When it comes to celebrating creativity in advertising, Cannes Lions is the biggest! The biggest in terms of the number of attendees flocking from around the world to the south of France for a week, the biggest in numbers of entries to the awards shows, and it’s probably the biggest in terms of categories as well.
For many, there is a love or hate relationship with this festival, some people refuse to enter work or even attend, whereas others live by it… to a point of obsession sometimes. And with a growing number of award shows like D&AD, One Show, The Clios and The Art Directors Club, some might wonder: why is this industry so obsessed with self-congratulations?
You might also question the relevance of agencies spending thousands of dollars on entry fees, then even more thousands on travel so that senior executives can drink rosé by the beach when, after more than two years of living with the global COVID-19 pandemic, this money would be better spent on initiatives like mental health support, diversity and inclusion, and training for employees.
However, having been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to be a judge at the Cannes Lions twice, what I can tell you is that judging Cannes is a fascinating experience.
You’re locked in a room for a week with around 20 people from different countries, with one goal in mind; discussing, debating, classifying and awarding creative ideas. Some ideas you find brilliant, only for you to realise other judges find it horrible, and vice versa. The experiences that I’ve had at Cannes, remain some of the most exciting conversations that I’ve had around the work that we do within this industry. However, it is also a very political game; people asking you to vote for their work with a promise they will work with your agency later (something I didn’t take part in).
Being able to judge work that brought to life a new painting by an old master, a tourism line manned by its country’s citizens, or a surreal painting you can literally dive into through VR, has meant that I have discovered some amazing work, and yet, one category you will hardly find or get a chance to judge at Cannes is the luxury category. Is the work not good enough? Why don’t we see watch brands like Rolex or Audemars Piguet? Why so few submissions from brands like Chanel or Hermes?
With that in mind, here are my thoughts on why I think luxury brands are not represented, and some thoughts on, not how they can win at Cannes, because I believe the goal of doing great work should never be to win awards, but how luxury brands can create some work that is inspiring, aspirational and that resonates with people.
The first thing to note is that luxury brands don’t tend to enter work into award shows - compared to other brands in other industries - and they don’t communicate much about their agency partners (or let their agency partners communicate about their luxury clients), mostly because traditional agency/client relationships are not as key for many luxury brands as it would be for others.
The main drivers who enter work into award shows are agencies. They want to be recognised, have their team recognised. Some CMOs care about having their work recognised in award shows. And some, and these are the absolute best to work with, want to do amazing work, not for the awards, but because they recognise that great creative work actually delivers great results (not all Cannes winning work actually does, since unfortunately, there is still a lot of work entered just for the awards, with phoney or questionable results). And for luxury brands, an award is just secondary in value for them, as an article in Vanity Fair, or Fortune may be more likely to yield recognition for brands rather than in Ad Age.
When the work from luxury brands makes it to the award shows, it is usually found in the craft categories, which is what you would expect: luxury is about the impeccable craftsmanship, and attention to detail.
Other than craft, you would be hard pressed to find many examples over the years. I tried, trust me, and what you can find is IKEA responding with humour to Balenciaga copying their famous blue bag (for an astronomical price) or a Romanian magazine calling out Dior for cultural appropriation and responding with an entertaining campaign.
Luxury brands are often mocked, and with a high price of entry, it is only fair, especially when you see perfume ads whose storylines are so obscure to the point that it even called for its own Twitter handle. Or your typical watch ad with a celebrity looking into the horizon, and a watch. And that’s it.
How can luxury change the game? As mentioned earlier, the goal of any work should not be about winning awards, as the award circle is a system of its own, each with their own rules and politics. However, beyond awards, I believe luxury brands can push the boundaries further to create work that truly resonates with their audiences on a different level.
First of course, is cultural relevance. This is key, and we have seen some luxury brands evolving on that front as mentioned in a previous LS article, but while some brands embrace it, others have some work to do in this area. To really push themselves a bit further, I believe there are three rules: break from the category, be magical and bring storytelling to the core.
Don’t look at your competition. Look within, at what makes your brand what it truly is, and then build something unique. From Lanvin having models and Albert Elbaz dancing unexpectedly to Pitbull, to Kenzo creating an electric and bold film with Spike Jonze, these brands have broken outside their moulds, and dared to be different, taking their brands where no one was expecting them to and went outside their comfort zone. Kenzo World received more than 20 awards from Cannes Lions, WWD, Grand Prix Strategies du Luxe and Epica awards amongst others for their work and was definitely part of the cultural zeitgeist.
When brands take a very artistic approach, they can deliver something that is engaging just by its beauty, be it visual, audio, or experiential. Burberry and their Chief Creative Officer Riccardo Ticci came back into full force for the second year in a row with their collaboration with Megaforce and the dance collective (la)Horde (produced by RiffRaff films, is absolutely stellar in that sense.
And don’t miss last year’s film: This is a brand that is completely in tune with new behaviours, new audiences and that truly understands the power of creativity. This work is unique. powerful, modern, and refreshing. One might say that it wins only in the craft category because it doesn’t have a clear “concept” as defined in the advertising sense.
Judging the Cyber lions in 2008, we awarded a Gold to Uniqlo for Uniclock. It was music, entertainment, a service, and … a clock. It was using the power of digital and to put it simply: it was brilliant. Yet I remember a head of strategy at a big agency telling me on the street of Cannes after the award show: “I don't get it! What’s the idea? It doesn’t deserve to win an award.” And while true - I would be hard-pressed to write a clear headline for Uniclock…or for Burberry films for that matter - what these have in common is being unique, engaging, and refreshing. And definitely in tune with culture is what makes them stand out.
Lastly, I believe luxury brands have an opportunity to tell great stories. Not just documenting their savoir-faire, or through awkward scripts that are just primed to be spoofed, but about fiction, what will engage their audience, storylines with drama, a story arc, even some humour when done the right way.’
In addition, there is an opportunity to think about episodic formats, creating a rendezvous with the audience. While not in the same category, and with a story that is far from the luxury category, the Apple at Work films “The Underdogs” has created an episodic marvel.
And while luxury benefits from staying away from the fictionalised product demo of Apple, nothing forbids them to tell stories in such format and be true to their DNA. Not just “brand content’, but great content that tells some brands truths and that people are not just exposed to, but that they will seek.
To conclude, luxury brands, like any other brands, should never be doing work for the sole purpose of being recognised at award shows like Cannes Lions. And certainly not push for campaigns centred around issues like social justice, equality, or the environment if they don’t have the credentials to back it up (which unfortunately seems to be the case for many Cannes winners).
However, when they push the boundaries of creativity, and embrace the unexpected, the magical and new forms of storytelling, while staying true to their brand, nothing should stop them from winning at these award shows, should they decide to participate more in it. Something I’d like to see.