When Donald Gunn created his eponymous annual report in 1999, he could hardly have imagined that it would become the creative grail that it is today. "I must admit I was surprised," he says. "When you have an idea like this you always think you're being pretty smart - but it caught on better than I ever dreamed. There was clearly an element missing from the industry."
That element, it turned out, was the ultimate creative report card: a detailed analysis of how the industry's most inspired spots - and the companies behind them - had fared in awards shows around the world, with rankings of the overall winners. At one stroke, it gave agencies a means of demonstrating their most important, yet ephemeral, competitive advantage: creativity.
Gunn has never published a list of the festivals that count towards a listing, but it's a safe bet that Cannes is among them. After all, Gunn himself was the festival president for two years - in 1998 and 1999. "It's the gold standard of awards events," he says, "Not least because of the excellent backroom staff."
What The Gunn Report customarily doesn't show us is whether ads that win awards at Cannes shift product. In other words, do Cannes Lions winners sell? The report at least proves that an award-winning ad has a universal appeal: the same ads win prizes all over the world. But, as he explained at a pre-Cannes speech to DDB in London on 5 June, Gunn has concrete evidence that an award-winning ad is also an effective one.
While he was still working at Leo Burnett in the 90s, he spearheaded a study called Do Award-Winning Commercials Sell? "Over the four-year period from 1992 to 1995, we found that ads with award-winning qualities are two-and-a-half times more likely to be associated with market success than ads on average," he says.
The current edition of The Gunn Report suggests this has not changed. Take last year's Cannes Grand Prix winner, Guinness "noitulove" from Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. The agency's ads had already lifted the stout to the number-one slot in the UK beer market - and, in the past 12 months, consumers spent more than £1 billion on Guinness for the first time.
Even more strikingly, Sony sold out of Bravias within three weeks of the six-week TV burst of Fallon's double gold Lion-winning "balls" ad.
According to Gunn, Wieden & Kennedy's consistently brilliant work for Cannes-storming Honda has done wonders for the brand. In a recent survey, "31 per cent said they would like a Honda for their next car". He also adds that the "choir" spot was downloaded by 3.5 million people.
Further afield, since George Patterson Y&R's gold Lion-grabbing "big ad" for Carlton Draught Beer in Australia, the brand has grown by 20 per cent. Back in Europe, the pay-TV channel Canal+ has reaped the rewards of its agency BETC Euro RSCG's "March of the Emperor" gold Lion winner. A TNS survey revealed that 10 per cent of new subscribers cited the ad as their first and foremost reason for signing up - the first time an ad has been mentioned as an influence beyond the channel's content.
The BETC creative director and co-president, Stephane Xiberras - who is on the Cannes film jury this year - says the effectiveness issue is becoming more complex. "It's difficult to judge films in isolation," he says. "Many of the more effective spots are now part of integrated campaigns. Some of the most interesting work in the industry is being done on that basis."
As a case in point, 180Amsterdam is running a huge integrated campaign for Adidas, which forms the bulk of its Cannes entries this year. Since the launch of last year's +10 integrated campaign, Adidas has cemented its leadership in football, with a 36 per cent market share. It has achieved overall sales growth of 20 per cent.
The creative director Sean Thompson, who masterminded the latest campaign, says: "I think it's time to move this debate on. Advertising agencies have existed for more than 100 years and I don't think there's any need to argue for creativity. Today, having the big idea is more important than ever. And I'm sure that when an agency wins at Cannes, clients notice."
When Gunn conducted his survey in the 90s, he found that 346 of the 400 award-winning ads that he studied were associated with market success for their products or services. But what about those that bombed? What went wrong? Gunn remembers two specific examples.
The first is a classic case of a good ad not being able to shift a bad product. The product was a downmarket Swedish newspaper called Expressen. The spot showed a man in a sauna, who appeared to be studying his neighbour's private parts. When the camera pulled back, we saw that he was actually trying to read the man's Expressen. The problem was that, although the ad was amusing (and won a gold at Cannes in 1994), the newspaper was simply not a good read. Sales went on sliding.
The second example is a spot for the painkiller Aspro Clear from TBWA\Hunt Lascaris in South Africa. It featured a man offering a glass of Aspro Clear to his wife, who is in bed beside him. "But ... I don't have a headache," the woman said. "Excellent," the man replied, lasciviously.
The ad generated awareness for the brand - and bagged a Cannes gold in 1994 - but it was competing with Disprin. When the imported Aspro Clear hit exchange-rate problems, it was put on shelves at a higher price than Disprin - and consumers stuck with the cheaper drug.
There's also the issue of how clients see creativity. How much do they care about craft, as long as the thing sells? And do awards matter to them?
Erik Vervroegen, the creative director of TBWA\Paris, says: "Clients know very well whether an ad has sold or not, and whether the result is down to the creative execution or another element of the campaign." He feels that, compared with five years ago, there are fewer clients who believe that effectiveness depends more on media presence than on creativity. "You only have to look at the attendance at Cannes: there are more and more clients. It's because the industry itself has evolved. Consumers now choose when, where and if they are going to look at an ad. If it isn't creative, they don't bother."
At W&K in London, the creative director Michael Russoff - who works on Honda - says most creatives always have sales in mind. "When I'm working on a Honda film, I'm always thinking of it in terms of what it will do for their business."
Honda has been named Advertiser of the Year at Cannes. Ian Armstrong, Honda UK's customer communications manager, says: "There is a proven link between our communication performance and sales performance. I only have to look at how many invitations I get to go and speak about the Honda story ... And when I interview people for positions here, they always say our work is amazing and they want to be part of that."
He is wary of clients who say they are more focused on business performance than awards. "We are all focused on business performance. But awards matter to those who win them."
GUNN: A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY
Hailing from Scotland, Donald Gunn joined Leo Burnett in London from Cambridge University in 1962. He worked as an account executive for six years before becoming a copywriter. He subsequently served as Burnett's managing director in the Netherlands and Switzerland and its creative director in South Africa and France.
In 1984, Gunn was appointed Burnett's director of creative resources worldwide. Based in Chicago, he created the agency's World TV Update and Worldbeater reels, as well the Global Product Committee. He also spearheaded a worldwide study on creativity and effectiveness.
In 1999, he launched the annual Gunn Report & Showreel of the Year, which has become the industry-wide reference for measuring competitive excellence. This year, his team launched The Gunn Report Library.tv, a ruthlessly selective collection of the best spots in advertising, dating back to 1962. The website was devised in association with Beam TV. There are more than 2,100 ads on the fully searchable database.
Gunn and his wife Sarah and three children live near Chichester, West Sussex in the South of England.
HOW TO WIN AT CANNES
- Humour, "including non-politically correct humour"
- A wonderful human story
- Visual poetry, like Ariston's "underwater world" spot
- Great music can make the essential difference
- International appeal. "There's a certain sort of ad based on local insight that doesn't do so well. Having said that, the current Happy Dent ad from McCann Erickson in Mumbai seems to be loved by everyone, and it could not be more Indian"
- Total freshness. "What you want is for the judges to be jealous and think, 'I wish I'd made that'"