I’ve just gone through the 34 excellent Grand Prix winning entries at the 2023 Cannes Lions, and it’s interesting seeing the trends that determine what wins at the world’s most famous ad awards.
Purpose is still huge. 19 of the entries are in the category of “making the world a better place.” Whether that’s Corona helping Chinese farmers make money from growing limes, Adidas acknowledging that people with Downs Syndrome take part in sport or Microsoft creating an alphabet to preserve a culture, bands are still falling over themselves to be portrayed as the good guys.
Dirty filthy commerce is well and truly out; given the Cannes Grand Prix sample, no one is interested in your actual product or service and what it actually does. So Adidas, Corona and Microsoft aren’t winning awards for work that specifically sells their sportswear, they win for promoting a mindset and creating feelgood about their brand. They do this brilliantly but at some stage, brands need to tell us the public what their products do. After all, sales matter and it’s harder to pinpoint a sales spike to a piece of do-gooding than it is to a hard hitting promotional message. Fewer of the product-based ads which used to be the bread and butter of creative departments are winning big. BA is selling flights, Apple is selling a feature on their phones and Partners Life is selling life insurance.
An astonishing 29 of the 34 Grand Prix winners are in the “look, we’ve done a thing” category, and this has long been a staple of award shows, not just Cannes. These are less about the craft and more about activation, experience or innovation. Years ago, I ran a website called Idea a Day where we gave away business ideas for free. Many involved a brand changing its behaviour, just like these winners at Cannes. The winning idea for 2001 (post 911) was to install emergency parachutes in skyscrapers over a certain height. Another was for supermarkets to round up card payments to the nearest dollar and give the rest to charity. We sent a bunch of our ideas to TFL to make the experience of riding on the tube better. They told us that they had an advertising budget and a PR budget but not one for whatever it was we were peddling. Today, an app that traces what your eye dwells on when ordering food delivery, badges that you collect when travellng through train stations and an Airbnb for electric vehicle charging are ideas that win big at Cannes.
Pure entertainment is less important than a big idea, a trend that disappoints some creatives who remember fondly when every ad break had something to make them chuckle. Only 7 Grand Prix winners are what I’d call entertainment, three of which are music videos or short films. And by entertainment, I don’t mean something funny, more content to be watched, looked at or engaged with rather than a smart activation or innovation. Last Photo and BA are both classic OOH campaigns, while Apple’s RIP Eric and Prime Life are TV ads, but they are in the minority of winners here. Someone can probably work out the ratio of Cannes winners to actual executions per year in each category. My hunch is that there are many more clients creating scripted content, digital display, print, OOH and radio than there are clients making purpose-driven innovations, yet only 7 out of 34 winners – less than 20% are for traditional ad ideas.
Humour is even less welcome in the winners’ enclosure. Just two Grand Prix winners are funny – Apple’s RIP Eric TV ad and Skinny’s ‘phone in your script’ radio campaign. Has the industry has officially lost its sense of humour? The results from the juries suggest that it has. And gone are the days when advertising creativity was determined by art directors and copywriting. There’s precious little of either here, suggesting a new era where creatives are a blend of conceptual thinkers and management consultant. BA, Skinny, Prime Life, CALM and Kendrick Lamar’s epic “we Cry Together” join a couple of music videos to offer some words and art direction, but it’s slim pickings. The suggestion is that creativity 2023 is more about ideas for what a brand can do for the world than what a brand’s products and services can do for consumers. The focus is very much on “them out there” rather than me the end user, the assumption being that, as long as I’m left feeling good about a brand, I’m more likely to buy.
It's not my place to say what’s right or wrong, these are just the trends given the work that won at this year’s Lions. It might be that agencies know what wins at Cannes and so steer purpose driven ideas at their clients in the hope of bringing home gold. But given that the judges are some of the top people in our industry, it does suggest that this is the work that they like, and which makes them jealous that they didn’t think of it. So while this may not be where advertising is heading, it’s certainly where it is now.
As a final word, I am hugely thankful to Toan Mai & Quynh Tran, the team behind lovetheworkmore.com who have made every 2023 winning ad available without a paywall. They deserve a Lion for their efforts.