lot of us in the industry behind years ago. It’s not that most of us wouldn’t want a Lion on our mantlepiece. Anyone who says they wouldn’t enjoy being recognised for their work is a liar. It might only be a pat on the back from our peers and colleagues, but who cares? It’s still a pat on the back. But here’s the rub – the cost of entering your work is more eye-watering than sandpaper pants, to a point that it’s a bit like living in a one-bedroom flat and visiting your mates in their five-bed villa overlooking the sea. What you wouldn’t give to be able to live in a place like that? Add to those fees to the time, effort, production and cost it takes to put together an entry and it becomes a struggle to recognise the value.

One sum that I read last week, according to Advertising Age, quoted the money spent by Publicis alone was at $20 million once you included flights, accommodation, food and booze. Obviously no-one had responded to this comment when asked. An easier figure to digest is a holding company of its size probably spent around $2 million on award entries alone (25% of that could be attributed to Cannes Lions). It doesn’t take a procurement director to spot a decent saving when you see one. Especially if you are going to reinvest that money in a business changing platform like ‘Marcel’.
The other figure that I picked up from Ad News was agency entries had declined by 4.5%, while client entries had risen by 69%. Without context, these figures tell us nothing. My guess is the drop from agency entries, which was traditionally the lion’s share, is a bigger figure in lost revenue than the rise in client entries.
In light of this, Cannes Lions isn’t really for creativity; it’s a pat on the back for the creative elite (from all aspects of the industry). And the creative elite is changing. More brands want to move their work in-house, consultancies are circling “creative shops” from the English Channel to the South Pacific, and technology, with its data driven dreams, is plugging up the system. And that’s fine. Everything will evolve with the times or rot.
Interestingly, it’s fine with Ascential Events (Cannes Lions organisers) too. Its response was to create an advisory group to put creativity back at the heart of the awards. A panel made of major advertisers, partners, agency networks and the Mayor of Cannes, of which P&G, Unilever, Burger King, AT&T and Heineken are the first to join.
The advisory group is a mob made from those who are probably going to gain from this shift. Let’s be honest, Ascential Events is a business. It puts the awards on to make money. Last year its revenue from the festival, according to the Wall Street Journal, was around $61.5 million. The company went public and floated on the Stock Market which means, by law, it has to look after its shareholders first by generating a considerable income.
And a platform made of money is the shakiest foundation for championing creativity. If you create a monster then you’ve got to feed it.
Despite all this, I still hope they find a way back to the festival’s original values. And I’ll still avidly look out for the winning work that makes me wish I’d thought of that, no matter who entered it. Whatever happens, I reckon it’ll be of scant consequence for half the industry as we’re too busy patting down ourselves in search of our wallets to pat each other on the back.

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Andy Bolter

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