Cannes Creative Advertising Be Effective?

This week, we journey to Cannes, France for the Cannes International Advertising Festival. It’s the most revered advertising competition in the world, with 90 countries submitting over 40,000 ads. We’ll analyze the entries and answer the age-old question: do award-winning commercials really sell product?

This week, we journey to Cannes, France for the Cannes International Advertising Festival. It's the most revered advertising competition in the world, with 90 countries submitting over 40,000 ads. We'll analyze the entries and answer the age-old question: do award-winning commercials really sell product?


The first-ever major film festival in the world started in Italy in 1932.

It was a full house. (Image Source: ganzomag.com)

It was christened the Venice Film Festival.

But by 1938, it had become a vehicle for Fascist and Nazi propaganda, with Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany dictating what films would be shown while awarding themselves shamelessly.

Outraged, France decided to stage an alternative festival the following year, and chose Cannes, a small resort town on the Mediterranean.

Less than 30km from the big city of Nice. (Image Source: playa.com)

On what was to be the first day of the new Cannes Film Festival, Hitler intruded again by invading Poland. Two days later, France and Britain declared war on Germany.

The Cannes Film Festival had to be put on hold until 1946.

It looks remarkably similar today. (Image Source: historycanada)

After the war, the French government approved the revival of the festival – not so much to celebrate films  - but as way of luring tourists back to the region.

Soon, the Cannes Film Festival began attracting a wide range of film premieres. The Palm d'Or award was given to the top film each year and the Palais Des Festivals was built as a permanent home for the event.

Along with becoming an international marketplace for films, the Cannes Film Festival also became an international marketplace for controversies. In 1976, Martin Scorsese's film Taxi Driver won the Palm d'Or, causing half the audience to cheer and the other half to boo.

In 1979, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now was entered in the competition before it was even finished. Coppola screened it as "a work in progress" and it still won the Palm d'Or.

In 1983, actress Isabelle Adjani refused to attend the traditional press conference for her film, One Deadly Summer. When she arrived on the red carpet for the premiere, furious photographers all laid their cameras down and turned their backs to her.

At the 1992 Film Festival, Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren became involved in a verbal altercation on the red carpet that almost turned physical while promoting their film Universal Soldier.

And one of the biggest controversies of all is the fact that only one female director has ever won the Palm d'Or in the Festival's history – Jane Campion.

A controversy surrounding the Festival. (Image Source: sensesofcinema)

But through it all, the Cannes Film Festival has revived, survived and thrived. To this day, it is the foremost event where the film world gathers to celebrate its craft.

The famous red carpet. (Image Source: 48hourfilmproject)

There's another industry that gathers every year in Cannes, France, to celebrate its craft.

The advertising business.

Every June, the advertising world congregates at the Palais des Festivals to compete, meet and learn.

Boulevard de la Croisette meets Madison Avenue. (Image Source: mathiasmikkelsen)

90 countries submit 40,000 ads in the competition. Only a tiny percentage are awarded.

But like the Film Festival, there is an ongoing controversy here, too: Do the ads that win Cannes awards for creativity really work in the marketplace?

In other worlds, can Cannes creative advertising be effective?


Every year, I have the great fortune to travel coast to coast and meet our wonderful listeners.

And every year, they inevitably ask me the same question:

"Why is there so much bad advertising?"

Well, let me give you a few reasons.

First of all, not all advertising agencies are good at what they do. Second, not all advertising creative people are good at what they do.

But those are the two smallest factors.

The biggest reason, bar none, is the advertisers themselves. In other words, the companies who hire advertising agencies.

The majority of advertisers don't trust creativity.

They don't really value it.

Some ask for it but don't really want it.

Others forbid it, saying creativity sabotages their messages.

I cannot tell you how often I heard clients say that creativity was "getting in the way of the message."

They believe all you have to do is communicate a hard-sell message, and people will listen, then run out to buy the product like automatons.

Which never happens.

And that is why you see thousands and thousands of absolutely terrible ads every year.

But here's what they fail to understand.

Creativity is the most powerful business tool.

I'm going to prove that to you. But first you have to pack your bags and remember to bring along a little suntan lotion. Because I'm going to take you to France…to a pretty little seaside town on the Mediterranean…

Ah, sunshine. (Image Source: atoutfrance)

Let's sit down here on the patio of the famous Carleton Hotel across from the ocean. This is the advertising industry's favourite spot. Let me pour you the preferred drink here in Cannes – a chilled glass of Rosé.

You can't miss it. (Image Source: ihg)

OK, a little background. Even though it is spelled C-A-N-N-E-S, is pronounced CAN. Not Cans. Or Cons.

And every June, the global advertising industry gathers here for the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

Inspired by the Cannes Film Festival, the first advertising festival took place in Venice, Italy, in 1954.

Then it started alternating between Venice and Cannes for 30 years before settling in Cannes in 1984.

The Festival is an 8-day event that includes a worldwide advertising competition paired with an impressive line-up of over 600 speakers. More people attend the Cannes advertising festival, by the way, than the glamorous Cannes Film Festival.

The awards are called Lions, because the trophies were inspired by the lion statue on the clock tower in St. Mark's Square, Venice.

The coveted gold award. (Image Source: ddb)
The inspiration from Venice. (Image Source: seetheworld)

Last year, judges poured over 40,000 entries from 90 countries.

Many ads are entered, but only 3% win a Lion.    

While it's an honour to win a coveted Cannes Lion, it is also an honour to be asked to judge.

I was given that privilege back in 2005.

The judging is intense and unforgiving. On the last day, the debates can very heated. Every ad or commercial that has survived to that last day will have gone through the fires of hell to get there.

If it isn't great, if it doesn't inspire the judges, if it isn't absolutely fresh and original – it is put before the firing squad.

Only the best of the best of the best is awarded.

Which brings us to the eternal question:

Do award-winning ads really work?

In other words, are creativity and effectiveness two separate and unrelated outcomes?

Author and ex-adman James Hurman was determined to find the answer to that question once and for all. To do that, he mapped out a detailed process of cross-referencing award show winners with business results by using significant data sets and academic methodologies. His conclusions were collected in an excellent book titled The Case For Creativity.

He began by analyzing 15 well-documented industry and academic studies on the effectiveness of award-winning ads.

These 15 studies spanned three decades and came from all corners of the world. They all asked the same question in 15 different ways: Are the most creative advertising campaigns also the most effective?

Each year, the Cannes festival looks at major brands from all over the world and determines which one has distinguished itself by inspiring innovative marketing over the years and has put creativity at the heart of their business.

That company is named the Creative Marketer of the Year.

Therefore tracking the business results from almost two decades of Marketers of the Year would yield important insights.

So, let's see if the proof is in the Cannes…

(Image Source: digitalbuzzblog)

In 2012, the Cannes Festival chose Mars, the parent company of Snickers, as the Creative Marketer of the Year.

Since 1990, Mars had won more than 100 Lions.

The most recent awards were for one of my favourite campaigns of the last few years:

So does creativity equal business results?

Prior to the campaign, Snickers market share had been in decline for several years.

After the campaign had been running for only three months, Snickers sales volumes started to reverse. Not only that, it grew at twice the rate of the candy bar category.

As the campaign rolled out internationally, worldwide sales increased more than 15% - which was three times the rate of growth in the global candy bar category.

Snickers is the only campaign in the Festival's history to have won two Cannes Effectiveness awards. It also won effectiveness awards in the UK and the US.

Proving that campaign delivered stunning business results.

All due to creativity.

Brilliant. (Image Source: youtube)

It's a philosophy that would make Coke very happy…


When Coke launched its "Open Happiness" advertising campaign in 2008, the financial crisis was just rearing its head.

The idea behind the campaign was to position Coke as the antidote to modern-day woes, be it to things like isolation, teenagers not connecting with each other or helping strangers find common ground.

In other words, the soft drink maker was drawing a straight line from their famous 1971 commercial, I'd Like To Buy The World a Coke.

Coca Cola wanted to create a framework for creativity that its agencies could use all around the world. But they work with 2,000 agencies worldwide. They could never meet with them all in a timely manner.

So instead, Coke created a film explaining the strategy. Then it did the unthinkable – they introduced it at Cannes in a big open public presentation.

On one side of the auditorium were all the Coke people listening with smiles on their faces. On the other side were all the Pepsi people recording the whole thing on their cellphones.

The first question journalists asked Coke was, "Are you crazy?!?" But Coke's response was perfect. It said Pepsi may have seen our strategy, but they don't have our brands and they don't have our people and they won't know what to do with the thinking."

As I've often said, competitors can copy your look, your pricing and even your product, but they can never copy your company culture.

By releasing their strategy to the world, Coke now had to live up to the plan. But it gave all its worldwide advertising agencies the license to be creative. And in the midst of the financial gloom of 2008, Coke chose to advertise a spirit of optimism.

Coke's agencies took the "Open Happiness" concept and tailored it to their regions and their countries, resulting in a staggering 32 Lions in 2013 alone.

The campaign birthed the Happiness Machine. (Image Source: audiense)

At that festival, Cannes announced Coke was the Creative Marketer of the Year.

All fine and good. But what about business results?

Well, get a load of this.

While the S&P 500 barely recovered any ground lost during the crippling financial crisis, Coke's stock price grew nearly 100%.

The creativity unleashed by "Open Happiness" drove incredible revenue for Coke.

That's a lot of happiness.

(Image Source: 88phases)

2010 was also difficult year.

Many companies went out of business.

During that devastating time, Cannes chose Unilever as Creative Marketer of the Year.

The company had won 200 Lions over the years, and was known for doing innovative advertising in the traditionally stiff consumer goods category.

In 2007, Unilever's Dove brand launched the ground-breaking "Evolution" video, where we watched as a normal women is transformed by professional makeup people and altered by digital technology to become an unattainable image of beauty.

The video, created by Ogilvy & Mather Toronto, challenged the beauty category's use of unnatural, heavily doctored images. The message was simple:

No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted.

The tagline: "The campaign for real beauty."

A ubiquitous campaign. (Image Source: doverealbeauty)

There was a reason why this was such a ground-breaking video. Dove was part of the cosmetic industrial complex. It had traditionally pumped out those same re-touched images for years.

It, too, had a guilty hand in creating an unattainable perception of beauty that was stoking a perennial insecurity in women.

Ogilvy & Mather, Unilever's advertising agency, did a survey long before the campaign was created which showed that only 9% of women considered themselves attractive. And 68% strongly agreed that the media and advertising set an unrealistic standard of beauty that most women can never achieve.

So how did Dove come to make such a huge decision to call out its own actions and those of its cosmetic competitors?

As James Hurman explains in his book, the senior managers at Dove were predominantly male.

Author of "The Case for Creativity: Two Decades' Evidence of the Link Between Imaginative Marketing and Commercial Success." (Image Source: maddaily)

These men had built a vast global business. This massive success was due, in large part, to the fact Dove had used heavily re-touched images of beauty as a fundamental underpinning of its marketing.

Ad agency Ogilvy & Mather wanted to convince the Dove team that traditional cosmetic marketing was hurting women.

Even though they were armed with research, Ogilvy faced a huge problem.

How do you persuade your client to abandon a strategy has been so lucrative for so long?

Here's what Ogilvy did:

They contacted the daughters of those mostly male Dove managers. Then they filmed them talking candidly about media images, and how those images made them feel imperfect. Not beautiful. Unworthy.

Then at a creative meeting, Ogilvy showed that film to their fathers.

It was a powerful moment. These highly successful executives were used to making rationale, objective decisions, backed with persuasive charts and graphs.

But when they saw their own daughters talking about how manipulated they felt, and how those images constantly chipped away at their own self-confidence, it had a profound effect on their fathers.

In an astounding and rare moment in the corporate world, Dove dropped its previous advertising, approved the "Campaign for Real Beauty" and rolled it out nationally.

The checkbox campaign was especially powerful. (Image Source: barezy)

"Evolution" became the most-talked about video of the year and it inspired other award-winning Dove campaigns around the world, which you can watch on our website.

But was all this ground-breaking creativity meaningful at the store level? Did it sell Dove?

As the stock market sunk like a stone in 2008/2009 with a crushing 25% loss, Unilever – alone in its category - posted a 5% gain.

That was an extraordinary result at the apex of the most trying of economic times.

The Dove campaign went on to win effectiveness awards in the UK, the U.S. and Canada.

Real beauty. Real business gains.

(Image Source: therichest)

Again, I can't tell you how many clients I have met who scoff at advertising awards. They feel awards are only designed to stroke creative egos. That winning awards has nothing to do with business in the real world.

That was exactly what consumer goods giant Proctor & Gamble believed for decades.

As I have said before on this show, I believe that the mind-numbing advertising P&G has inflicted on the world over the years may have single-handedly made the public hate advertising.

And I mean this kind of advertising:

This is what I call the "icepick in the forehead" advertising.

For decades, P&G said humour had no role in marketing. It said it would never go to the Cannes Advertising Festival. It said it did not believe in awards.

As a matter of fact, it forbade its agencies from entering award shows with its work.

Then one day, P&G promoted a new Chief Marketing Officer named Jim Stengel.

Stengel changed P&G history. (Image Source: adweek)

Back in 2001, P&G was struggling. Sales had stalled. Its people were not inspired. There was unusual turnover within its ranks.

So Stengel decided to do a study of companies that were growing faster than P&G.

He and his team then looked at the advertising from those healthier companies and discovered they all had one thing in common: Their advertising was highly creative.

So Stengel made a momentous decision.

He decided P&G's marketing was going to become the best in the world.

P&G had never been that bold in its marketing aspirations. It was extremely left-brain. It was known for having strict formulas and rules. It was dogmatic. Inflexible. Rigid in its thinking.

Stengel flew his marketing team to the Cannes Festival for the first time in the company's history.

That signalled a revolution to the staff at P&G. Stengel wanted his team to see what the best advertising in the world looked like.

He wanted them to become inspired. And for the first time in P&G's history, he wanted his advertising agencies to be proud of their work.

P&G is the largest advertiser in the world.

The company primarily produces 70-80 household products. (Image Source: p&g)

It had many large advertising agencies on its roster. But Stengel made the decision to bring smaller, more highly-awarded agencies onboard so his team could learn from them.

Then Stengel changed P&G's advertising standards. He decided P&G's many rules were stepping on the garden hose of their results.

Stengel started encouraging his agencies to think creatively about P&G's products. He began to celebrate creativity. He brought all the Creative Directors from all his agencies into one room and told them P&G wanted to start winning awards.

It must have seemed like a mirage to those thirsty Creative Directors who had crawled in the parched desert of P&G's formulas for decades.

Then something amazing happened.

P&G started winning awards. The work became stunningly original.

In 2007 alone, P&G won 14 Cannes Lions for its work. In 2008, Cannes declared P&G the Creative Marketer of the Year.

If you had asked me in the 90s if P&G would ever be crowned Creative Marketer of the Year at Cannes, I would have laughed till I cried.

Now here they are – doing work like this:

But what about business results? P&G is the largest advertiser in the world, so this was no small experiment. How would creativity stack up against 100 years of entrenched systems, formulas and rules?

Well, when Cannes named P&G the Creative Marketer of the Year, its share price hit an all-time high.

Revenues immediately shot up 20%.

Jim Stengel had done the seemingly impossible – he had transformed staid P&G into a perennial Cannes creative winner and that creativity would eventually double its revenues.

Again, it has to be said, this all happened in the middle of the financial crisis.

Proving – with the largest advertiser in the world – that creativity is the most powerful business tool.

Whenever I judged advertising awards shows, I looked forward to it.

An empty Cannes red carpet - a rare moment. (Image Source: Sidney O'Reilly)

To me, it was a chance to see the concept cars of the future. In other words, to see the newest creativity emerging in advertising.

While effectiveness awards tell us what was effective in the past, creative awards tell us what will be effective in the future.

And that's why award shows are so important to the industry.

Show me an advertiser who scoffs at awards shows, and I'll show you an advertiser that is underperforming and not loved by their advertising agencies.

And here's the problem with that: You only work your heart out for clients you love.

A half hour radio show doesn't give me the time to list all the Cannes Creative Marketers of the Year – but every single one of them for the last 16 years have exceeded their business objectives.

Proving that creativity is linked to effectiveness.

Which brings me full circle to answering that familiar question I'm always asked: Why is there so much bad advertising?

Well, if more advertisers understood the incredible returns they could enjoy with creative advertising, there would be a lot less bad advertising…

…when you're under the influence.