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Marketing and Comms
Screw the Nice Gestures, Advertisers — We Need More Real Impact

Thomas Kolster provides a behind-the-scenes look from a Sustainable Development Goals jury member at last week's Cannes Lions.

Making change happen beats good intentions — and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have spawned creativity that actually solves issues at this year’s World Cup of Advertising: the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. No doubt, campaigns addressing social and environmental issues have dominated the Cannes Lions winner’s podium, in general. But for the most part, those campaigns were clowns dressed as angels, and the real impact left to be seen — or rather, questionable.

I’ve for years rallied Cannes Lions to take change more seriously; and last year, the festival decided to launch a prize dedicated to the 17 SDGs.

Impactful, scalable and innovative

This year, I was happy to be invited onboard the jury of this quickly evolving category. More than 800 initiatives from across the globe were entered. When going through the work, I was both hopeful and utterly pessimistic. There were exciting, impactful lighthouses tackling overconsumption and climate change, such as Doconomy’s Do Black — a credit card that shows users their carbon footprint and even has a carbon limit.

But unfortunately, important categories such as poverty, hunger, and clean water and sanitation were lacking quality solutions.

These are the forgotten causes — the ones we really need to talk about. It’s an opportunity for any brand, agency or innovator doing great work in these fields! In the jury, we had long conversations about the sort of work we wanted to shine a light on, and three criteria were pivotal: impact, scalability and creativity/innovation. I was pleased to see new, innovative solutions such as Carlsberg’s Snap Pack and Corona’s Fit Packs, waving goodbye to plastic six-pack rings. Or Mimica Touch — a packaging label that indicates when food or beverages have turned bad or unsafe to eat or drink. It goes to show that there are plenty of room for creativity in the packaging space.

Join the change

The big winner this year was The Lion’s Share, taking home the Grand Prix. A clever initiative launched by Mars, whereby advertisers featuring animals in their advertising (apparently, more than 20 percent do) can volunteer to pay for those animals’ “model’s rights” to the Lion’s Share foundation, supporting conservation projects around the world. A clever fundraising mechanism already making an impact on the ground.

Lion’s Share did not only receive a trophy, but made more than €300.000 from the entries. It’s an important effort, as a UN report warned that more than one billion of the planet’s species are facing extinction by humans. I’ll encourage any advertiser to participate in supporting the Lion’s Share.

Another case that really touched my heart was the Open Door Project where private schools in India are opening their doors after hours to the more than 25 million underprivileged children in their communities that don’t have access to quality education. It’s a project that can easily be scaled in other parts of the world.

The Open Door Project was one of three Gold winners this year, along with two groundbreaking tech solutions enabling unprecedented progress in two very different, underserved areas:

BBDO Atlanta’s Gracie AI

Morse code for Google’s gboard

So, there's no need to reinvent the wheel as a brand or an organisation — there are many initiatives with proven track records you can join or support.

Build bridges, not walls

In categories such as gender equality or climate change, it was sad to see many initiatives preaching to the converted — what a waste of money and effort! These are the sort of initiatives that are creating a divide in society. If you’re educated about climate change, don’t point fingers at others. It’s the same as if you’re good at math in school — you shouldn’t bully your classmates that struggle, but rather help them. It’s about time we create a positive, inclusive narrative around the issues, rather than the fiery rhetoric and corporate activism we see from most brands. If you know better, it’s your responsibility to help.

Speaking of climate change, while we were judging, Extinction Rebellion staged a protest against the advertising industry on the red carpet in front of the festival; one of the organisers, William Skeaping, tweeted: "Came hoping we could get the advertising industry to help tell the truth about the climate and ecological emergency but now have a sinking feeling that we're totally fucked."

The pressure is on. The SDGs are an opportunity for everyone to come together, speak a shared language and find shared solutions; but for the most part, it’s still mostly nice gestures — like a trending fist bump, rather than new schools built. Our industry’s survival is on the line and, unlike a billion animals threatened by extinction, nobody is going to miss the majority of brands or feel sorry for an unemployed marketeer.

Check out all of this year’s winners here: