European media campaigns did not perform very well at the Cannes International Advertising Festival this year. In fact, only one European media Lion was awarded outside the UK - OMD Istanbul's win for Frito Lay's Rocco lollipops. So is there a malaise in European creative media or has some of the best work simply been overlooked?
Alexander Schmidt-Vogel, the chairman of the Cannes jury and the chief executive of MediaCom Worldwide, made a point of saying the judges were looking not for one-off stunts but for media strategies that would stand the test of time. They awarded 16 Lions, with the Grand Prix going to Chile and OMD Santiago's work for Cristal Beer.
There were, of course, mutterings about bias against the more experienced territories and favouritism being shown towards the new boys. In some territories the legislative framework is far more relaxed, allowing for more daring strategies to be executed. But it is still curious that although 69 of the 151 media entries shortlisted were European, only four came out on top.
Henrik Jensen, the vice-president of Carat Nordic, was a member of the Cannes media jury. He concedes that media ideas such as that for Cristal Beer - which hinged on artfully inserting product shots directly into a film - would not be allowed in a harsher European regulatory environment.
Despite the list of non-European Lions, he points to several campaigns that did not win at Cannes as strong examples of good European work. "There is a lot of good work in Europe, both in Cannes and not in Cannes," he says.
Jensen cites the campaign for LTV Gelbe Seiten, the Swiss equivalent of Yellow Pages. Publicis Switzerland, he says, used on-air promotional trailers in a particularly effective way. Then Mercedes-Benz in Spain and its agency, Contrapunto, worked with the proposition that "there is always space" for a Smart Car by placing short commercials to air in-between other spots.
A similarly cunning example is the Portuguese work for Kit Kat by Media Planning Group, which integrated the "have a break" brand idea into the media strategy by placing outdoor ads at locations such as park benches.
Hilary Jeffrey, the chief executive of OMD International, also disputes that the creative powers in European media are dwindling. She believes one reason why much good European work does not get under the noses of Cannes judges is that it is not obvious for many countries and agencies to enter awards and would be too time-consuming for them.
"It has almost become a luxury to take time out to market themselves, " she says.
This is perhaps more true of the newer markets of central and eastern Europe, where there is plenty of innovation.
Pepsi, for example, has built a rooftop platform in the centre of Moscow that displays live text messages. Young Russians hanging out in that area of town can see their messages broadcast while they stand below. Procter & Gamble hooked up with Russia's First Channel to create a game show, Laundry for a Million. It gave away prizes to people who filled in their details on special labels on P&G soap powder packets and sent them in.
Jeffrey also suggests that innovation is coming from more unexpected areas, such as the previously cliched world of film releases. She rated the international campaign for Warner Brothers' Matrix Reloaded as well as OMD's own work on Spider-Man 2.
OMD is one of three UK agencies that can boast a 2004 media Lion. Its iPod campaign across European cities used hip creative executions in carefully selected sites to reach young consumers. "IPod has this unique combination of consistency and central vision but people brought it to life in their own local markets," Jeffrey says.
Perhaps there is a tendency in the more established markets for larger clients to go for big, solid campaigns, which did not show strongly at Cannes this year. That said, Vodafone's "global office" campaign through Carat was shortlisted for a Lion. So was ZenithOptimedia's "London is closer than you think" for British Airways, which was so successful it is being repeated across the continent. One BA execution in Amsterdam wraps a building with a picture of a watery reflection of the Houses of Parliament.
It could be that media agencies are still being trounced at Cannes by the creative agencies, which traditionally dominate the festival and went home with several media Lions. Dominic Grainger, chief executive of Mediaedge:cia EMEA, is not entirely convinced media agencies get a fair hearing. "At Cannes, media does not get the recognition it should. The creative material tends to have more impact and get more glory," he argues.
But the media agencies are raising their creative game. Mediaedge:cia can hold its head high after winning a Lion for its Specsavers sponsorship work. Grainger describes some of the agency's recent work which, he believes, flies the creative flag. This includes a campaign for Canon, in which famous movie-makers made films about famous photographers, or the integrated campaigns for Fuller's London Pride (focusing on the Rugby World Cup) and Quaker Oats (which involved organising child-friendly outdoor concerts). Grainger, casting an eye outside his own agency, singles out OMD's media work for Absolut Vodka as deserving special praise.
Ian Clarke, the executive director, international, of Starcom, cites its work for Sun Microsystems. Starcom, known for its strong work on accounts such as Stella Artois and Levi's, co-produced a TV programme, called Advantage Technology, which was broadcast on CNBC.
Much of the more exciting European media work involves creating entertainment and advertiser-funded television programming, together with sponsorship.
There is also some very clever work going on with integration and just plain smart thinking around a proposition. But could it be that established markets such as Europe are less inspiring than more dynamic, developing territories?
Clarke is willing to put his hands up in admission. He believes there is a shade more inspiration coming from the developing markets. "If anything, it is putting pressure on the more established markets to raise the innovation barrier," he says. "But, overall, I see a lot of innovation across Europe." So there is little doubt European media agencies will be back with a bang at next year's Cannes.