Winning at Cannes: A Case of Mistaken Identity When it Comes to PR?

It was a Cannes Lions Festival like any other, only this year the name was changed to the Cannes International Festival of Creativity to better reflect the variety of disciplines that make up today’s marketing mix.

All of the usual suspects were in attendance, ad agencies, digital shops, media buying firms and, according to event planners, so were public relations agencies – but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the list of winners in the PR Lions category.

Out of the 39 lions handed out in PR, only six went to PR firms. For the Gold lions, only two were awarded to PR firms, and four PR firms won silver lions. How can this be? As a PR judge on the jury this year, I asked myself the same thing. It’s not as if there’s a shortage of great work coming out of our industry. More often than not some of the best and most influential marketing campaigns and programs launched each year are products of PR shops. Our industry tackles some of the toughest marketing challenges in the world but we have failed to step up to the plate at Cannes for the past two years and our lack of effort is clearly evident in the winners’ mix. Once again firms outside of the PR industry identified themselves as PR experts and, in most cases, submitted excellent work and were justifiably awarded the Lions.

So when folks ask me, “what do PR firms need to do at Cannes to win more awards?” My answer is quite simple: Enter the work. The first thing the industry needs to do is show an actual interest in Cannes and the way to do that is by submitting the work.

Even though there were 819 entries in total for this year’s PR Lions, there was a poor showing by PR firms in several categories that are inherent to the strength of what we do best. For example, there was only one healthcare campaign shortlisted. Really? Two in automotive, two in financial services, one in retail, two in travel, two in public affairs, two in internal communications, two in crisis/issues (and one was the Aflac duck) and one in environmental PR. I think the biggest area of opportunity for PR firms is in the corporate communications and healthcare categories. (As you may have guessed, FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) was a category with an abundance of entries, as well as social/digital.)

In addition to ‘entering,’ here are four recommendations PR firms can use to increase their chances of winning:

  • Package. Package. Package. – One of the areas PR firms could seriously improve is in the packaging of our entries in the true spirit of Cannes. That means using our storytelling skills both visually and in writing. We are the master storytellers yet our entries do not always reflect our storytelling expertise as well as our ad agency brethren.
  • Showcase the ‘new’ – When an entry is too ‘formulaic,’ it doesn’t cut it at Cannes. Entries that followed a traditional formula of teaming up with an expected third party, using key spokespeople and getting good media results, didn’t pass the muster. The international jurors were looking for something extraordinary. Something new. Something worthy of winning at Cannes.
  • Demonstrate UBER CREATIVITY – There is a reason why this is called the International Festival of Creativity. The jury came to the judging process agreeing that at Cannes, winning entries have that extra special something that push them over the edge, in addition to solid research/strategy, impeccable execution, originality and results. It’s hard to describe it definitively but a winning Cannes entry will have that certain je ne sais quoi that makes a judge smile.
  • Document/substantiate results – Demonstrating ROI in PR is the holy grail as we all know but if there was one thing that was most surprising to me as a judge was how some of the agencies who most likely were NOT PR firms, were using metrics in the results section like: “we got free PR” or “there were a gadjillion opportunities to see.” (Maybe the gadjillion OTS is an exaggeration but you get the picture.) Public relations firms know that a solid, strategic program does not use metrics like that. However, please note that because your jury is international, and measurement is at different levels of sophistication around the world, non-US jurors were skeptical of sales results in entries. Make sure you substantiate.

One other thing worth mentioning, in the hopes that it helps PR firms take home more gold next year, is make sure to demonstrate social media and digital prowess in your entries. The other agencies appeared to use social media as a channel offering a means to an end, to push out a message. However with PR, we know social media is about building and tracking a “sustainable” dialogue. If we can show more of that in our entries we’ll surely stand a part.

Hope this information is helpful. I’d like to see the end of PR identity theft at Cannes 2012.

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