Close-Up: Why did the UK struggle at Cannes?

Global competition and a risk-averse culture are affecting the Brits' creative mojo.

Just as England's footballers were brought down to earth with a humiliating bump in South Africa last week, so the country's creatives have got their reality check courtesy of the Cannes jurors.

In fact, there are some obvious comparisons between the tepid performance by the Brits at a festival where honours were once showered upon them and Fabio Capello's under-achievers.

Like them, UK creatives have found that the countries they used to play off the park have upped their game. Also, the UK ad industry - like the national team - has become consumed by fear of failure, according to one agency boss.

Dave Trott, arguably one of the key figures in the evolution of the UK's world-beating creative style, takes the football analogy even further. "When Alf Ramsey's side won the World Cup in 1966, it played in a way nobody had seen before," he explains. "The same was true of UK advertising. Now we're trying to play in the same way that everybody else does."

Patrick Collister, the former Ogilvy & Mather executive creative director and editor of The Won Report, which ranks direct marketing and digital agencies on the quality and quantity of their creative awards, agrees that creative competition has heated up across the world. But he believes there are other reasons why British creativity seems to have paled too.

There's the problem of clients splitting their business across a number of agencies, making it hard for a single great creative idea to emerge. And there's the risk-averse culture among big multinational advertisers forced to appease shareholders "who don't like them doing wacky things".

Finally, there's the mind-numbing bureaucracy that inhibits decision-making. "I was recently at a meeting between an agency and a client at which eight people were critiquing a direct response letter," Collister says.

Some believe the UK is hampered by its slowness to embrace digital technology. This isn't true of many emerging markets that have been emboldened by the success of some of their internet campaigns to take on the big guns at Cannes, David Jones, the Euro RSCG global chief executive, contends.

Others suggest the main reason for the UK's declining awards haul is that the highly distinctive creative style with which it was always synonymous has lost out to advertising's growing internationalism.

According to Trott, this has led to far more visual work at odds with the well-written output that has always been the hallmark of UK advertising at its best. "As advertising has become less parochial, so we are having to give up our advantage," he says. "We've ended up doing the stuff they like over there, but we don't do it as well as they do over there."

Whether or not the Brits have lost their mojo for good is an open question. Some believe the country's creative fortunes will improve as its economy picks up. Peter Buchanan, the deputy chief executive of COI, which has been the catalyst for so much outstanding British creative work down the years, claims standards are as high as ever. It's simply that other countries are beginning to match them.

Trott believes nothing short of a revolution of the kind that regularly changes the course of popular music will restore the UK ad industry's world-leading position.

Collister is less sure. "There's a new creative world order emerging," he says. "The Brits may have to get used to it."

CLIENT - Peter Buchanan, deputy chief executive, COI

"My belief is that other countries have caught up with the UK, not that creative standards here have declined. There's no lack of creativity in the work we commission.

"I don't think we need to panic. If other markets are catching us up, it may well be because UK creative directors have spread out across the world taking their skills and experience with them.

"Overall creative standards in the UK have actually risen. Just look at the Carling World Cup campaign that includes scores in its commercials as soon as the matches finish. What a brilliant piece of tactical work."

CREATIVE - Patrick Collister, editor, The Won Report

"The reason why the UK industry is suffering at awards like Cannes is because most advertising is in the hands of multinational companies whose shareholders have the same attitude to risk as airline passengers who are suddenly told by their pilot that he's going to loop-the-loop.

"What's more, the independent agencies that might be expected to do the best work are often just being built up for sale to make millions for their founders.

"I don't think the situation is going to improve. Elsewhere in the world, creativity is being promoted a lot more heavily than in the UK."

SUIT - David Jones, global chief executive, Euro RSCG

"Time was when agencies from only two or three big markets had the entry money for Cannes and monopolised the awards. Now, those from smaller and less powerful countries, having enjoyed global success with some of their internet campaigns, have the confidence to enter.

"By contrast, the UK industry, historically wedded to the 30-second TV spot, hasn't embraced digital technology as fast as it should. As a result, the playing field has levelled out.

"UK agencies can be quite parochial. They don't often look for the big global idea but the one that will resonate with local consumers."

CREATIVE - Dave Trott, creative director, CST

"I think the reason why the Brits haven't been winning at Cannes is because, like English football, the industry is facing tougher foreign competition.

"The emphasis now is on advertising that works internationally. That's why art-directed work now dominates. It might be very stylish but it's not very edgy and it takes the work away from the kind of great ideas that have always been at the heart of the best British advertising.

"The golden age of advertising and the golden age of UK advertising were the same thing. It shouldn't have to slow down to the speed of everybody else's market."