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Cannes-do attitude

Do creative awards mean anything to anyone outside agencies?

Originally written for Marketing Week, June 2019

With a few short weeks until the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, it’s an opportune time to consider the dead certs versus the long shots for a hallowed Grand Prix. Where advertising, marketing, design and PR are concerned, there’s definitely a chasm defined by nurture versus nature to separate the two camps.

For anything to be truly nurtured, there’s an actual datapoint to aim for: -

10,000 hours.

That, if you believe ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’ by Malcolm Gladwell, is all the practice you need to become a true expert in something.

Fancy beating Serena Williams at Wimbledon? Just don your whites and smash yellow balls for 10K hours. Need to master Schumann’s Toccata in C? Tickle those ivories for just over four hundred and sixteen days. Have an urge to become the next Stephen Hawking? That’ll be sixty thousand minutes of your time, good sir.

Perhaps unsurprisingly a 2014 Princeton Study refuted Gladwell’s neat but ultimately naïve assertion. Practice, they found, does not necessarily make perfect. Expertise depends on a number of interconnected factors, most notably the base skill of the protagonist in question and the learning capability of said individual. The Princeton boffins suggested that practice alone mattered surprisingly little: -

  • In music, practice counts for a 21% difference

  • In sport an 18% difference

  • In education a 4% difference

  • In the workplace, it’s a paltry 1% difference

The balance comes from natural talent, the ability to learn cumulatively and determination – but it remains true that you don’t get to be brilliant at anything without committing a certain number of requisite hours, no matter how naturally gifted you may be.

In advertising an equivalent analogy might be the space between creativity and high media spend. Those who lack natural creativity (or the ability to take risks) might be swayed towards nurturing their brands through big spending in order to reach their goals. Each has its merits, and both produce results in their own inimitable way.

The big spend option is the apparent conclusion reached by those brands hell bent on spending a lifetime of hours advertising their wares with cromulent creative in the vain hope that by drowning consumers in sales noise they’ll eventually acquiesce through apathy and exhaustion.

Example number one – Peloton. I’m sure you’re aware of the ‘spinning cycle meets live streamed personal trainer’ business? Of course you are – you can’t watch sport on any channel at the moment without being bombarded by their enthusiastic spokesmodel Leanne pedalling their wares with a Haribo family bag’s worth of Tangfastic clichés.

“OK Peloton – let’s do this”. That’s the intro. Then she shows off the personalised UX of the bike’s in-built, interactive plasma screen: -

“David in Edinburgh – that’s two hundred rides. Let’s make it count”.

…which worried me somewhat. Can Leanne see all the riders on her screen? Or are you just a name, number and Dollar amount on her bike-mounted spreadsheet? Hopefully it’s the latter…

“…Come on Harry in London. Harry? Are you OK? Is that sick on your camera? Oh God! Someone – someone please call an ambulance! Paramedic – you got this!”.

Yeah, no thanks.

Anyway, Peloton’s massive media spend and glitzy set locations for their Ads must be why their bikes cost a Lycra-busting £1,995, paid in monthly instalments – and don’t forget you also have to fork out a gym subscription matching £39.50 per month for the video stream subscription. This probably pays for their celeb endorsements from the likes of DiCaprio and Jackman, once again going to prove that fads in Hollywood, like Peloton, cocaine and Kabbalah, should probably be shunned by anyone East of Pasadena.

Just to put this subscription in context, you can pick up a professional grade spinning bike online for under two hundred quid with thousands of spinning classes available free on YouTube. That’s just five months of video spin class subs in Peloton land.

“You’re stronger than you know”?

Poorer, more like.

Peloton won’t be troubling the awards judges at Cannes towards the end of June. They’ve decided on the blunderbuss approach of nurturing a captive audience constantly over the long term rather than employing natural creative genius. Its been valued at over $4 Billion, so their chosen path isn’t necessarily incorrect.

Also unlikely to be picking up any Lions is the indefatigable Grammarly, which seems to have block-booked every YouTube ad slot from last Christmas to eternity. You can just imagine their CMO walking into Google HQ with $20 million Dollars in a briefcase. When asked who his target audience was, he sharply states: -

“Bring me everyone. EVERYONE!”

…like Stansfield in Leon, before sauntering out for a long lunch. Considering they’re trying to push a pebble up Everest with a virtual, paid-for version ‘Speak and Spell’ that just replicates your laptop’s inbuilt spell check, they really ought to win some silverware for sheer brass balls.

While we’re here, the Trivago girl gets a dishonourable mention, too. She sees more vapid airtime than Willoughby and Flack combined.

So, there are plenty of non-runners - the big, arguably more lazy spenders who treat marketing and advertising as siege warfare. There are, however, plenty of Adland’s finest currently steam-cleaning their ivory linen suits and buffing the pennies in their Loafers ready to decamp to the South of France, hoping their creative genius will finally receive the long overdue recognition it deserves.

Those agencies on the short lists tend to follow the path of nature – simplicity in strategic thinking, organic communication, pure copy, natural intelligence leading to intelligent design. Look at some of last year’s winners and you see sheer genius emanating from every pixel. These campaigns are so strong they would have gone viral in the 1860’s, shared by excited factory urchins via scraps of newsprint before social media came along and made the world a considerably less appealing place to be.

For all this creative brilliance, though, is there still a point in these awards beyond individual and agency ego? Having been both sides of the agency/ client fence I know that for an agency there’s great PR boon to winning, plus there’s the significant career boost that a trophy can offer a creative team.

On the client side, it’s harder to commercially justify the effort and cost that goes into winning an award. After the obligatory social post, internal mailshot and press release that everyone ignores, the silverware tends to sit morosely in glass cabinets of reception areas gathering dust – a reminder of a time long forgotten when you were a brave business with great agencies doing challenging work.

That said, we exist in a data-dependant place now in which the nurturing of metrics and analysis often gets the nod over gut, sixth sense and cojones. Creative awards are an objective reminder that you can still motivate customers by tickling their decision-making parts on an emotional (and cheaper) level without the need the bludgeon them into a flaccid submission with a barrage of hard sell noise.

For that reason alone, we should be glad they exist.

Harry Lang is the founder of Brand Architects, a strategic brand and integrated marketing consultancy. You can contact him at or via LinkedIn.

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