“We’re the ‘pandemic jury’. What does that even mean?” Suzanne Powers has been presiding over the Creative Strategy jury at Cannes Lions this year and the judges have been taking their role as agenda setters for the new era seriously.
Looking at the body of work overall, Suzanne says the jury was surprised by the relative dearth of work that explicitly and vocally addressed the pandemic. What they did see, though, was work that had been deeply informed by the reality of Covid-19 – and that meant work that was purpose-driven in a way that was unlike any other year. Whereas previous years might have seen a lot of ‘purpose’ work that was fairly superficial and appropriative of serious social issues, the pandemic has forced brands to confront the social, political and environmental context they exist within.
“What we’re seeing is a lot of incredibly relevant purpose work,” says Suzanne. “For years and years, we had this debate about purpose – ‘is it right? Is it not right?’ – but as the pandemic jury we are seeing a lot of work around those social issues that have been accelerated or brought to light even more because of the pandemic. Therefore, especially with the 2021 work, it starts to address these bigger societal challenges in a way that’s not appropriation, that is exactly right for those brands and businesses and that’s where it’s exciting.”
The experience of judging has allowed Suzanne, who’s been deep in the worlds of McCann’s clients, to take a step back and look at macro trends. The revolutionised role of purpose is certainly one of those. But Suzanne is also keen to acknowledge that this is still very much a ‘live’ situation – we don’t know what the long-term impact is likely to be.
A strategist through-and-through, she says she’s looking forward to looking back on what she calls the ‘world’s biggest case study’. Internally, she says that as teams experience the daily grind of Covid fatigue, it’s beneficial to take a moment to think about what this all means in the bigger strategy picture.
“Whenever our teams get a little beleaguered or frustrated, I remind them, just understand, this is probably, we hope, a once in a lifetime event. Maybe once in every 100 years or so that you live through a seismic, not just evolutionary but revolutionary time. It changes everything moving forward. And you get nerdy and say, how do we capture this data? How do we capture this understanding? How do we make sure that we are understanding the impact on ourselves as humans, our clients, our companies? We’re living through it, so we don’t really have the answers.”
Indeed, while the first six months of the pandemic created a sense of global unity – a collective sense of facing the unknown together – the pandemic is now playing out as a constantly shifting, fractured picture. Vaccination programmes are rolling out at different rates, new variants are popping up, countries that managed to avoid lockdowns are facing lockdowns for the first time, while some are experiencing a continuous Hokey Cokey (in, out, in out…).
For Suzanne, it feels like a familiar pendulum swing. “As [someone who’s been] a global strategy person forever it reminds me of the vacillation that our brands go through. It’s very centralised and very global, we’ve got a universal platform… until oh, that market figured out something very different, we’re going to go local, local, local. Oh you know what? What that market did is actually applicable globally. So, there’s a back and forth, that pendulum swing that’s going on. You have to wonder if that’s how we’re wired as a human race. When it’s super bad, we’re all in this together, because the human race is one big group and one big species, and when we start to have these different levels of response, reaction, localization is necessary.”
But despite the movement and shifts, some things remain constant, so this year’s jury won’t be throwing out the rule book completely. The basics of good creative strategy and creative are non-negotiable. Clever and creative use of data is also key. As the jury assessed the work, they thought seriously about the message they were putting out to the industry as they laid the foundation for what comes next.
“We said to ourselves, ‘let’s make sure that anything that we award tells the industry that some of those fundamentals are more true than ever’. The fundamentals of having a great strategy which is bedded in, oftentimes, an accumulation and an understanding of a huge amount of data – whether that’s just for insight development or all the way through to optimization. Let’s embrace the rigour to that but also the magic. So, the fundamentals of strategic creative are intact but let’s double down on creativity – whether it’s the creativity of identifying and solving a business challenge or the creativity of doing something with all that data.”
That idea of agenda-setting and setting bars and baselines is, ultimately, the function of award shows. While the role of awards in the industry has been the topic of keen debate over the last decade, this seismic shake up has, perhaps, reinforced the need for them. Taking stock, finding inspiration and competing fiercely with industry frenemies is what keeps the ad world moving forward. Indeed Suzanne says the one thing she has missed from remote judging is the late night discussions about creativity and industry trends that one gets in person.
“From an award standpoint, it’s a vital and a vibrant industry. We are certainly in need of evolution, as every industry is, particularly coming out of the world’s biggest case study that we’re all living through,” says Suzanne. “However, it is critical to drive business and it’s critical to help people. Back to the purpose conversation, we see brands taking on societal issues. They not only have a sort of bravery to do it, but we see in our own research that people expect that. Without an award show, you might not even know that these things are happening. I think that will continue to help push us and push clients to do more of that. Without acknowledging great work, I’m not sure that we would keep challenging ourselves. It plays a role in that way, and I certainly intend to use it with all our teams.”