FEATURE: Cannes Contenders

So, who'll bag the Lions this year?

We pick out the work that still managed to be innovative, even in lean times.

Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival once again unleashes the largest gathering of advertising luminaries upon southern France this June. And once again, patriotic fervour comes to the fore as countries battle for supremacy.

One of the hot favourites this year is the US, which will enter France with freedom fries in hand, hoping to fare well at the inaugural event following a year of tumultuous economic fortune.

On the whole, advertisers preferred to send out sensitive messaging in North America throughout 2002. In a country characterised by vulnerability and vigilance, agencies had to fight hard to avoid mediocrity. Those that succeeded came from traditionally tough categories such as automotive - a welcome trend, signalling that the days of rocky mountain passes and close-ups of shiny alloy wheels are well and truly over.

Saturn bought highly distinctive work from its new agency, Goodby Silverstein & Partners. On winning the $300m account in the US last year, founder and creative director Jeff Goodby welcomed the new creative opportunity and vowed to "revolutionise the car category".

When the first ad in the campaign, 'Sheet Metal', broke last summer, it didn't disappoint. For a start, there were no cars. Beautifully simple, understated, elegant, the ad expresses one simple message: when Saturn designs cars, it does not see sheet metal, it sees the people who drive them.

Volkswagen also contributed to this year's exceptional car category. In 'Bubble', through Arnold Worldwide, we follow a split-screen showcase of office worker Bill Briggs and his mundane existence at home and at work, cut with precision to 'Mr. Blue Sky' by ELO.

Once again, there is barely any footage of the car. Instead we see a captivating, amusing and brilliantly shot piece of film. Other notable ads in the series from Arnold include the simple yet effective 'Chain Reaction' and 'Squares', both of which offer fleeting glances of the car, yet the brand is unmistakable.

But will such spots dazzle the Cannes judges at this year's festival?

"Sheet Metal gave us a very unique perspective on a brand," offers Bill Ludwig, vice chairman/CCO at Campbell Ewald, NY. "Its visual nature also transcends language and therefore has a good shot at capturing Gold.

"I think Cannes always looks for the purity and the simplicity of the idea but it could also warm to the outrageous, as it has done in previous years with the [Grand Prix-winning] Fox Sports campaign back in 2001."

Fox Sports may well wow the judges again with its latest campaign centred around ice-hockey. Using the kind of violent humour so popular in Cannes, it features, for example, people being stabbed in the neck by stray darts. It's the kind of stuff to make you wince, but Fox Sports 'Dumpster' and 'Iron' through TBWA/Chiat/Day San Francisco is both hilarious and apt for the message it aims to convey.

Comic timing

"More often than not Cannes relies on a visual gag," explains Paisley McCaffrey, Associate Partner/Broadcast Producer at Young & Rubicam, New York. "Comedy is a trademark at Cannes, plus most international juries generally appreciate humour. 'Treadmill' for Citibank has a great outside chance to surprise many at the show."

'Treadmill', shot by Craig Gillespie of MJZ, LA through Fallon McElligott sees a nerdy exercise dude thrown back and forth upon a defective treadmill.

Comic timing and precise production spoof the pitfalls of defective machinery purchased for the home - all to brand Citibank's solid insurance plan on purchases with its credit card.

A popular comic spot in the US this year is 'Streaker' through Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, directed by Frank Budgen.

Many praise it for its non-advertising style. With the look and feel of a live event, it has really drawn people in. However, some claim that Reebok and Nike have to some extent cancelled each other out with the Reebok spoof 'Terry Tate' serving to confuse viewers as to which brand is which.

Big ideas

Judging is always a torturous ordeal. This year's jury is headed by Dan Wieden of Wieden & Kennedy. One of last year's judges, Lee Garfinkel, Chairman/CCO at DDB, New York, elaborates on the process:

"The goal is to find an execution that lives up to the idea and brings it to an even better place. It's pretty obvious on repeated viewing what the best spots are. Great production can mask a mediocre idea and mediocre production can hurt a good idea - but none of it matters if the idea isn't great to begin with."

The UK's leading contender is without doubt Honda 'Cog'. Until it hit our screens this month, the verdict on the year's creative standards was a resounding "good but not outstanding". Now, it's all anyone can talk about.

The ad has been placed on a pedestal beside advertising greats such as Guinness 'Surfer' and Levi's 'Odyssey'.

Wieden & Kennedy London, the agency behind the spot, is justifiably proud. Creative director Kim Papworth comments: "Optimistically, I suppose it will go down in advertising history."

Audi has also had a good year, creatively, with Bartle Bogle Hegarty's beautifully crafted 'Influence' spot - a trippy riot of colour telling of Jimmy Hendrix's influence on Audi's designer - and 'Bull' from up-and-coming director Nicolai Fugslig at Outsider. Meanwhile, Frank Budgen remained on peak form with the impressive 'Fish' spot, through BBH, promoting Audi's fuel-efficiency message in striking fashion.

And in South Africa, Ogilvy & Mather's Audi campaign also bravely omits to feature the car. Instead, the entertaining spots show creatures from snails to frogs, demonstrating the famous 'Vorsprung' positioning. Mark Fisher, O&M creative director, adds that hosting the Cricket World Cup provided new creative opportunities for South Africa, with notable campaigns for MTN and South African Airways. However, he states: "Creative standards have fallen slightly, partly a result of people abandoning a single-minded approach to advertising in a bid to appeal to a mixed community."

Meanwhile, Peugeot takes a dramatic approach with 'Sculptor' showing an Indian man driving his car into a wall and coaxing an elephant to sit on his bonnet. The amusing and unusual spot, through Euro RSCG MCM in Italy, reveals the driver trying to model his own car into the shape of a Peugeot.

Says Dave Droga, Publicis worldwide creative director: "A lot of clients realise that it's not about sheet metal but what the badge stands for. There is such parity in the car category, so it's really great that people are finally breaking the mould."

The great escape

Most of these ads also fit into this year's other creative trend - a tendency towards visually spectacular ads as opposed to gritty real-life scenarios.

Anne de Maupeou, creative director at CLM/BBDO believes this is due to people wishing to escape reality with the prevailing political and economic uncertainties: "I think people are taking refuge in a dreamlike universe to avoid everyday life, so we have beautiful ads such as Johnnie Walker 'Fish' and the latest Stella ad."

The agency's own hopes are pinned on its Pepsi ads, 'Elephant Tower' and a new ad for Pepsi X, both directed by Tarsem and indicative of this epic style.

Michael Jansen, creative director of Result DDB in Amsterdam concurs, adding:

"I think this year we've seen more abstract films with big budgets. I think we're seeing more beautifully made stuff which demands more faith from clients."

Some of the strongest work from the Netherlands this year includes Nike 'Stickman', 'Puddles' and 'Stream' from Wieden & Kennedy.

Local colour

Jansen however, points to the age-old problem of strong work having a distinctive local flavour, which may not translate well internationally.

This is a persistent problem for Spain, argues Toni Segarra, co-founder of S,C,P, F, who still would rather create strong local material than insipid international work.

He feels, however, it has been a poor year for Spain. "Advertisers are scared of the economic and political situation and that stops them being more daring in their communication."

It's a similar story at the other side of the world. Jonathan Kneebone, writer and director at Australia's Glue Society says:

"At its worst, the advertising industry is in a wait-and-see state. 'Let's see what happens elsewhere and take our direction from that.' The only trend is a general lack of vision."

Humour, a popular genre with international awards' juries, is not as much in evidence this year, although when it has been employed, it works beautifully. TBWA/Paris has taken a humorous approach to deliver a serious message about AIDS in an amusing,provocative manner

This is also used to full effect in more familiar territory - within the alcohol sector.

The John Smith's campaign, which cleaned up at the British Television Advertising Awards and has spawned a new catchphrase (''ave it'), is one of the funniest around. However, its author, Paul Silburn at TBWA/London is concerned that it too may prove too 'local' to appeal to a global jury.

"I think the Americans will dominate at Cannes this year, and they have some strong campaigns in the alcohol category, such as Miller Lite and Molson so it's going to be tough."

Miller Lite, through Ogilvy & Mather New York, is a tongue-in-cheek campaign featuring buxom twins, which has created a storm; while Molson, through Crispin Porter Bogusky, is an ironic look at what can be achieved when you consume the beer.

Humour characterises some of the best campaigns in Latin America during the past year, including DM9DDB's Henkel and Telfonica's ads; Sinaf from Comunicacao Carioca; Bates Brasil's Mercedes work; Neogama/BBH's Umbro ads; and work from Vega Olmos Ponce in Argentina. W/Brasil is unusual with its serious tone in its powerful 'Peace' ad.

It has been a tough year in Brazil, however, according to director Joao Daniel Tikhomiroff.

"There were uncertainties caused by the end of a government, an election, a new president and then to top all that, the war. Fewer ads consequently, have been made this year."

Humour is also more prevalent in India this year, according to Piyush Pandey, group president at Ogilvy & Mather, India, who cites the agency's Center Shock chewing gum and Pfizer work among some of the strongest.

Pandey, who judged this year's Asian ad festival, Adfest, adds:

"The quality of work from Asia this year was good, but I didn't see anything that was really rocking. However, Thailand produced some nice spots including JWT's Chiclet chewing gum and Saatchi & Saatchi Bangkok's Spy Wine Cooler. There was also a great campaign for Tiger Beer through Leo Burnett, Singapore."

Meanwhile, Yukio Nakayama, senior creative director at Dentsu Tokyo believes Japanese advertising has more of a global appeal than ever before.

"Japanese people have been seen as homogeneous by the rest of the world, however, we are proving that we can work as global players who have different and original ways of both thinking and acting," he states.

So, all in all, a year of good but not outstanding work - with some notable exceptions.But as Dave Droga concludes, the ad industry is always hard on itself:

"Everyone says 'it hasn't been a premium year' but I can never recall anyone saying, it's been a good year. It's only at awards shows, when it's all been culled to the absolute best, can you sit back and say, 'that's great'."