The Doomsday Clock is ticking on the world’s biggest advertising festival

The heat is on – from Greenpeace protesting Cannes to concerned citizens and legislative pressure – for advertisers to make their work matter more than selling more products to the western world. Here are six key takeaways from this year’s Cannes Lions, and how your campaigns can be and do better.

Cannes Lions is to advertise what
walking sticks is to film — the world’s largest gathering of the industry. The change is visible; but is that just what advertising is so good at – over-promising and long-lasting fireworks with no real impact?

I’ve been coming to Cannes since I was a hopeful young editor and the job has really changed. Just ten years ago, sustainability-focused awards (Lions) could be counted with one hand. Today you can count the grand prize the winners focused on two-handed durability – and, what’s more, the change is visible through hundreds of award-winning works across metals and shortlists. This year, the content of the Festival and its side events also had a strong focus on sustainability, which is great to see. Yet I still believe that we need to invite more voices to the table (ex: green peace protested this year in Cannes; I rather want to invite them to a cup of organic herbal tea). For the first time, we allowed Cannes and many sites to open and welcome everyone in a
Doors open for good; next year we will make others accept the invitation.

Lack of education and naïve bandwagon on sustainability issues

That said, there is unfortunately still a lot of work to be done. The lack of knowledge and education in the industry, from brand to agency, is concerning, as highlighted by reports from
WFA and Acting responsibly/Nielsen. Much of the winning work only scratches the surface of the issues, rather than engaging and engaging fully. The very campaign-like nature of looking for short-term results clashes with the longer-term commitment needed to actually change behaviors (typically it takes 3-6 months for a new habit to take hold – ask any smoker). Another issue I’ve witnessed across the campaigns is the on-going focus on popular issues such as plastics in the oceans or whatever hits the spot. It’s a naïve and fearless approach where marketers trying to engage on these issues turn to data and social listening to pick the topic of the day; it’s as uninteresting as a parrot at a dinner party repeating what everyone else is saying. Your brand can be a mirror of society — or it can move society. I don’t have to tell you what builds brand fame and heritage.

Many problems still go unnoticed or lack further support; and we seriously need a rigorous focus on the Global South – we all share this beautiful planet and its destiny. It has to be a shared effort as an industry; every time a brand or campaign fails, it falls on all of us, making people skeptical of what’s so critical: lasting change at scale. And who can blame them? Take my nieces (11 and 18): all they have seen in their lives are companies guilty of environmental degradation and social injustice, and all they hear about these same companies, it’s: “Look how good we are!” Let’s work together to get it right.

The heat is on – from Greenpeace protesting Cannes to concerned citizens and legislative pressure – for advertisers to make their work matter more than selling more products to the western world. Here are some hacks based on this year’s Grand Prix winners.

Don’t waste your money preaching to converts

Billions of dollars of media and advertising dollars are wasted because campaigns target people who already agree with the issue. Take the award-winning anti-gun advertising, “The Lost Class”: Brilliant and effective for those advocating for tougher gun control measures; but do you really think this is going to convince all the hard-headed anti-guns in the
Midwest?

“The Lost Class”, Change Reference; Leo Burnett, Chicago

Be more innovative in your choice of media and your creative strategy – target the people who really need convincing.

Sweat and tears, not just smart ideas

Ideas will not suffice; we need real change and it takes real work – not just optimistic case videos promising everything, potential legislative changes and millions of eyeballs. Our industry is not configured for the more entrepreneurial nature that this change demands. Most issues aren’t resolved in a campaign cycle, but may require an independently run origin, business unit, or think tank – think fintech climate start-up Doeconomicswhich went from being a brilliant idea at Cannes in 2019 (his DO Black credit card) to a truly influential company that continues its work to increase public climate literacy.

A highlight this year was Data Tiendaallowing Mexican women to build a credit score – vital for bank loans – based on interactions with local shops that have offered them informal credit for years.

“Data Tienda”, WeCapital; Agency: DDB Mexico, Mexico

Choose the right spokesperson

Advertising has a romantic relationship with celebrities and animals; but who you choose matters. Sorry, frankie the dinosaur (Don’t choose extinction», UNDP; Activist, Los Angeles) will not be hard-headed UN bureaucrat to oppose fossil fuel subsidies (or influence climate skeptics, for that matter). Choose spokespersons that these people listen to – perhaps an oil executive or a deep-pocketed political campaign sponsor? Sometimes it can be as simple as choosing a lively and engaging rapper to teach the kids about sugar.

“Lil Sugar – Master of Disguise,” Hip Hop Public Health; Agency: Zone 23

Get married — rules of collaboration!

If we are to succeed in any of these challenges, we must work together. Brands and agencies can benefit immensely from the insights and insights of nonprofits and other NGOs, as well as the market knowledge and commercial ingenuity of the industry. An example is Alms and Anam Pineapple work together on Piñatex — a sustainable leather substitute made from cellulose fibers extracted from pineapple leaves, which has already been used in collaborations with over 200 brands, including H&M and Nike.

Piñatex, Dole Sunshine Company/Ananas Anam; Agency: L&C, New York

Collaboration is also about not keeping the plans for success to yourself, but sharing them with others, as when VOLVO gave the seat belt patents for every car manufacturer to use in 1959, or when all the birds opened its Product Carbon Footprint Calculator to the fashion industry. When it comes to sustainability, we gain more by working together. Think about how you can create new processes and working groups between stakeholders to create the best team in the world.

Real impact

I’m sick of witnessing one case video after another claiming all kinds of good. It’s hard to be on the jury and dissect the real impact BS. No wonder people are becoming increasingly skeptical of brand claims. If you claim something, be sure to put those facts and figures into context.
Michelob UltraThe program to help American farmers switch to organic farming is a case of no-BS.

“Contract for Change”, Michelob Ultra; Agencies: FCB Chicago/New York

Don’t brag. Empower

If we don’t want to further undermine people’s trust in brands, it’s time we stopped portraying brands as holy saviors and instead empowered people to be part of the change. After all, we won’t be successful if people don’t do it. Stop preaching and create brands and campaigns that guide people towards a better version of themselves: more sustainable, healthier or more informed. Plus, you turn people from a passive target group into active ambassadors – you can’t ask for better engagement, as a recent study found. Good Publicity/GfK
report.

The #KeepGirlsInSchool initiative in Indiaof Procter & Gamble
feminine hygiene brand Whisper, aims to help educate girls about menstruation – a taboo subject in the country and a major reason girls drop out of school at puberty. The initiative smartly allows the community to do its part.

“The Missing Chapter,” P&G Whisper; Agency: Leo Burnett, Mumbai

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