Cannes: Design gets its Lion

Cannes expects 1,000 entries, but is another design award really necessary?

It was always going to be a gamble. And when an economic downturn looms, the decision to launch a new competition in a congested awards market has to be questionable, to say the least.

Still, the reception to this year's inaugural Design Lions at Cannes appears to have justified the organisers' faith. They may have waited 55 years to open the door to design, but the influx of entries has entailed adding three judges to the existing 13-strong panel just to cope with the workload.

The debate over the inclusion of design has been going on for some time, and seriously for the past three years. It pre-dated even the launch of the most recent category, promo, which was added to the roster in 2006. In fact, design might have been launched last year, but the organisers had second thoughts: "We pulled back because, when we launch a new category, we need to be absolutely sure that it makes sense," Philip Thomas, the chief executive of the Cannes Festival, says.

"Although we'd had many conversations with the advertising industry, we needed to ensure that the design industry also felt that it was something that they would support. Once we'd gathered all that information, we made a decision to go for it."

Cannes sets itself a minimum benchmark of about 600 entries for a new category. After talks with the industry, however, it raised its sights with design to 900. At the time of writing, it looks set to exceed 1,000 by a fair stretch.

So who has entered? Well, familiar names from the UK include Mother, Pemberton & Whitefoord, Brand Union and a host of others. And their reasons for doing so are quite clear.

Christian Schroeder, the chief executive of Lambie Nairn, says: "Cannes will provide a showcase for design as an industry in terms of its importance in the overall branding marcoms arena, and I think it also allows people from outside the immediate industry to see there are opportunities to work alongside one another.

"I've always found it a shame that everyone's always so desperate to maintain their piece of the pie at a creative or a strategic level that where there are opportunities to collaborate and work together on providing the best possible solutions for clients and for our own revenue streams, those are sometimes neglected."

Glenn Tutssell, the executive creative director of Brand Union, chafes at the cost, but is clear that Cannes has a cache of quality. "It costs a mortgage to go out there, but has the potential to have a very high standard." A thumbs up, then. So what is that makes others decide to sit on the fence?

"It's great that design gets recognised, I suppose," Richard Murray, a director at Williams Murray Hamm, says, "but you have to ask if this is a sort of cynical way of getting more entry fees. The world doesn't really need another design award scheme; there are so many out there."

Another, Conran Design Group, says cost is just one reason for holding fire. "We concentrate on awards that can demonstrate tangible results or benefits to clients," Richard Stayte, its creative director, says. "This can either be through using proven sales metrics, like the Design Business Association, or where an idea has been executed across disciplines by partner companies."

While design agencies will be watching what goes on at Cannes with interest, the awards preceding it, D&AD, claim to have seen an overall increase of 5 per cent this year in the physical pieces of work that are individually judged. That has been achieved, however, with no price rises and, indeed, a reduction across many of the categories to make them more accessible.

D&AD's chief executive, Dara Lynch, is realistic about the Cannes move: "We hope that having put design into Cannes, it will only benefit us by raising the relevance of design - particularly in getting the message out to the client community."

She also recognises that, in terms of design entries, times are tough. "Next year, and the year after, we're bracing ourselves for a different kind of environment. I think it's potentially quite tough to be launching at this point in time, when we know that the industry is looking at its budgets very tightly."

The international factor at Cannes is the big imponderable. Some 10 per cent of design entries are from the UK, which is consistent across all categories, while just two members of the 16-strong judging panel are from these shores. British design has a reputation to protect - but there's no guarantee that it will have an edge.

"That's what I'm interested in seeing," Callum Lumsden, a creative director at Small Back Room, says. "I think the London design agencies that think they're the best in the world might get a kick up the backside. And wouldn't that be good? Because I'm certainly coming up against American, Spanish, Chinese and Singapore companies doing some great stuff."

There's no denying that the British contingent fancies its chances. Its exponents claim that this country has a fantastic heritage and a reputation for edgy and leading work, and that "there is no such thing as 'too British'".

A more realistic view is that success cannot be guaranteed. It wouldn't be much of a contest if it were. But all must hope standards will be so high that the Cannes Design Lions becomes a worthwhile competitor in its own right.

- Rodney Fitch, chairman and chief executive of Fitch Worldwide

I imagine the organisers would claim Cannes endeavours to mirror the wider communications industry. As such, the festival, starting with advertising, has come to showcase film, TV, radio and, in recent years, has embraced digital. Since design has always been at the heart of this work, its absence as a separate category might have been because it was taken for granted.

But we all know the tectonic plates of the communications industry are shifting. A new order is emerging, one where consumers are influenced by design like never before. Today, many brands are built around design and no serious product launch, business plan or campaign is likely to succeed that does not possess a meaningful design strategy.

At long last, Cannes has recognised this. I believe the festival now understands the role of design as being more important to the consumer than much conventional communications activity. This is because design is close to consumers' hearts: they can feel it, use it, be it, recognise good and bad. For aren't they all design critics? And inside all of us is a designer trying to get out. Not a lot else at Cannes can make this claim.

So now there are the Design Lions, and the response from the world design community to these inaugural Lions has been wonderfully enthusiastic. And so it should have been, since to see our work alongside other brilliant award-winning creative work is important: measuring our work alongside other disciplines helps put what we do into context.

For the festival itself, I'm bold enough to suggest it will be a revelation, not least because it will put a whole new range of work on view, submitted by designers from all over the world. And Cannes will surely be the better for it.