Should Cannes focus on commercial creativity?

The importance for brands to be seen as "doing good" has become embodied by the IPA and the Advertising Association.

Should Cannes focus on commercial creativity?

Given the cynical world in which we live (Havas’ Meaningful Brands research shows that most people would not care if 74 per cent of all brands disappeared), being trust-worthy is no longer enough. Consumers say they want brands to do good and improve their lives, the study concludes.

Perhaps that’s why we’ve seen a rise in the number of awards being handed out for campaigns (or, cynics might argue, stunts) that have a corporate social responsibility element attached to them. 

At last year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, Grey London was awarded two Grands Prix – in Promo and Activation, and Design – for Volvo "LifePaint", a glow-in-the-dark spray designed to preserve the lives of cyclists. 

While it was undoubtedly innovative and clever, there were grumblings among some ad veterans that all Grey had done was appropriate an existing product and create a PR stunt that had little real societal impact beyond the pages of the credulous press. But, then again, it would have been difficult for a jury to vote against a campaign that has the concept of "doing good" so deeply embedded in it.

Other categories, too, were dominated by campaigns heavy on CSR or with a charitable cause – even if it was just a small-scale or obscure claim that the work somehow improved the lives of others, irrespective of whether it actually shifted any product. 

There is an argument that Cannes jurors – and others – are now awarding campaigns that do not necessarily have any commercial impact but are just fig leaves to show how "good" brands can be, no matter how "creative" the actual execution is. 

Perhaps it’s a sign of a crisis in confidence of an industry acutely aware that it is fuelling big business and mass consumption in an era when that is seen as unfashionable or in some way bad.

In last week’s Campaign, Droga5 London’s Dylan Williams and David Kolbusz went further. They said that rather than automatically being drawn to charities or brands that set out to do good, jurors should recognise that great creative campaigns have their own positive social effects. "It can be trite, emotionally adolescent and almost completely lacking in craft but, if it warrants an emoji and saves a dolphin, it wins out ahead of quality efforts that don’t have a direct cause at their centre," Williams and Kolbusz wrote. 

It’s an interesting argument and one that is likely to spark a debate. But there’s little doubt that the wider point of certain jurors being more likely to be seduced by work that is seen to be doing good (even when some is scam), rather than just commercially effective, stands. It’s almost inconceivable that an oil company or a tobacco brand, for instance, could pick up a gong, no matter how creative the work – advertising seems to have split the industry into "good" and "bad" brands, perhaps subconsciously.

Brands having a purpose and acting with social cause is undoubtedly a good thing – in fact, as Havas’ research shows, it’s essential. But if it’s little more than a veneer of respectability, you could argue that awards shows should refocus on celebrating genuine commercial creativity.

Russell Ramsey, executive creative director, J Walter Thompson London


Alex Holder, executive creative director, Anomaly London
"I don’t know if doing good and being commercially creative are two separate things. Right now, advertising that does good also sells. 

"Look at Always’ ‘#LikeAGirl’ and Chipotle’s films about sustainability. The ‘doing good’ bit is the message that gets us buying. 

"Which makes you think: it’s a little like rushing to help an old man across the road while on a first date. It’s not entirely selfless – you’re being good for an audience. 

"Does that negate the good? I don’t think so. Will customers start seeing it as being a little two-faced? Maybe. But right now it’s incredibly effective."

Russell Ramsey, executive creative director, J Walter Thompson London

Awards chief

Philip Thomas, chief executive, Cannes Lions
"The issue of commercial versus charity work winning at Cannes is often debated. Unfortunately, sometimes people confuse pure charity work with ‘purpose-led’ brand work. In some ways it looks similar, but it is entirely different. 

"We acknowledge that by, for instance, ruling that charity and not-for-profit work is ineligible for Grands Prix. Those gold Lions go on to compete in our Grand Prix for Good. 

"Having said all of that, Cannes Lions is at its core about creativity that drives business, and we track the number of charity Lions each year. Last year there was an uptick. If that becomes a trend, we may split out the charity work in a clearer way."

Russell Ramsey, executive creative director, J Walter Thompson London


Shadi Halliwell, marketing and creative director, Harvey Nichols
"There has clearly been a big increase in the number of campaigns for charities and good causes that are winning at awards shows. I can completely understand why. It’s much easier to award a campaign that has saved lives than one that has sold products. 

"But I think this is dangerous for the marketing and agency community. We are getting less and less recognition and inspiration for the commercial creativity that drives our existence. Why strive for campaigns that are famous, create a cultural legacy and build a long-term strategy when these are overlooked for good-cause campaigns most of us have never seen?"

Russell Ramsey, executive creative director, J Walter Thompson London


Tony Granger, global chief creative officer, Y&R
"Brands that do well are often doing good too. In fact, people expect brands to be good global citizens today and millennials clearly demand it. So, more and more, the authentic efforts become part of the brand and part of the work. 

"Vodafone used its technology to create an app that helps women reach out to trusted friends when they fear domestic abuse. Burger King allied with Peace One Day to create the ‘McWhopper’, and the work drove massive awareness of the event and was also great for the brand. 

"So I hate to think that creatives still believe they have the most freedom to do good work when it’s pro bono. That would be a sad, cynical indictment of what we do."

Subscribe to Campaign from just £57 per quarter

Includes the weekly magazine and quarterly Campaign IQ, plus unrestricted online access.


Looking for a new job?

Get the latest creative jobs in advertising, media, marketing and digital delivered directly to your inbox each day.

Create an Alert Now

1 How Sainsbury's ads revolutionised the UK's food culture

Abbott Mead Vickers' press ads for Sainsbury's in the 1980s formed the most influential and culturally significant campaign the UK has ever produced, argues Paul Burke.

Just published