Learning from the Lions: Cannes chair Terry Savage on emerging trends, the ascent of creativity and how to win gongs

The Cannes Lions has become the world’s pre-eminent advertising awards ceremony. And its chairman Terry Savage was in Auckland this week where he presented at Colenso BBDO as part of its Love This Speaker series and announced the return of the Young Lions in association with Val Morgan. Here’s what he had to say about purpose, creativity, data and competition. 

Savage, an Australian who was appointed as chief executive in 2003 after a stint as executive chairman at Val Morgan, says the three main trends of the 2013 festival were purpose, storytelling and data.

Storytelling has always been there and purpose is something every brand now needs, he says. But what’s a real purpose and what’s a brand purpose?

Most would say the main purpose of companies, and particularly the big companies that tend to be awarded advertiser of the year, is to make money for shareholders. That very rarely seems to get mentioned in marketing mission statements and instead the focus is shifted to woolly concepts like ‘inspiring happiness’. But business—and creativity—can be a force for good, he says, something it’s trying to enforce with the Cannes Chimera award. 

He pointed to a Grand Prix-winning campaign in last year’s mobile category (it was launched two years ago) from Philippino telco Smart that allowed children to use basic mobile phones as inexpensive, lightweight textbooks. TXTBKS wasn’t about using the latest mobile whizzbangery. It was about seeing a need and using the available technology to make the idea relevant and useful. He says it was quite surprising for many in the mobile industry to see an entry from the Philippines win such a coveted prize, but it was an idea that really resonated with the jury and is an example of the fact that the best ideas shine through, no matter where they’re from.

He says this is evidence of another trend: the world is flattening out. As a result, there is huge growth in entries (and wins) from smaller nations and when they win, they celebrate hard because it means so much to them, unlike some of the more dour and experienced developed nations. 

Another trend, and the main reason he thinks the Cannes Lions is growing quickly when most of the other big global award ceremonies aren’t, is because it attracts clients. There were 1,250 in 2007 and 3,000 last year, with marketers making up 25 percent of the total attendees (in correlation there were 36,000 entries for the 60th anniversary edition this year, whereas D&AD has remained fairly static on 21,000, he says). 

That’s a massive shift and he says it’s a good thing for the advertising industry

“They’re not there to learn about marketing. They’re there for one reason: to learn about creativity. They want to explore creativity because they have recognised the importance of creativity in their particular business.”

Savage showed a few clips of senior clients advocating for creativity, including Diageo’s Andy Fennell, who said attending the festival was a “hard-edged business decision” because the company believes “you sell more at higher prices if you’re creative”. And Savage says there are plenty of very senior people that also believe this.

James Hurman explored this idea in his book, The Case For Creativity, and discussed research by Coca-Cola’s Jonathan Mildenhall that tracked the performance of Cannes Lions’ Advertiser of The Year winners like P&G, Nike, Volkswagen, Swatch and Honda during the lead-up to their success. And they all enjoyed their highest share price when they were producing their most creative work. 

As Matt Biespiel, head of global brand development, at McDonald’s said: “We have seen ROI 54 percent higher with creative that wins Lions than creative that doesn’t. We believe in the power of creativity to drive our business. We believe down to our bones that great McDonald’s advertising drives the business and wins awards.”

“If you’re a marketer you don’t just dip your toe into the water to see if it works,” Savage says. It’s about believing that creativity can drive commerce. And when P&G’s Jim Stengel decided to bring his team to the Cannes Lions for the first time, he said it was a ten year mission to infuse creativity into the business, not just into the advertising. 

While there is a focus on big companies and brands at the festival, the principles are exactly the same for smaller businesses, he says. McCann Melbourne’s ‘Dumb ways to Die‘ was the most awarded campaign in Cannes history and Metro Trains has a marketing team of just five. But it was totally creatively-driven. 

This was a big idea that went gangbusters. But another trend he’s noticing is that the big idea doesn’t necessarily come from agencies anymore. He points to the example of Channel 4’s ‘Meet the Superhumans’, which was done entirely inhouse. Creative Artists Agency also won big at Cannes last year for its Chipotle ad ‘Back to the Start’. 

Historically, creativity has been the heart of the agency world, he says. But creativity is now coming from so many other areas. And with the rise of trends like branded entertainment, which often bypass agencies altogether and sees clients working work directly with media owners, it means agencies “need to be on their game”.

“If creativity is the currency, you need to be the leaders of that currency,” he says. 

He points to The Beauty Inside, a partially crowd-sourced campaign for Toshiba and Intel that was made by Pereira & O’Dell​ as another example of how creativity is changing because it was the first ad to win an Emmy (PJ Pereira is 24, has been to Cannes every year since he was 18, has won 12 cyber lions and two grand prix). 

Marshall McLuhan said “advertising is the greatest art form of the twentieth century”, so how long will it be before an ad wins and Oscar, Savage asks.

He believes Cannes is now as much a technology event as a creative event. And he says the Innovation category, which was launched last year and won by coding platform Cinder, will be one of the fastest growing. In a change of format, the shortlisted entries for this category have to present in front of the jury and an audience. And while he says 70 percent of the entries for this category came from agencies this year, he expects 70 percent of the entires to come from non-agencies in the next three years (product design is a new category for 2014 and it is also starting a new two-day festival around healthcare, wellness and sustainability just before the advertising festival kicks off). 

As for the question of data, he says “data is nothing without data visualisation” so while creatives don’t often want to hear about this particular buzzword, he thinks they have a big role to play here too. 

“If it’s done in a boring way they’ll switch off. So it’s about finding ways to creatively present data.” And, as an example of that, he says Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was “basically just data presented in a meaningful way”.

Data is also leading to efficiencies and adaptive planning and he pointed to a Lion-winning campaign for Kleenex, which addressed the challenge of selling tissues to people that have flu.

As DraftFCB Media’s Rufus Chuter wrote in the last NZ Marketing: “The media agency used a fusion of historical flu data and real time search data to pinpoint the specific regions where flu outbreaks were happening across the UK in real time. Once an outbreak was identified, they rapidly deployed media to capitalise. It’s based on a simple insight that when people have the flu, searches for a range of related keywords (eg “flu remedies”) sky rocket. By tracking and quantifying these search outbreaks they were able to deploy media at the time and place when their product was needed most. It was a triumph of relevance, enabling the brand to be responsive and meaningful to what was happening in the here and now.”

As for how agencies can win more Lions, he says the best ideas always rise to the top, but the case studies can be the difference between a shortlisting and a medal.

Judges are bombarded by ideas, so the idea needs to be presented well and “make the complex simple”. It also pays to tweak the entry video for different categories, because the judging criteria differs and he says a lot of agencies aren’t actually aware of that. And they don’t need to be long to be effective (he showed DraftFCB’s Driving Dogs case study as an example of a good one).

Lions Festivals is a commercial entity, of course, so conveniently (and common-sensically) enough, he also had a few slides that showed the more you enter, the more you win. 

Not surprisingly, Savage buttered up his New Zealand audience with a few stats about our nation’s performance. And it turns out New Zealand is number one in the world when it comes to awards won vs the size of the economy and fourth on the list when it comes to awards won vs total ad spend.

“New Zealand is a creative powerhouse on a global level,” he says. And now that there are global and regional pitches, he says we should think more broadly than the boundaries of New Zealand. And this international reputation should be of major benefit if agencies hope to do that. 

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