Rachel Forde of UM: what I’ve learned as a first-time Cannes Lions judge

Rachel Forde is UK CEO of media agency UM and a Cannes Media Lions jury member.

This year was my first time on the judging panel for the Cannes Lions. Some three hundred award entries later, I realise why many consider it to be a full-time job in itself.

It’s an opportunity to see the absolute best our industry has to offer. I’m enormously impressed by the standard of entries – especially when people have to catch the eye of a weary judge (like myself) with what can feel like an endless array of submissions to consider.

At Cannes, the judges look at every asset the entry contains, whether that’s video, website, one-pager or a combination of them all. The importance of streamlining entries is clear. In particular, I soon came to appreciate the value of video. It creates an immediate, emotional impact that connects in a way that other forms of content can struggle to match.

The judging guidelines are also incredibly strict, as they should be. Politicking has no part to play and entries are judged entirely on merit. I’ve already looked at introducing coaching in UM on the importance of fairness and impartiality.

So where did that merit emerge? Of course, results matter, but so too does scale. And I don’t just mean the global campaigns. Some of the best entries went beyond a single activation to push a creative idea way beyond its initial sphere of influence.

As you might expect, that means owned and earned media often supersede paid channels. The best ideas seem to be those that transcend paid media, even if that’s where they started.

I was also very aware of a common theme across the entries this year – brands and campaigns that have made a difference in broader society. When you have only three or four minutes to peruse each entry, it’s telling when you really want to dig into the detail to see exactly how they made the world a better place.

Where was the meaningful connection? How was the campaign more than a gimmick? Which disenfranchised groups did it connect with and support?

Yes, many of the usual suspects were there. Some of the work done by the huge global consumer brands is remarkable. But the smaller businesses often had great stories to tell as well. The best entries were those that kept it simple and easy to understand. These showed how they took just one brilliant insight through from its creative genesis to its execution and results.

That could mean, for example, a traditional FMCG brand breaking out of its category to make a positive impact. This means playing in to the moments that matter – identifying a cultural moment or cause that plays to a brand’s strengths, and then taking that insight outside its comfort zone.

Many of the best entries also understand that we’re all humans – strange, emotional, imperfect creatures. The marketing sector often gets so caught up in the idea of the ‘consumer’ or the ‘audience’ that we forget we’re dealing with people. That’s why it was a breath of fresh air to see campaigns that recognised and played to our weaknesses and foibles.

Most of all, my hat is off to every brand and agency whose entry I was lucky enough to peruse. It’s when you see what best practice looks like that you realise the importance of continually striving to raise the bar. Our industry has to keep pushing itself to do better – and to do good – both in terms of the work itself and in the aspiration to challenge stereotypes and prejudice.

Brands have a responsibility to people, not audiences. We could achieve so much, and that’s why Cannes Lions remains so important in showcasing what we can do when we really put our minds to it.

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