How do ad agencies win a Cannes Lion award?

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As the Cannes Lions Festival is wrapping up this week, we’re seeing the annual breathless, self-congratulatory statements coming out of agencies with photos of their awards and sun-tanned creative teams sipping champagne.

They should feel proud. They’ve achieved a huge accomplishment that has been the recognized stamp of credibility for advertising creativity since 1954.

And a Cannes Lion award is very difficult to win. The awarded campaigns are generally very creative and clever and the competition is fierce (although rapidly becoming less so).

But do these awarded campaigns deliver results for clients?

That’s not usually a question that’s asked, and it is rarely an important criteria for winning these creative awards. The way to win is to submit something the industry insider judges find particularly clever, funny, or artistically beautiful.

How do agencies win at the Cannes Lions festival?

When I worked at the big ad agencies, I was often shocked at how they used clients’ budgets for the purpose of winning awards and self-promotion.

At many agencies, awards are a primary goal for many of their campaigns, regardless of results. In fact, results and measurement are often not considered.

The problem is that many agencies are obsessed with winning awards, seeing that as the scorecard for winning against other agencies.

As the CEO of one prominent American creative agency admitted to AdWeek, “Award shows are a waste of money and resources. They’re a misguided way to stroke a few people’s egos. On top of that there’s a ton of work being done for the sole purpose of winning awards. And the number of shows is ridiculous too.”

Thankfully, things are starting to change.

CMOs are turning against award-obsessed agencies

That’s why today’s CMO’s are rejecting traditional award-seeking agencies. They’re starting to believe those agencies don’t put their clients first. Much less their clients’ customers.

Today’s CMOs are starting to believe award-seeking agencies don’t put their clients first. Much less their clients’ customers.

They know that too-clever ads often don’t achieve results. Their digital transformation is changing their priorities. Data-informed ad campaigns are now revealing how ineffective the old gut-feeling approach can be.

They are seeking alternatives, and finding them in the Zen Marketing approach that balances intuition with data, big ideas with bold experiments, inspiration with rigorous validation.

The alternative to cleverness is customer insights that are validated by robust data.

The alternative to awards for cleverness is measurable results lift.

I firmly believe that creativity is still required for advertising. New ideas can change people’s perspectives. When inspiration is combined with a rigorous experimentation program, companies can push today’s marketing innovation.

But, when “creative” team members are put on a pedestal in an agency, and measurement is rejected, clients lose.

I’m reminded again, in this Cannes Festival season, of why I launched WiderFunnel in 2007 to be the “anti-agency.” And again, why we will never make a recommendation if we haven’t tested its ability to lift the client’s revenue.

So, the next time you’re in an agency pitch where they’re bragging about their awards, you should consider their priorities. They may be telling you they don’t care about you or your results.

Why we will never win a Cannes Lion award

Short answer: Because we will never submit for one.

Note: We have edited this post to remove content that was interpreted as identifying individuals to blame for this industry problem. We did not intend to identify those individuals and regret any misinterpretation. To be clear, many agencies are still doing great work that does get great results, and some of those campaigns even do win awards. We invite vigorous debate on the topic and not personal attacks.

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  • IBG Digital

    Whats make a difference between an agency who are awarded and those who aren’t?

    I don’t know why people run blindly run towards the awarded agencies.

    • Mike VanBilson

      Good work wins awards. It’s pretty simple really.

      • The question is how “good” is established. What is the criteria? Who determines what’s “good”?

        In most cases, the ad industry awards do not reward results. They reward cleverness.

        Agencies know how to play the game to win awards. They run campaigns that are designed only for the awards shows, often not for real clients. The awarded campaigns do not reflect their typical work. It’s a sham and does not help clients make better agency hiring decisions.

        • Mike VanBilson

          I agree and disagree. I just wouldn’t use a blanket statement. Some agencies, not all agencies—and some awarded work, not all awarded work.

          Good work in a creative festival (its right in the name, Cannes Lion Creative Festival) is, well… creative. Some work is rewarded because of the effectiveness of the creative, but at the end of the day, if it wasn’t creative, it wouldn’t be there.

          There is award shows for results, Cannes is a creative festival, not a “how much money did I make my client” festival. The Refugee Nation was awarded across the board and it was well deserved. I would be interested in how you would go about measuring the “results” of this brand identity and their activations. Many clients actually refer to Lion work as their goal, because they know people will connect with it. The age of creative work has evolved.

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