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Matt Williams: proof Cannes can do inspiration

Depending on how you approach the Cannes Lions, you can come away from the festival feeling either incredibly cynical or incredibly inspired.

And I’ll admit that I’ve been on both sides of the divide over the years.

This time round could have been no different. The cynics this week would be pointing to the same old brands and agencies winning. They’d be pointing to work spread over too many categories. And they’d be singling out more controversial campaigns that have once again brought the judging process into disrepute.

But as Cannes 2016 draws to a close, I’m sitting very much in the ‘inspired’ camp. And that’s mainly down to the work that’s been awarded. Why? In part, for the very same reasons that people are being cynical about them.

Take a look at the Grand Prix Lions as a whole and there aren’t as many pieces of ‘isolated’ work that would only fit into one medium. There’s less that you sense would only have been seen by ‘advertising people.’ It’s work that feels less gimmicky and more plausible.

So whilst you’ve got this argument that the categories are irrelevant and you’re ending up with agencies snagging four or five Golds for the same piece of work, I’d respond with a cheer.

It means the idea works. It’s bigger than just one category. That it’s touched people in the format they want, rather than being forced upon them.

Too often I come away from award shows thinking: “that’s clever but the mainstream would never see it,” which is often a problem when the client is an FMCG brand. Or you’d get campaigns winning because they use a flavour-of-the-month piece of technology, which would have been fine if the core idea was any good or the work had actually shifted some product.

Let’s look at some examples. First up this year you had Tourism Sweden’s ‘Swedish Number’, which won the Direct Grand Prix, Titanium Gold, PR Gold and a whole load more. The idea generated a lot of PR and integrated nicely across channels, but I’d say what the jurors were really rewarding was the country uniting behind an idea and actually taking it on and executing it. That took guts. It tapped into genuine human emotion and showed an organisation actually living up to its ‘free speech’ promise.

Similarly REI. At the heart of this was a simple yet brilliant idea. You’re an outdoor retailer, so encourage people to get outdoors in the most human way possible, even if it could be at the expense of sales. Of course the strategy was then executed ambitiously across every touchpoint you could possibly think of – from outdoor travel guides to a witty TV ad, but all this was secondary to the core idea. Little wonder others followed suit – it sparked a cultural movement. That’s when you know you’ve made a difference as an agency. You’re not just making a difference to the marketing director’s bonus; you’re influencing an entire business, from top to bottom.

Which leads us nicely onto DB beer. Here, the Heineken-owned brand produced a new fuel source that comes from the ethanol created during the beer brewing process. That you can create fuel out of beer production is not a revelation, and certainly not unique to DB’s form of lager, but the fact that they were the first to recognise the commercial value and actually take the plunge and run with a campaign around it – that’s genuinely impressive. The execution was what you get from many comic beer ads (Men! Beer! Tongue in cheek humour!), but the ambition and scale to develop the idea across channels, from completely taking over actual petrol stations to recruiting influencers to simply drink the stuff, generated PR well above the usual means. The work won the Outdoor and Titanium Grand Prix, but it could have picked up the top prize in any category really, given the essence of the idea.

Next, one of the most hotly-tipped campaigns before Cannes lived up to expectations by winning the Titanium, Media and Print Grand Prix. The McWhopper campaign from Burger King was the most simple of ideas. And when it first launched you couldn’t move for Creative Directors around the world telling people that they’d already seen it in this or that junior team’s spec book.

And yes, whist many a drunk student has pondered what it’d be like to make a McWhopper, it took the bravery of Burger King and a nice content partnership to finally make it happen. And because it didn’t base its approach around one medium, it extended its reach further. It picked up the PR that any brand would kill for. That ‘screw it, let’s do it’ attitude was taken on and applied with vigour, and the ‘big idea’ proved to be really just that.

Another client that’s built something of a reputation of taking on brave ideas is Harvey Nichols. And the brand spearheads three campaigns that I’d like to end my take on Cannes 2016 with. Because whilst I’ve overheard a few people now bemoan that “it’s always the same brands winning,” I’d again like to take issue with this being a bad thing.

I heard a great stat in one Cannes seminar last week that showed that work from agencies and clients who had held relationships of seven years or longer had a staggeringly larger chance of winning a Lion. And in part I’d say that’s because those relationships mean that there’s not only a better understanding from an agency of their client’s business, but there’s more trust in that agency from said client. So if the Creative Director says ‘trust us, this will be great’, the client sees it as more than just ego stroking.

You’ve got to say that’s where Harvey Nichols comes in. Using real-life CCTV footage of people stealing from your store? That’s a brave move. And even if the ‘so good it’s worth breaking the law for’ idea looks great on paper, it’s got to be hard for any agency to sell in. Less so if that agency has a long-standing relationship with the client though. And especially if that agency has spent the past few years winning countless other awards for the previous campaigns they’ve made for you.

It’s undoubtedly the same for Under Armour, whose ambition can only be spurred on by an already award-winning relationship with Droga5. They won the Film Craft Grand Prix this year for a lavish and lovingly created spot.

And then there’s the Spanish Lottery. Perhaps my favourite campaign of the festival. The spot, featuring lovable factory caretaker Justino, takes an almost identical approach to the brand’s ad the previous year. Indeed, I’ve heard people criticise the ad because of this. But really what you’ve got is a client and agency who understand each other, understand the emotional element and strategy that needs to be played, and has found a new and fresh way to bring it to life.

The result is an ad that I’ve watched in its entirety countless times now, even at four minutes long. In a world where adblockers and pre-roll skipping reigns supreme, that’s no mean feat. And surely why we can all come back from Cannes this year feeling so inspired.

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About Matt Williams

Matt Williams
Matt Williams is head of content at Partners Andrews Aldridge.
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