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Why PR should walk on from Cannes

24th September 2012


In case you missed it, there has been a whole load of controversy/chat about why PR agencies have again barely won any PR Lions. I’m not sure I understand the whole PR at Cannes Lions gig. Here is why.

Cannes rebranded a few years ago from the Cannes Lions Advertising Festival to the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity. This was a clever move and good on them. In one hit they moved from being the hub of a market on the slide, to positioning themselves as guardian of creativity. This repositioning enabled Cannes to push their PR category which they had launched a few years earlier.

Cannes saw PR as a new revenue stream and told PR people to get involved with Cannes or lose out. PR lapped it up. And fell straight into the trap. There is simply no way, from an experience, expertise, budget or creative perspective a PR firm can compete with the creative background of multimillion pound creative agencies. It is, on a consistent basis anyway, not going to happen.

But this whole ownership debate is unhelpful. The idea that if any marketing director wants to create business-defining creative work he has ever, or will ever, call up the PR agency/in house PR people is crazy. This has virtually never happened and I don’t see why that will change. If the CEO has a reputation crisis – then he calls up the PR guy. If the marketing director wants to build an engagement platform with customers – they call the PR guy. If you look at the best viral videos that have ever been done – are these done by the PR agency? No. Of course not. Never have, never will.

PR is about reputation. PR is about engagement. About third-party endorsement. Creativity may well play a part in that but is it likely to be as sexy and as jaw dropping as the creative behind the campaign? No.

Does this mean PR is wrong? No. Does this mean PR should pack up and go home? No.

It just means that when Cannes Lions think they are judging PR. They are not. They are judging clever social campaigns of which PR plays a part. Huge difference.

If I were a PR agency, simply, I wouldn’t bother entering Cannes. Because you’ll never win. The headline sexiness of the work ad agencies do (and wrap up as PR) will always grab the award win. And that’s before you’ve even got near the difficulties of creating a video to sum up the key attributes of an engaging PR campaign. But my point is you’re not comparing like with like.

Another way of looking at this is to ask the ad agencies whether they do much work that requires daily contact with consumers or stakeholders. The answer (again in the main, there will be exceptions) is that they do very little of this day-to-day contact work. Why? The reason (and yes I have asked them) is because compared to the fees they charge for the creative, and the rest of the content, they can’t make enough money out of it.

And often, although they probably wouldn’t admit this, they are not as good at the engagement stuff as the PR guys.

The route of the problem, I am afraid, is PR’s lack of confidence. It should shrug its shoulders at Cannes, laugh and point out that PR is not just about creativity. It’s in danger of allowing itself to get sucked into a game it can only lose.

Exactly the same trend has occurred in the Media Lions. Historically, advertising agencies have won a very high percentage of the Lions in this category. Why? For exactly the same reason as the PR agencies are not winning Cannes. In essence the ad/creative agency comes up with a sexy concept and then wraps it up as a media idea. This will always grab the judge’s attention more that most pure media campaigns.

I’m not saying the quality of PR work can’t be improved, of course it can, but instead of trying to compete on the sexy creative ideas that are at the core of the marketing campaign, think about the engagement and the public relations bit.


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