Does UK care about Cannes?

Is the festival a big deal for media shops in the country, Alasdair Reid asks.

Does UK care about Cannes?

We've not had the best of luck recently at Cannes. "We" being the UK media agency sector. It's sometimes tempting to draw analogies with the Eurovision Song Contest (fresh as the annual humiliation is in the memory at this time of year). And this year, of course, there's possibly another embarrassing international accident waiting to happen in the form of the Euro 2012 tournament.

The UK's record for scooping media gongs at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity has been, not to put too fine a point upon it, rather Humperdinck in recent years. True, last year, there were two UK golds at the Media Lions: Manning Gottlieb OMD picked one up for its "GT Academy" Nissan work and PHD took the other for its "Bru-zil" Irn-Bru campaign.

But, still - we claim to work in one of the world's most sophisticated and innovative media markets and, yet, on this most prestigious of international stages, our output rarely sets the agenda. It's possible to argue, naturally, that there are some good excuses for this. For starters, the UK media sector is very heavily regulated, which tends to be a little bit of a dampener on creativity.

Yet, there has always been a feeling that (in stark contrast to their creative agency counterparts) UK media agencies are somewhat lukewarm about the whole Cannes business. The suspicion is that they perennially fail to make enough effort as regards the main awards scheme - and they tend not to value the festival as a networking opportunity either.

Isn't it time we pulled our socks up? Karen Blackett, the chief executive of MediaCom, who's a media awards judge this year, reckons this is slightly unfair. "I think UK media agencies have struggled historically to make their mark at Cannes due to a number of factors. Key among these is a perceived lack of understanding of what makes a good Cannes entry - as opposed to a Media Week, Campaign or IPA Effectiveness entry," she says. "Beyond winning awards, our focus should be about creating connections that matter for our clients. I know my team cares about connected ideas that sell more product. Cannes offers an opportunity to see this in action."

Marc Mendoza, the chief executive of MPG Media Contacts, feels that many media agency heads don't hold Cannes in high enough esteem. "If you ask most UK agency bosses whether they'd rather win a Campaign Media Award or a Cannes Lion - they'll say Campaign," he explains. "But it's not necessarily as simple as that. Campaign is an impressive and hard-to-attain domestic credential, but an endorsement from Cannes is of huge value on a global stage."

He continues: "And I don't buy the argument that Cannes winners are all fur coat and no knickers. To win, you have to be exceptional. And the effectiveness evidence has to be there too. As a judge, most of the work you see is good, but it's what I call 'day job' work. You'd be happy to put it in front of a client - but it's the routine sort of work that you're paid to do.

"Only one or two ever stand out when there are so many entries - and it helps if they're presented with style. You can't just put a few hours' work into the entry and hope it's good enough. The truth is that the UK's quality of work just hasn't been strong enough. The bar's just set so much higher."

David Grainger, the head of strategy at Optimedia, agrees that if UK media agencies don't care about Cannes, then they should. He says: "Cannes has evolved to ensure it's a celebration of great creativity, not just great ads. We as an agency only put our very best work forward, in recognition that we're competing against a global field."

And Daren Rubins, the chief executive of PHD, argues that, over the past few years, the creative community has begun waking up to the distressing fact that the UK is not necessarily the default epicentre of great ideas these days. The same, he would add, is true of the media sector too.

"The UK's media industry has historically underinvested in award entries. Certainly, they aren't cheap to enter and the odds of winning are heavily stacked against you," he explains. "But surely that makes the challenge and the reward that much more meaningful?"

He adds: "Speaking as a former judge, the quality of the winning entries from around the world is humbling, and if UK agencies don't believe they can learn from other markets, they need to think again."

YES - Karen Blackett, CEO, MediaCom

"It is an important showcase for our work and our prospects on the world stage. It is also influential as a stimulus - to see what other organisations are implementing and speculate on whether it could work in the UK."

NO - Marc Mendoza, CEO, MPG Media Contacts

"The honest truth is that UK agencies don't care enough about Cannes, which I think is a mistake. I've been there as a delegate and as a judge, and I know from both perspectives how inspiring it can be."

YES - David Grainger, head of strategy, Optimedia

"Cannes is first and foremost about the work. There are few other opportunities to meet with your peers and benchmark the work that UK media agencies are producing. There isn't another event where you can steal inspiration from right across the world."

YES - Daren Rubins, CEO, PHD

"Aside from the awards, the festival itself is one big showcase for the best talent and ideas that our industry has to offer - which is why it's finally being taken as seriously by the UK as it is by the rest of the world."