Do UK direct agencies lack big ideas?

A dearth of gongs in Cannes asks questions about the quality of UK entries, Sara Kimberley writes.

Rom...Cannes Direct Winner
Rom...Cannes Direct Winner

Direct marketing agencies have long been criticised for not being able to produce the sort of big ideas created by their advertising counterparts. So it's no surprise that a dismal UK showing in the Direct Lions category at Cannes this year has inspired further agonised scrutiny of the creativity of direct marketing.

True, competition in the Direct Lions was strong. With more entries in the category, but the same number of gold trophies awarded as 2010, the chances of winning were slim. But the small number of UK entries made the chance of a British win near-impossible.

Out of the 1,800 Direct Lions entries, only 5 per cent came from the UK. Thirty-one UK agencies entered the category, but less than half of those were pure direct marketing agencies.

And those UK agencies that did enter clearly did not have the brave, original work evident from other countries, the Direct Lions judge and the integrated creative director at Kitcatt Nohr Digitas, Simon Robinson, says. He believes the reason UK agencies didn't flourish at Cannes, whether above the line or below the line, was due to the higher standard of creativity coming from other countries.

The Grand Prix winner, which came from the Romanian agency McCann Erickson Bucharest for its Rom chocolate bar work, prevailed because of its bold idea of turning the brand American, Robinson says.

He comments: "Here was a brand that would have died on its feet unless they did something. They took every risk and pretended to be American. It reversed the fortunes of the brand. There was nothing as brave as that on such a great scale from any of the UK agencies."

For an agency to prosper in Cannes, it has to have a big idea that is well executed, David Harris, the executive creative director at Wunderman, says.

This makes it difficult for pure direct marketing agencies to stand a chance against their UK advertising counterparts, let alone the rest of the world. This was evident last year in Cannes, when Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO picked up gold in the Direct category for its "choose a different ending" campaign for the Metropolitan Police.

Generally, UK direct marketing agencies are not expected to create big ideas, but are briefed to produce highly targeted campaigns based on data, Harris says.

He states: "Direct agencies are not invited to come to the table with brand ideas, which makes it harder - we're too much of a supportive idea. But there's still an opportunity for us to be doing things better."

TBWA\London's chief strategic officer, Zaid Al-Zaidy, says to win a Direct Lion at Cannes, agencies don't just need a big idea, but also a bold idea planned in a clever way. He adds that this was lacking from any UK entry, and is why pure direct marketing agencies fail at Cannes.

He says: "Direct marketing agencies no longer have a clear sense of what they stand for. They can't come up with the big ideas. If you look at UK entries, there are few by direct marketing agencies because they are busy working out how to be above the line."

Steve Aldridge, the creative partner at Partners Andrews Aldridge, disagrees. He says the UK direct marketing industry is more strategically and creatively advanced than the international competition, but Cannes is not recognising this.

He concludes: "The work that won the Grand Prix was gimmicky. It was more basic than work that goes on in the UK. We did work like that 20 years ago."

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"There were too many executions without the big idea coming from the UK. It's not good enough just to have a big execution. And for direct and advertising agencies in the category, the work was just not as impressive, compared with other ideas.

"The Direct Lions was the most difficult award to win because of the number of entries. A lot of UK entries also didn't have a visual film explaining the insight into the campaign. We only have three minutes to judge, and a visual film makes it easier for the judges."


"UK work is so regulated, and some marketing directors aren't as brave. In other countries, direct marketing is at the heart of the advertising, but in the UK it still gets siloed. Direct is used to execute rather than generate ideas.

"We're also creating more targeted work through the use of data. The clever work we're doing isn't translating outside the UK.

"However, the standard of creativity is still instantly better in other parts of the world. In other countries, the work is braver, more integrated and original."


"The work that wins tends to be very crude, whereas UK work is targeted and more subtle. Some of the work that wins is the lowest common denominator. I would rather do substantial good work.

"Did the Grand Prix winner really solve the problem? Did it change behaviour? I don't think so. In the UK, it would not be considered sophisticated enough.

"Some markets are more sophisticated than others. The UK work is more developed, and this results in it taking longer to communicate in a judging process.

"There are also continents that stick together and vote for each other. It's not deliberate, it's just a cultural thing."


"It may not be a bad thing that UK direct marketing agencies didn't win much this year. My experience of European agencies is that there is some strong talent out there that can give their UK counterparts a run for their money.

"I think it takes a situation like this to trigger a reaction and for agencies to really look at their work. It would be great if UK agencies took up the challenge and delivered fantastic work that stood up to peer review next year and won all the awards.

"People keep telling me that the UK and London is the creative capital of the world, so maybe it's time to prove it."

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