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Cannes Lions Has the Chance to Forge a New, Creative, Caring Capitalism


At the Young Lions Health Award launch, Laura Swinton chats to Unilever, UNICEF and Cannes about doing business and doing good

Cannes Lions Has the Chance to Forge a New, Creative, Caring Capitalism

What happens when the world’s largest advertiser, the world’s leading children’s charity and the world’s biggest advertising festival get together? Hopefully something good. This week Unilever, UNICEF and Cannes Lions launched the new Young Lions Health Award, inviting young talent to devise creative solutions to the health challenges facing the developing world. It’s a worthy venture in and of itself, of course, but it also solidifies Cannes Lions’ unique position as a broker between the creative community, NGOs and big business. And that’s kind of exciting.

It’s always easy to be cynical about ‘CSR’ initiatives, but speaking to organisers like Cannes’ Phil Thomas and Unilever CMO Keith Weed at the event on Tuesday evening I was intrigued and impressed. I also left with the feeling that Cannes has the opportunity to be a catalyst for real change in the business community.  Unilever has been well known as a leader in sustainability and responsible business since launching its Sustainable Living Plan in 2010 and committing to reducing its environmental impact, halving water usage and improving fairness within the company and right along the supply chain. Unicef too stands to gain more than just buckets of top notch creative assets – they’re bringing their mission directly to the decision makers of tomorrow. With Cannes attracting more and more big brands, end clients and marketers every year, this new competition is a great platform for all involved to showcase a more creative and sustainable way of doing business. 

After all, even a corporate behemoth like Unilever can’t change the world or, trickier still, the workings of capitalism and corporatism on its own. As Keith Weed told me, reaching out to other businesses and organisations is key to making sure the scheme has a meaningful impact.

“I wouldn’t say it’s just the Unilever long term plan, I think it’s the right thing that we need to do in the world,” said Keith. “What’s absolutely clear is that Unilever could hit all of its goals and actually make no difference at all. It won’t make a difference in the world unless we actually start joining together governments and NGOs and other companies.”

By bringing together a growing array of brands, charities and upstart problem solvers (the creative, strategists and makers that populate adland), Cannes really could be a catalyst for change. Let’s face it, most of the really exciting creative thinkers and doers wouldn’t be allowed within ten miles of Davos, The World Economic Forum – and they’re precisely the kind of people with the skills to persuade consumers and companies to get on board. 

Speaking to the assembled group of Unicef organisers, marketers and journalists in Unilever’s stunning London headquarters, Cannes Chief Executive Phil Thomas said: “We believe that, though creativity drives business, creativity can and does do good in the world. We can harness our global creative community, whose job it is to change people’s behaviour and minds.”

For this to work, Cannes needs to put action behind its words and we, as an industry, need to call out the greenwashing bullshit that can pass for CSR marketing. Or, err, gently nudge brands along the journey from hot air to holistic change. I’m sure we’ve all got an idea of which brands are the worst offenders on this. 

Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan touches every facet of the business and they’re admirably transparent when it comes to both successes and shortcomings. It’s a business-wide initiative and one that, as a sceptical punter, I’m pretty convinced by. So how does Keith feel about the brands that are simply riding the slipstream of the ‘goodvertising’ trend?

“The industry’s always judged by the weak links in the chain and anything that undermines real fundamental change is not a good thing. But having said that, this is a journey,” he told me. “Think about how you yourself thought about this just ten years ago. As you see more climate disasters on the TV, yet another storm yet another flood, and on social media we see companies exploiting workers or buildings crumbling in Bangladesh. I think collectively we’ll start to think more seriously about it and the world will get better. I have a positive view of the future, I think the future is bright and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

So how to convince other business leaders that a wholesale commitment to sustainability, social good and creativity is a worthwhile exercise? Well, for one thing, it’s given Unilever’s brands a whole lot more to talk about on proliferating social media channels. They’ve also found that their ‘cause-centric’ brands are the fastest growing. But, perhaps most persuasive for profit-obsessed shareholders, Unilever has also saved €250 million by making its factories eco-efficient and tens of millions more by eliminating all waste to landfill. 

It’s striking too that recently WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell has been banging the drum for longtermism in business in interviews with the likes of LinkedIn and Contagious. What’s the point in making a quick buck if you end up wiping out your consumer base or driving up the cost of your raw materials in the long term?

The Young Lions Health Award is an admirable project and I’m looking forward to being inspired by the creative work that’s sure to pour in. But the corporate responsibility debate can’t exist in a silo, it has to infuse the whole festival. Just as Cannes has raised the bar for creativity by bringing brands into the fold and making them care about awards, maybe it can help make them care (and I mean really care) about sustainable, fair business. And my biggest hope of all is that maybe it also serves as a template and an example for other organisations and companies looking for a new way of working.

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LBB Editorial, Wed, 18 Feb 2015 17:08:28 GMT