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Marketing and Comms
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 count for 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 advertising what the Cannes is to film — the biggest global gathering of the industry. The change is visible; but is it simply what advertising is so good at — overpromises and sustainable fireworks without any real impact?

I’ve been coming to Cannes since I was a young, hopeful copywriter and the work has truly changed. Just a decade ago, the awards (the Lions) that focused on sustainability could be counted on one hand. Today, you can count the Grand Prix winners focused on sustainability on two hands — and, moreover, the change is visible across hundreds of awarded works across metals and shortlists. This year, the content across the Festival and its fringe events also had a strong focus on sustainability, which is great to see. Yet, I still believe we need to invite more voices around the table (ex: Greenpeace protested this year at Cannes; I rather want to invite them to a cup of organic herbal tea). For the first time, we got Cannes and many of the venues to open up and welcome all to an Open House for Good; next year, we’ll make sure more take up the invite.

Lack of education and naïve bandwagoning on sustainability issues

That said, there’s sadly still hard work ahead. The lack of knowledge and education across the industry from brand to agency side is concerning, as pinpointed by reports by WFA and Act Responsible/Nielsen. A lot of the winning work is only skimming the surface of the problems, rather than fully engaging and committing. The very campaign-like nature of advertising looking for short-term results clashes with the longer-term engagement needed to actually change behaviors (usually, it takes 3-6 months for a new habit to kick-in — ask any smoker). Another issue I witnessed across campaigns is the bandwagon-like focus on popular issues such as ocean plastics or whatever else is hitting. It’s a naïve and gutless approach where marketeers trying to engage on these issues look 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 everybody 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 legacy.

Many issues still go unnoticed or lack more support; and we seriously need a stringent focus on the Global South — we all share this beautiful planet and its destiny. This must be a shared effort as an industry; every time one brand or campaign fails, it falls back on all of us — turning people skeptical towards what is so critical: sustainable change at scale. And who can blame them? Take my nieces (11 and 18 years old): All they’ve witnessed in their lifetime is companies being guilty of environmental degradation and social injustice, and all they hear from those very same companies is, ‘look how good we are!’ Let’s work together to get this right.

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The heat is on — from Greenpeace protesting Cannes to concerned citizens and legislative pressure — for advertisers to make their work count for more than selling more products to the Western world. Here’s a few hacks based on this year’s Grand Prix winners.

Don’t waste your money preaching to the converted

Billions of dollars of media and advertising money are lost because campaigns are targeting the people who already agree with the issue. Take the much-awarded anti-gun commercial, “The Lost Class”: Brilliant and effective for those pleading for stricter gun control measures; but do you really think it’s going to convince any hard-headed anti-gun folks in the Midwest?

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

Be more innovative in your media choice and creative strategy — target the people actually need convincing.

Sweat and tears, not just clever ideas

Ideas won’t cut it; we need real change and that demands real work — not just upbeat case videos promising everything from potential legislative change and millions of eyeballs. Our industry is not set up for the more entrepreneurial nature this change demands. Most issues are not solved in a campaign cycle but might need an independently run origination, business unit or thinktank — think fintech climate startup Doconomy, which has grown from a great idea in Cannes in 2019 (its DO Black credit card) to a truly influential company continuing its work to increase the public's climate literacy.

A highlight this year was Data Tienda, which allows Mexican women to build a credit score — vital for bank loans — based on interactions with the local shops that have offered them informal credit for years.

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

Choose the right spokesperson

Advertising has a love relationship with celebrities and animals; but who you pick matters. Sorry, Frankie the dinosaur (Don't Choose Extinction,” UNDP; Activista, Los Angeles) won’t get any hard-headed UN bureaucrat to go up against fossil fuel subsidies (or, sway any climate skeptics, for that matter). Choose spokespersons these people listen to — maybe an oil exec or a deep-pocketed political campaign sponsor? It can sometimes be as easy as choosing an engaging, animated rapper to teach children about sugar.

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

Get married — collaboration rules!

If we are to succeed with any of these challenges, we need to work together. Brands and agencies can benefit tremendously from non-profits and other NGOs’ insights and knowledge as well as they can benefit from market insights and commercial ingenuity from the industry. One example is Dole and Ananas Anam working together on Piñatex — a sustainable leather substitute made from the cellulose fibres extracted from pineapple leaves, which has already been used in collabs 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 blueprints for success to yourself but sharing them with others — like when Volvo gave away the patents to the safety belt for every automaker to use in 1959, or when Allbirds open-sourced its product carbon footprint calculator to the fashion industry. When it comes to sustainability, we win more by working together. Think about how you can create new processes and new working groups across stakeholders to create the best of all worlds team.

Real impact

I’m sick and tired of witnessing one case video after the other claiming all sorts of good. It’s tough to be in the jury and dissect the BS from the real impact. No wonder people are getting increasingly skeptical of brand claims. If you claim something, make sure to put those facts and figures into context. Michelob Ultra’s programme to help farmers in the US switch to organic farming is a no-BS case.

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

Don’t brag. Empower

If we are not to further jeopardize people’s trust in brands, it’s about time we stop pitching brands as saint-like saviors and instead empower people to take part in the change. After all, we won’t succeed if people don’t take the charge. Stop the preaching, and create brands and campaigns that coach people towards a better version of themselves: more sustainable, healthier, or more knowledgeable. Plus, you turn people from a passive target group into active ambassadors — you can’t ask for better engagement, as found in a recent Goodvertising/GfK report.

The #KeepGirlsInSchool initiative in India, from Procter & Gamble feminine hygiene brand Whisper, aims to help educate girls about menstruation — a taboo subject in the country and a major reason why girls drop out of school at puberty. The initiative cleverly empowers the community to do their part.

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