How I learned to stop worrying and love the Lion

If you’ve noticed that your favourite swanky Auckland restaurant has been a bit light on advertising lovelies lately (especially middle-aged male creative directors), there’s a good reason for it. This period marks the annual celebration of advertising creativity at Cannes, in the South of France. Each year, thousands of ad folk (and thousands more trying to sell them stuff) get together to first judge, then award each other’s work, drink themselves silly and stay in some of the most expensive hotels you’ll find anywhere.

Cannes is a hoot, and the one time I was invited to judge, my bag was packed before I’d put down the phone.

It’s also a bit flawed. This year, the unofficial theme has been sexism, with first Kiwi James Hurman then wine and social media industry darling Gary Vaynerchuck called out by #changetheratio crusader Cindy Gallop. (Both have since apologised, as covered off in the links.)

It’s a worry. What used to worry me even more, though, was that the ads that won at Cannes were almost never anything like the ads most clients bought and ran to help promote their products and services. A big chunk of them existed more to win awards than to, you know, sell stuff. It’s not surprising. Advertising people don’t usually get promoted on whether their ads work. They get promoted on whether their ads win awards. (I think it’s what economists call a perverse incentive.)

A good example this year was an app out of multinational Grey’s Singapore office. It uses crowd-sourced image analysis to help find refugee boats in the Mediterranean. It’s a cool idea. It won a Gold Lion at Cannes. The only problem is it’s a fake and doesn’t actually work. (Soz, drowned refugee children!)

Stuff like this used to irk me. Over time, though, I’ve changed my position. I still think chasing awards for their own sake is at best a waste of agency time and at worst a betrayal of the clients who pay our wages. The award-winning work, though, serves a handy purpose. For me, it’s like high-end catwalk fashion. It doesn’t have to be commercially viable. It doesn’t matter if no one other than Lady Gaga will ever wear your dress made from meat, or your 15-inch heels or whatever. But when you push those boundaries, try new things, maybe tell some lies about how real your client or brief or media placement was, you break new ground. And next year in Glasson’s you see echoes of that catwalk craziness from Paris, or New York. And the world is a more interesting place for it.

Two great examples awarded at Cannes this year have been The Swedish Number – a super simple but powerful campaign that allows anyone in the world to call a Swede (seriously) and Y&R New Zealand’s McWhopper. Will they drive more tourism or sell more burgers? The jury is out. Do they challenge marketers to think differently and do better work? You bet.

I don’t know if I’ll enter or attend Cannes again (both start looking super expensive when it’s your own money). But I’ll read the blogs, follow the scandals and admire the work – and try not to worry too much about what’s real and what’s just inspiring.

  • Vaughn Davis is the creative director and owner of The Goat Farm.

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