10 Lessons From Judging Cannes 2021 Creative Strategy Category

I recently was a juror for the Cannes 2021 Creative Strategy category. As the 2020 Festival was cancelled, we reviewed ~800 global entries from 2020 and 2021.

Our jury was a diverse group of seasoned marketing professionals from around the world. We were looking for insight-driven, fresh strategic approaches that unlocked results-driving creative.

Here are some observations.

1.  Purpose is the new black. Seventy-five percent of our award winners were cause-related. COVID-19 accelerates trends. The troubles of 2020 seemed to make brands aware of shared challenges beyond market share.

2.  It was hard to be insightful about the COVID-19 pandemic.  Saying “we're with you” was not considered award-worthy. None of our award winners spoke directly to the pandemic.

3.  Brands don't get credit for simply doing the right thing. Brands must put something at risk to be considered brave.

  • Take an unpopular position – take on a social taboo



    - Dove's "Stop the Beauty Test" took on Indian arranged marriages.

  • Dedicate resources to solve the problem beyond normal business operations

    - Canon's "Truthmark" developed a tool to combat disinformation.

  • Risk sales

    - Lego's "Green Instructions" encourages customers to reuse existing product rather than buy additional kits.

  • Question the law

    - Vice's "8 bit Journo" risked a government Internet blockade (as in this case, where it was using media to circumvent a repressive authoritarian news blackout -- see below).

  • Example of doing what was expected vs. taking a risk
  • - GM's "Everybody In" was hotly debated because many jurors considered the embrace of electrification as table stakes for a car manufacturer.
4.  When doing purpose, brands need to find the right alignment with a business truth and not just appropriate an adjacent cause.
  • Starbucks' "What's Your Name" found a way to support the transsexual community through the common act of customers sharing a new name with the Starbucks barista.
5. If a brand is going to do purpose, it needs to put real resources against the issue beyond the marketing campaign.
  • Stayfree's "Project Free Period" went far beyond a marketing campaign to train Indian sex workers on new job skills during their menstruation.
6. Avoid stereotypes. Campaigns with caricatures of Russian mobsters and Colombian drug lords did not get awarded.

7. Diversity matters in marketing.  If the representation is not in the room, things are missed and mistakes are made.      

  • ABI Guarana's "She Can" was work that required cultural context from our Latinx jurors in order to be fairly assessed.

8. B2B Marketing can be more than client testimonials and lead generation.

  • Three Ireland's "Connected Island" showcased the real-world case study of networking a remote island in a way that fueled fresh, results-driving storytelling.

9. To win, brands need to show meaningful impact within the footprint of the work. Massive numbers for narrowly deployed activity were not required as long as the results are meaningful in depth and as a percentage of population. It's hard to win based only on evidence of social pass-along and press pick-up.

  • Interval House's "Freedom Tampons" initiative was recognized because it moved the needle with getting care to abused women in Toronto.

10. Sometimes it's OK to just be funny. Our Grand Prix winner had nothing to do with purpose. It was a master class on finding an insight that unlocked breakthrough creativity.

  • Cheetos "Can't Touch This" had a creative strategy to own the product's dust residue, which unlocked strategic creative in all sorts of innovative ways. 

Judging Cannes 2021 reminded me of the value of getting out of the day-to-day bunker and spending time with world-class work. Picasso allegedly said: “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”

As brands compete for traction in culture, there is much we can learn from other great work. Getting recognized at Cannes is truly a gauntlet. 

Congratulations to all the 2020/21 winners!

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