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A Few Hot Takes on the New Look Cannes Lions

London, UK
Industry leaders including Ogilvy’s Tham Khai Meng, J. Walter Thompsons’ Tamara Ingram, DDB’s Ari Weiss and more gave Laura Swinton and Alex Reeves their verdict on the changes to Cannes’ awards architecture
Cyber was ditched, exotic new categories were dreamed up and beamed in, juries were trimmed and entry numbers shrank. 

Ever since that fateful moment back in 2017 when, mid-festival, Publicis Groupe decided to announce a network-wide, year-long awards abstention, the Cannes Lions organisers have been working to convince the industry that they are listening to their concerns. In order to combat criticisms about category explosion, award relevance and the sheer cost of entering and attending Cannes, the team have been tinkering and tweaking the mechanics of the show. So how have those changes played out? Have they been enough to counter the criticism, and what do agencies and jurors make of the changes and new categories.

This year there were 32,372 entries – a fifth down from last year’s 41,170. And that’s not entirely down to Publicis Groupe’s moratorium; as everyone at Cannes noted (suitably quizzical eyebrow at the ready), a surprisingly large number of terribly helpful clients and production companies entered work on the holding company’s behalf. Instead it seems that the Publicis gave agencies elsewhere the confidence to openly question the volume and value of awards entries. Other award shows have not all necessarily suffered the same drop – the One Show told us that the percentage drop in entries was in the low single figures, and it’s a show known for re-investing a lot of the money it makes back into communities and into the next generation.

“I think the genius of the Publicis move is that they did what all of us had been thinking about anyway. The questioning of awards, how much money we spend trying to get random awards around the world, what they really mean, are questions that have been lingering for years for, easily, the past five years in our mind,” says MullenLowe Group’s Jose Miguel Sokoloff. “Maybe this is a bit controversial, what I’m going to say, but I don’t think it changed very much, but it got us talking openly.”

One agency told us they managed to add $1 million to their bottom line this year by taking a more judicious and considered approach to their festival entries. But while the dip in entries might have been inevitable, the organisers have implemented a number of changes that ECDs, CCOS and CEOS have been observing closely.

Streamlined… ish

One of the biggest criticisms of the award show circuit – not just Cannes Lions – is that the proliferating categories are confusing and a bit of a racket, designed to encourage companies to enter the same piece of work multiple times. On the other hand, the opposing argument is that the industry is evolving so rapidly that shows need to come up with new categories to better reflect the work being done. The ANDYs responded this year by ditching categories altogether.
Cannes have retired some categories, cut down on the subcategories and introduced new ones  - Creative eCommerce, Social & Influencer, Sustainable Development Goals – though the overall number of Lions isn’t hugely different.

Ogilvy’s global CCO Tham Khai Meng sees the changes as a sign that the organisers are listening. “Cyber is being retired – which is a good thing because everything is ‘cyber’. It’s such an old term, so old-fashioned. I like the new Cannes in that respect. It’s got smaller, more manageable. It was too big and [there was] too much wasteage. It’s evolving with the times and they’re pretty smart about that. The evolution shows they are listening to what we want, so I think Philip Thomas to his credit is doing a good job,” he says.

In order to help people get their head round the many Lions that make up the award, the team has created streams, something that Bettina Olf, CCO at Geometry Germany. “I really like the tracks. I find that’s good orientation. I think everything that helps you get a better orientation at the festival works very well for me,” she says.

Sid Lee’s Alex Pasini, SVP of Global Alliances agrees. “I find it’s a bit more purposeful than what it was last year. You get lost with the different categories of what is what and numbers of entries. It was very confusing,” he says. “I think the tracks are more of the matter of what’s important today. I think that difference between Experience, Reach, Impact and so forth makes it easier to navigate, not only in terms of the awards but also in terms of the content you’re able to access while you’re here.”

A Cannes without Categories?

But, for many, the notion of having categories at all just doesn’t reflect the nature of the industry today. 

Ari Weiss, CCO at DDB North America judged on the mobile jury and he says that the question of whether the Mobile Lions would even exist in five years was quite a hot topic for the group. In his point of view, mobile, is simply one of many possible portals to creativity, communication and content. “I think the narrative of the festival around categories, the way we’re consuming content has changed so much and having stiff categories is falling apart,” he says. “Ideas and how they move, and the fluidity by which they move, is becoming the trend.”

Similarly, when discussing the introduction of the Creative eCommerce Lion, J. Walter Thompson’s global CEO Tamara Ingram is concerned that it’s symptomatic of an overly fragmented approach to creativity. “All great work closes sales, so I think over-categorising at awards has always slightly bothered me. I’d almost like to simplify things rather than specialise because that’s what creativity needs. It shouldn’t be about one little minute niche. That’s my major thing that I would change about Cannes – it looks like it’s about fragmenting when the world is much more together. I would declutter the number of categories,” she says.

On the other hand, the rise and fall of different categories can be a barometer of where the industry is really going, and the experiments from award show organisers can provide space for the industry to test itself. Whether Creative eCommerce flies or fails, it says something about where the industry really is. For Jose Miguel Sokoloff, the landscape used to be quite clear and organised, but now it’s more complicated and constantly changing – and the question of award show categories helps the industry ask bigger questions about itself. “In this weird environment, we need to create all sorts of categories to find out where we [as agencies] really play an important part. I think sometimes this industry believes it plays a role in things and it doesn’t really – and I think sometimes we overlook places where we do play a part in life or business.”


Even the sceptics are, if not intrigued, watching with interest. Creative eCommerce, for example, has the kind title that sounds like a total snoozefest – though on the other hand, there’s no denying it’s a massive driver for client business (let he without Amazon Prime account cast the first stone).

“I was a bit sceptical about Creative e-Commerce – I think I’m always a bit sceptical when new categories come out. I remember when health and wellness came out and I thought, ‘this feels like an entry fee scheme…’ and then I saw the work and I was like ‘wow’,” says Ari, who is ambivalent about categories generally, but open-minded. “I think Nick [Law, the inaugural Creative eCommerce jury president] did a lovely job of defining it. He defined it as the end goal that we have for all marketing, which is a compelling narrative that drives you to purchase. We’re getting closer than ever to the point where the storytelling and purchase are directly interconnected.”

According to Fadi Shuman, the Global Chief Digital Officer and eCommerce Officer at Geometry Global, who sat on the jury, while he was worried that the entries were going to be a few fairly boring transactional websites, the breadth of entries turned out to be surprising.

“It was such a breath of fresh air – there was no definition, apart from that we all had to agree that there was an online transaction element to [the work]. A lot of us thought it might just be about websites that had an element of ecommerce or apps that sold stuff - It was more than that,” he said, explaining that there were all sorts of entries, including completely redefined business models. “I think we had just two entries that were literally ‘a website’. This is the festival of creativity. We really had to continue to think about creativity as part of the solution.”

Ultimately, it's a category that characterises the tension not only within Cannes, but within the industry at large. 

The Charidee Condundrum

The presence of pro bono work for charities and NGOs in categories alongside brand work has long been a source of frustration for CCOs, who see competing in award shows as a pro-level sport. If scam is the equivalent of dosing your team up on heavy duty steroids, the pro bono stuff is that grey area of legal (but not entirely sporting) performance enhancers. Ofcourse you can get away with wilder, crazier, edgier, grittier work when you’re doing it as a favour. 

On the other hand, there’s also no denying that the really good work does and has made an impact on the public consciousness, and therefore deserves recognition. But even then, it should be about rewarding work that makes a difference, not rewarding work that’s been created to do well at award shows.

Cannes have approached this issue in two ways. One is that pro bono work can’t win a Grand Prix in a normal category – it must be put forward for the Grand Prix for Good. That’s been the case for some time now. They have also now split the sub categories between brand work and charity work, so that jurors are served brand work together and charity work together, to help them judge like with like. 

Does it go far enough? Bas Korsten, Creative Partner at J. Walter Thompson Amsterdam, isn’t so sure. He sat on the Creative Data jury and reckons if Cannes are going to split the two, it should be a ‘harder split’.

“I think the biggest thing that impacted the judging was the split between charity and brand-led because now, per sub category, you get served the brand-led stuff and the charity stuff. And that’s a call that Cannes makes on which category it falls into. There is room to look at them separately, but you still want to get some kind of idea of what was the best project in the category. And you can’t award a Grand Prix in the charity section. So how do we relate the two to each other? That was quite a debate. Is this the best way or should there be a separate category? I’m curious. I think that’s going to come back as a tip or a suggestion.”

To combat this very issue, Cannes this year introduced the Sustainable Development Goals Lion, to award work that goes towards making the world a better place. However, as its focus is the UN Sustainable Development Goals, it may not feel so all-encompassing for all the charity and NGO work submitted. Indeed, many jurors we spoke to told us they still felt too much charity work found its way into their categories.

The Value of Cannes

Despite the nit-picking, and the fact that many are more openly questioning the value of awards, the overall feeling was that awards generally and Cannes specifically still have enormous value for the creative industries. The caveat here is that these were people we spoke to on the Croisette, so it’s a self-selecting group.

“The value is we, as an industry, need a metric,” says Tham Khai Meng. “Cannes, in my book, is a pretty good metric. I’m a big believer in the idea that you cannot improve if you cannot measure... You have strong competition here and it’s almost like a barometer of the work… I think there’s such a big encouragement for our conservative industry.”

“We believe hugely in the value of creativity and therefore in the value of awarding creativity,” agrees Tamara Ingram. “It’s very important for talent, it’s important for some of our clients. As long as it’s the creativity in our work, not anything scammy but things that make a difference to our client’s difference. I hugely admire Cannes for that and that’s why I come year after year. I think what Cannes have done is begin to limit the explosion of days and categories. This will be a moving feast as Cannes finds its feet in the new world.”
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