Established in 2012, the branded content category is one of the youngest at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity -- but it's already emerged as one of the most challenging. For the past two years, jurors opted not to award the festival's highest prize, the Grand Prix. Could that be a sign that there's a crisis of creativity in the discipline?
According to Philip Thomas, Cannes Lions CEO, branded content has seen a consistent increase in submissions over its four years. "In fact, this year, it was one of the standout categories, with an 18% increase in entries," he said. The first year saw 800 submissions, while 2015 saw 1,394. "This proves that the creation and appetite of this type of content is most definitely there, but is it of a Grand Prix standard? That's very much in our juries' hands."
BBDO Worldwide Chief Creative Officer David Lubars, president of this year's branded content jury, said work of that standard existed, just not among the 2015 entries. At the Cannes press conference this year, he said he believed the category likely would have had a winner had Honda and its agency Wieden & Kennedy London entered "The Other Side," a digital effort that allowed viewers to see two very different lives lived by the same man, simply by toggling back and forth using the R key on their computers. At least some of the jurors shared his sentiment.
"Nothing else was quite as good as that," Mr. Lubars said. Factor in, also, the large number of public service entries. A lot of great work is being done in those areas but those campaigns can be "softballs," he said. "What happens is that stuff can be better than work for brands with real complex problems. When you mix them in, it's apples and oranges. If that stuff's the best stuff, it feels weird to give the Grand Prix to something that isn't as good." (Cannes doesn't allow juries to award public service campaigns the Grand Prix.)
Also contributing to the confusion is the broadness and ambiguity of the category itself, a problem seen in other categories, such as cyber. Officially speaking, the Cannes Lions' "definition of branded content and entertainment … is the creation of, or natural integration into, original content by a brand." So work can range from 15-minute-plus films to experiential to gaming. This year's Gold winners exemplified that span and included everything from the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to EA Sports' "Giferator" for Madden NFL 15, a digital campaign that created personalized gifs for gamers by combining live NFL data with video game footage.
Pereira & O'Dell co-founder and Chief Creative Officer PJ Pereira, whose agency earned the Branded Content and Film Grand Prix in 2013 for Intel/Toshiba's "Beauty Inside" and who has been on a number of awards juries, said because the category has a built-in high bar, with entertainment at its core, it may be difficult for work to stand out. "It makes judges compare the work against their favorite [TV] show," he said.
Trailer for the 2013 Branded Content Grand Prix Winner, "The Beauty Inside" from Intel/Toshiba:
That said, Mr. Pereira suggests the judging process may be flawed, allowing potential contenders for the best work to be passed over in the early rounds. Before the festival, jurors screen all the entries by judging case studies—so it's possible that great work with not-so-great case studies can be passed over in the early rounds. "It's like judging the Oscars by looking at the trailers," he said. "You cannot really judge the content category by watching the two-minute versions."
Each Cannes jury is obliged to set the tone for future juries to come, but with each jury, often, comes a different philosophy. Digitas/LBi Chief Content Officer Scott Donaton, who was on the first branded content jury and served as 2013 jury president, believes it's important for the category to award a Grand Prix. "I was surprised to see it happen the second year, especially when it comes to a discipline that marketers are still trying to wrap their heads around," he said. "It's potentially a dangerous setback and can send the signal that work isn't good enough."
Mr. Donaton likens it to the Olympics: "In any race, someone wins gold, even if they don't break a record. There was a time when [juries under] Frank Lowe decided not to give a Grand Prix. It was a statement once, and it's become a little too common now." In 1995, neither the film nor the print categories awarded the top prize.
Perhaps more important, Mr. Pereira believes there's also a real problem with how branded entertainment is "judged" in the real business world, not just on the awards circuit. "You hear that good digital content needs to be two minutes long," he said. "But then again, a lot of people watch digital movies that are much longer." Mr. Pereira recalled the agency's "What Lives Inside" effort, the third iteration of the award-wining Intel campaign, which added up to 45 minutes of content. "People complained it was too short."