Five tips on how to win the coveted Creative Marketer award at Cannes

What does a brand have to do to be rewarded with the Cannes Lions Creative Marketer of the Year? Noelle McElhatton spoke to Phillip Thomas, CEO of Cannes Lions, and looked back at previous winners to find out.

Phillip Thomas: sustained creativity is the key
Phillip Thomas: sustained creativity is the key

In an industry awash with prize giving, there is one marketing award that cannot be entered and whose judging process is shrouded in mystery.

Well, no longer.

As the annual creative pilgrimage to the south of France begins this weekend, Cannes Lions CEO Philip Thomas was prepared to lift the veil on the process of choosing the winner of the Festival’s biggest nod to the client community.

What Cannes Lions wants to avoid with this award is the flash-in-the-pan syndrome.

One quirk of the award is that its winner is already known: on the last day of the 61st Cannes Lions Festival, Saturday 21 June, Steve Easterbrook, senior executive vice president and global chief brand officer of McDonald’s, will accept the award on behalf of his company and the agencies that craft its marketing.

The question is, how did McDonald’s, and before that Coca-Cola, Mars, Honda, Procter & Gamble and Nike, get there? Creative Marketer of the Year is an "award like no other", according to Thomas. He would say that, wouldn’t he, but Thomas has some justification in this claim.

Of Cannes Lions’ 17 categories, Creative Marketer of the Year (a recent rebrand of the former Advertiser of the Year award, to reflect the broadening scope of Cannes Lions) is one that cannot be entered and is in the gift of the Cannes Lions organisers themselves.

Thanks to an exclusive briefing by Thomas, and a look back at past winners, Marketing has come up with five tips wannabe Creative Marketer of the Year winners need to know to improve their chances of landing the award.

1.Win across as many Lions categories as possible

The key indicators of a winner, Thomas explains, are a declaration of creative intent by brands followed by a significant increase in the number of Lions won across the different categories, geographies and with a variety of agency partners. "Spread is quite important," he says. "For instance if a client had a huge year with one piece of work from one country and one agency, that wouldn’t be enough to indicate a systemic organisation wide belief in creativity.

"When we see that pattern emerging, then we can see real strides being taken – McDonald’s is an example. They have gone from winning two or three Lions a year to winning 15, 16, 17 Lions a year, so it has been quite dramatic."

2. Sustained creativity is key

What Cannes Lions wants to avoid with this award, Thomas says, is the flash-in-the-pan syndrome and instead looks for "sustainable improvement" in creative output over a few years.

"You do get these weird, one-off incredible winners and the obvious example is from last year – Dumb Ways to Die by Metro Trains in Melbourne, Australia," Thomas explains.

"And if you did it quantitatively [in one year] then Metro Trains would win Creative Marketer of the Year, but in fact what it did was one piece of amazing work. And that’s not what we’re trying to highlight."

Cannes Lions has been eyeing up 2014 winner McDonald’s "for a couple of years now," Thomas says.

3. Size matters – but only to a point?

Global brands tend to win and Thomas admits that "it is more difficult for smaller, local brands to win because they quite often have one piece of work that makes them stand out. Global brands or advertisers can drive creativity right across their organisations through agency partnerships."

That said, Thomas is at pains to point out that the award has a qualitative element to avoid "the same people wining because of their scale. So based on number of Lions won, [the likes of] Unilever, P&G and Coca Cola would win again and again. Which isn’t the point. The point is to encourage clients to do good work."

4. Creativity and financial performance are linked

James Hurman in his book The Case for Creativity came up with the following analysis of past winners:

Volkswagen: Won in 2008, the same year that its share price grew 89 per cent to 283 Euros.

P&G: Given the award in 2007, when its share price hit an all time high of $74.67, beating the S&P 500 by a mile.

Honda: In 2006 Honda won for brilliant work like Cog and Grrr, at a time its share price rose to $38.50 and UK sales were up 28%.

Playstation: Advertiser of the Year in 2005, the year it became the world’s biggest-selling gaming console.

BMW: Won in 2004 partly thanks to ground-breaking BMW films, taking advertising into long form content. The marque saw a sales boost of 12% and a stock price rise of 16%.

Nike: In 2003, the same year that Nike was awarded Advertiser of the Year, CEO Phil Knight wrote: "We decided to cross the threshold of 9/11. Eight months later we delivered a 14% increase in earnings and beat the S&P 500 by 45 points. Advertiser of the Year was a defining moment."

5. Agencies are pivotal in the process

As part of the evaluation process, Cannes Lions confers with the agencies of shortlisted advertisers on what they are like to work with as a client.

No, not about whether the advertiser pays agencies on time or avoids dark practices such as phantom pitches, but rather "do they live creativity and drive it through their organisation, how brave they are and how much trust do they put in you as an agency and freedom they give you. It’s one thing wanting to do outstanding creative work – it’s entirely another having the structure in place, the bravery in place and the partnerships in place that make that happen," Thomas says.

It doesn’t hurt to lobby Cannes Lions, either. Thomas reveals that "often agencies come to us and say, we’re partners with a brand who is desperate to win this – what do we have to do to win? And I explain the process to them, as I have to you."

Noelle McElhatton is a former editor of Marketing