Cannes: Raising the bar

As Britain's dominance in DM creativity slips, Steve Harrison argues that clients must lead the next creative revolution.

I had a lovely time at Cannes last year. I was the president of the Lions Direct jury so they gave me a suite in The Martinez overlooking the Croisette. They also, very thoughtfully, organised the judging so it took place a week before the jaded drunks from the ad industry arrived to turn the view from my balcony into some Hogarthian bacchanal.

Not only did I get to enjoy that lovely room, the early gathering of the Lions Direct jury meant I also spent time in the company of people who actually liked the Cannes Festival. They really did think it was an honour to be invited to judge their discipline. And their aim was not to win Lions for themselves ... their agency ... their network ... their country ... their region ... There was something more at stake than that. For they knew that their decisions at Cannes would finally set the global consensus on what a great piece of direct marketing actually looked like.

That might strike people in advertising as a little odd. The universally accepted definition of what makes a great press ad or TV spot was established back in the late 50s, roughly at the time that "lemon" and "snowplough" appeared. Since then, the elements have been pushed hither and thither slightly. However, no matter where in the world you've worked, no matter how big the ad agency you've worked in, you've had a pretty good idea where the bar was set and what you've needed to do to raise it.

Until Cannes Lions Direct, that wasn't the case in our industry. Indeed, the reverence for the big idea that inspired the advertising revolution in the 50s made its first appearance on our agenda only 16 years ago. Since then, we've seen an almighty struggle between the idea versus the DM techniques that previously drove our creative product.

The struggle started in London and then, with the diaspora of English-speaking creatives, spread to the Commonwealth. The Germans, while initially slow, picked up the challenge and spread the word to the Nordics. The Spanish followed suit and took the fight to Latin America.

There were, of course, diehards who stuck to their handbook on "Ten Ways to Get Someone to Read a Letter" and those who saw creative as simply an adjunct of smart list-buying. Helpfully, these people usually identified themselves via the American accents with which they spoke.

As you'd imagine, the creative sterility of the world's biggest market did slow down the creative revolution somewhat. Indeed, matters were made worse by the fact that the only DM awards show that was regarded as being remotely "global" was organised by, yes, the US Direct Marketing Association.

Why were they called "The Echoes"? Because if there was an idea buried in there somewhere, you'd usually heard it before. You had. But the chaps on the jury who ran their data houses and envelope shops in Idaho and Wisconsin hadn't. And guess who usually won the argument?

The cavalry, however, came riding down the Croisette in the form of Roger Hatchuel and Terry Savage with their plans for the first Cannes Lions Direct in 2002. From the outset, the emphasis was on the quality of the idea. And over the past five years, those ideas have got bigger and better. More importantly, they have come from more diverse sources.

To begin with, the UK, which fired the first shots of the creative revolution, was way out in front. Even in 2004, the UK accounted for 33 per cent of pieces on the shortlist and nearly 20 per cent of Lions Direct winners.

It wasn't sustainable and last year, home-based agencies picked up only half that number. Not only did we fall behind our usual rivals, the Australians and the Germans - the remarkable thing about 2007 was the emergence of markets that had never before won at Cannes. Dubai, Malaysia and Peru were big gold Lions winners and the Grand Prix came from Belgium.

That victory announced to the world the final triumph of ideas over technique in direct marketing. But does it also mean that the UK has forever lost its ascendancy?

Well, talking to people in the industry, I don't see too much optimism about reclaiming former glories. In fact, I get the impression that my peers have lost that belief in progress that drives all revolutionaries. Only a few years ago, the creative fraternity in the UK were convinced they were marching towards a happier future where colleagues and ultimately clients would embrace the ideals (and ideas) that inspired them.

I'm not sure many people now share that conviction. Indeed, could it be that the place where the creative revolution began might be experiencing something of a counter revolution?

I hope not. The answer, however, will come from Cannes. If we do dominate the shortlist, then that'll be the springboard we need to reclaim our leadership. If we don't, then I'd urge you to study what our rivals are doing.

Better still, we need to get along to the Palais des Festivals and take our clients. It is they who need to understand the difference between the good work they might be buying and the great work they should be demanding. And it is they who need to be involved in the creative revolution that began 16 years ago. If that doesn't happen, then the hard-earned gains of all those years since might well be wasted.

If they need some kind of inducement, sleep on the public beach and use the money you've saved to book them into a suite at The Martinez. That'll help them get a feel for the place. But make sure they're out of there before the first plane-load of executive creative director languids and their stained, linened entourage take up residence outside their balcony for the final five nights of the Festival.

- Steve Harrison is the co-founder of Harrison Troughton Wunderman and outgoing worldwide creative director of Wunderman.