Sex, Drugs and Monkeys: Lessons from the Cannes Lions

Last Monday, I went with a group of colleagues to Cinéma du Parc to watch the screening of the 57th annual Cannes Lions Film Festival.

I’ve been spending my hard-earned cash on the privilege of watching advertisements for a number of years now. Invariably, there are some brilliant ads, some so-so ads, and some ads that – as they say in the military – induce genuine whiskey-tango-foxtrot moments. Purely from an entertainment standpoint, the show was well worth the price of the $7 ticket.

But to us marketers, the Lions offer more than just a fun night out. Here are some lessons from Cannes that we can apply to our work every day:

Great Content Gets Around

When I first started attending the Lions screenings a number of years ago, most of the ads were new to me at the time of viewing. This year, however, I think I’d seen well over half of them before the screening – not on television (which I rarely watch) but because they had been shared with me at some point during the year. YouTube, links on Facebook or Twitter, blogs or marketing digests… if something was worth seeing, chances are, it made the rounds. This goes to show how social media has connected us and has made the world smaller, such that ads from Europe, Australia or even Thailand had already made their way over here. It also demonstrates that great content doesn’t need any incentive to be shared; sharing it is its own reward.

Beyond the Cheap Laugh

Everyone likes a good laugh, and the Cannes Lions offer plenty of those to go around. Whether it’s Axe inviting men to “clean their balls” or Luvs Diapers introducing the new member of the family to the horrified adult older brother, funny ads continue to resonate. But humour in advertising is short-lived; you see it once, twice, maybe three times and laugh, but after that, the punchline is worn out and the ad gets stale.

On the other hand, what if you could craft a message around a deeper emotion or part of the collective culture? An incredibly large percentage of the winners this year were for nonprofit or public awareness campaigns, and they leveraged common emotions to tug at the heartstrings to deliver their very powerful messages. Amnesty International’s clever use of candle wax in its campaign against the death penalty. The “Fight Back” campaign by the Canadian Cancer Society, which tapped into anger to drive action. Even World Wildlife Federation’s Monkey in Space campaign, which tugged at the nostalgia heartstrings to share its message of environmental awareness. These ads, more than the cheap laughs, are the ones that are remembered long after the fact.

From Advertising to Creativity

The Lions themselves have undergone a re-branding this year. No longer an “advertising” festival, they now bill themselves as the “International Festival of Creativity”. This reflects a shift that should make intuitive sense to us marketers – as an industry, we’re not so much in the business of creating one-off advertising campaigns as we are in creating experiences that connect, engage and shift perceptions. The creativity is in the way we tell stories, in the merging of multiple channels and touchpoints into an experience that affects people beyond the one-time ad. We’re not in the business of the 30-second spot; we’re in the business of shifting cultural perceptions through creativity.  

Measuring Success

Cannes introduced a new Lion this year, entitled the “Creative Effectiveness Lion”. The purpose of this award is to “reward work that has demonstrated a ‘measurable and proven impact’ on a client’s business through factors including consumer behaviour, brand equity, sales and profit.” With this, the Cannes Lions joins other awards including the CMA, in recognizing that the role of great marketing isn’t just to be cool, but to achieve a measurable objective.

There's a lesson here for everyone in the advertising business, from account folks to creatives: Clients will take a chance on something new, but it needs to be backed up with results in pretty short order, or else they’ll move on to something else. As companies struggle to monetize and measure ROI in digital and social channels, we’re in a great spot to help them through the maze and show them that great creative isn’t just about being cool, it’s about what works.

The full list of the Cannes Lions 2010 winners is available at