Why COVID Was The Real 'Disruption' Winner Of The Lions Festival

After spending last week covering the Cannes Lions awards, I can tell you one of the festival’s biggest winners went unannounced: the COVID-19 pandemic.

While countless stories have already been written -- and data points cited -- about how the pandemic has accelerated so much transformation in the advertising, media and marketing industries, they were largely about necessity.

Much of the past 18 months have been about the acceleration of “digital transformation,” the adoption of ecommerce marketing for some unexpected and slow-moving industries, etc.

What many of last week’s Lions winners demonstrated is how much the industry has transformed culturally in terms of the role brands are playing in solving some of our most basic societal problems, and how they have been using media as a tool do it.

Some of them were technologically driven, like Telenor’s birth-certificate registration app in Pakistan, Waterlight’s renewable electricity solution for the indigenous people of Colombia, or AVA’s pollution-removing soap for the indigenous people of the Andes.



Some of them weren’t technological at all, but served basic human needs the old-fashioned way via human interaction, including Starbucks' and MasterCard’s campaigns to help transgender people affirm their new names and identities.

And yes, I understand that the Lions represented the best of the best, and that the ad industry loves to pat itself on the back for all the good things it does -- but taken as a whole I do believe their has been a fundamental shift in the way many, if not most brands, think about their role in society.

And I think it was highlighted by many of the Lions awards winners, because this year’s festival traversed two-years worth of awards that also coincided with both the pandemic, as well as a variety of social justice and equity movements, including the one triggered by George Floyd’s murder.

Advertising and brand marketing were already heading in this direction before those events, because society was already changing coming out of earlier crises -- #metoo, climate change, and racial-injustice events preceding Floyd’s murder -- but the pandemic added a stimulus that accelerated the underlying cultural shift in the way brands think about themselves, because it exacerbated a shift in the way consumers think about the role of brands in society-at-large.

This was identified and highlighted by new research released by the Edelman Trust Barometer during the festival, but it’s something numerous studies and some of the industry’s most visionary authorities have also articulated: That it’s not longer good enough for brands to solve basic consumer problems, or even to make us feel like they are solving them for us individually.

The big change that has been accelerated, is that people now feel brands must play a fundamental role in solving problems that benefit all of us -- directly or indirectly.

And I also understand that the Lions celebrated our best actors, and that there are plenty of bad actors in advertising, media and marketing -- nefarious criminal ones, or just loathsome opportunistic ones.

After all, there currently are multiple millions of brands in the world, so not all of them are going to do good. How many are on the right side of the ledger, I don’t know, but I think Havas’ every-other-year Meaningful Brands study is probably a good barometer, and its 2021 edition shows that only about a quarter of the brands available in the world even matter to most consumers.

So it makes sense that the world’s greatest brands would lean into the bigger problem-solving business as a means of differentiating themselves from all that noise and fragmentation, but those trends were clearly accelerated over the past couple of years, and this year’s Lions winners reflected that.

And I think it’s no coincidence that the festival’s organizers added a new category this year -- one called “Market Disruption” -- in the Creative Effectiveness Lions awards. And while the winner of that award -- FCB Inferno for LinkedIn’s brilliant “Raising Profiles” -- campaign, I would have given it to COVID-19, because the pandemic forced us all to adapt quicker than we otherwise might have, and motivated brands (including aforementioned LinkedIn) to step in and play a role supporting it.

As bad as crises -- especially worldwide ones -- are, they help accelerate something fundamental to human beings: our ability to adapt, evolve and become something else, hopefully better. It’s what made us humans in the first place, and along the way we adapted and used media to help us do it. 

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