It was Dylan Williams and David Kolbusz who most eloquently called out the trend for awards juries to honour creative work that promote charitable "acts" rather than "ads" in their post-2016 Cannes analysis in Campaign last year.
It’s not a new trend, of course. The 2015 Cannes awards haul was dominated by campaigns that were naked in wanting to show "good", irrespective of any commercial imperatives. And as we prepare for this year’s festival will much have really changed?
Well, based by my recent experience as a judge at D&AD, my hopes aren’t high.
Of the 350-odd entries that we judged, on the media jury, more than half were for a charity or a brand linked to a cause. That’s not to say that some of the campaigns were excellent – they were – but rather that wrapping a brand in a causal fig leaf and then tugging away at the heartstrings has become the easiest way to a juror's heart.
It may be easy, which is probably why the industry has fallen in love with it – but I think it’s also lazy.
As Williams and Kolbusz pointed out, juries now seem oblivious – or worse disregardful – of any work that has craft, that captivates people or that manages to turn ambivalence into desire, in favour of anything that has a cause – any cause – somewhere involved. And they have a point.
Sometimes it is hard to find a differentiator to create a piece of emotionally engaging work that sells products in a compelling fashion, but it’s what we are paid to do.
But I’d argue that the industry as a whole is also to blame – it’s not just jurors who are blinded by cause, but agencies are too and the work that they enter into awards ceremonies is not up to standard.
For some, the mercantile goals of clients are a necessary evil – but, whisper it if you dare in some quarters, ultimately the whole advertising industry is based around helping clients sell products by giving them a competitive edge.
Maybe that’s where the problem lies. Sometimes it is hard to find a differentiator to create a piece of emotionally engaging work that sells products in a compelling fashion, but it’s what we are paid to do.
As agencies and brand owners we must interrogate what each brand and product means and stands for. What makes it interesting and distinctive? what is its core purpose?
Having fallen in love with the idea of doing campaigns that do good, we’ve also lost the skill in being rigorous in interrogating the problem we want to solve.
Equally, brand owners need to rail against the lazy idea that all sectors are homogenized. They need to issue tighter briefs and not buy the idea that their future lies solely in cause related marketing but rather demand more engaging creative work.
It’s a sad fact but when every brand is shouting how meaningful it is, these messages are getting drowned in their emotional wake.
It’s a sad fact but when every brand is shouting how meaningful it is, these messages are getting drowned in their emotional wake. As a tool its effectiveness is being blunted, whereas rational creativity is being left behind.
Almost all the charity-led work that still woos juries focuses on the emotional side of our brain, when we’re in the passive stage of the purchase journey. Rarely do I see a great charity campaign persuading those who are in market to act or donate immediately.
The work we do, dare I say it, needs to ultimately sell stuff as well as connect emotionally or do some good.
Public Health England’s Sugar Accumulator, which MEC worked on, is a great example of work that tackles a social issue in the active stage.
Public Health England’s Sugar Accumulator
It tells people when they are filling up their shopping basket, how much sugar is in the products they’ve chosen and provides lower sugar options as they shop.
If you only talk to people in the passive stage, they’ll have forgotten your healthy messages and revert to ingrained past behaviour in the shop and at the till.
Dove has managed to demonstrate clarity of purpose married to the business problem that it wants to solve.
Dove campaign for "Real beauty"
Its campaign for "Real beauty" has championed real women of all shapes and sizes, while providing some distinctiveness for a brand in a vastly oversupplied category. Otherwise, why would anyone buy Dove over another toiletry brand?
Campaigns that attach themselves to a charity or a social cause that doesn’t link back to the product they’re trying to sell in a really clear way, or that make the consumer work too hard to make that connection, are never going to deliver value to a brand, whether that is to increase awareness or sales.
Ultimately, as an industry, we shouldn’t be embarrassed about producing great commercial work. As awards jurors we really shouldn’t be embarrassed to reject work that doesn’t link to some kind of brand KPI.
I think the industry needs to be clear about what we’re here to do and understand the problems in the purchase journey we need to address.
We’re all in some way responsible for making that happen.
Verra Budimlija is chief strategy officer of MEC.