Big Theme At Cannes? Do-Gooding

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A train safety campaign, an organ-donor push, a pet adoption drive and a missing-children app.

An organ-donor push won the promo Grand Prix at Cannes.
An organ-donor push won the promo Grand Prix at Cannes.

In its 60th year, much of the creative work being honored at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity has circulated around a common theme: do-gooding.

McCann Melbourne's "Dumb Ways to Die," which seeks to prevent accidents in the Australian train system, won a total of five Grand Prix awards, the highest award doled out at the festival. Out of Brazil, the "Immortal Fans" push by Ogilvy urged soccer fans to sign up to donate their organs, and thus keep their hearts beating for team even after death; it took home the Grand Prix in the Promo category. Another campaign that racked up Lions was "Driving Dogs," a puppy-adoption campaign for the SPCA by DraftFCB New Zealand, done in collaboration with MINI Cooper, which taught dogs how to operate a car. JWT China's "Baby Back Home" app, which turned China's citizens into search volunteers by letting them take a picture of a child and then comparing it to a missing children's database via face-recognition technology, won a Gold Lion in the Mobile category.

The spike in cause-related work at the festival comes as more and more marketers want to be seen as being "purpose-driven" and incorporate social corporate responsibility principles into their day-to-day business. Agencies, too, seem eager be seen as participating in larger movements for social change.

Phil Thomas, CEO of Cannes Lions, didn't rule out the possibility of the addition of a new Cannes category -- the festival has added many in recent years -- that would expressly honor cause-related campaigns. But Mr. Thomas noted he believes that "hole has been filled" with the Grand Prix for Good, which he called one of the "best prizes." But that category isn't for client-driven cause work, it's only for those ineligible to win a Grand Prix in their sections because they are made for charities.

The success of cause-marketing campaigns highlights a distinction between the massive marketers with hundreds of millions in ad budget that often sponsor the awards festival and those smaller clients with very little budget that increasingly seem to be taking home a lot of the top awards, like Australia's Metro Trains and Brazil's Sport Club Recife.

Even when a blue-chip marketer is getting recognized for best-in-class creativity, it's increasingly for cause campaigns. An example is Coca-Cola's peace-making vending machine. Created by Leo Burnett, the campaign put two vending machines in India and Pakistan. The machines acted as communication portals through which citizens of the two long-feuding countries can interact with each other. Today the machines have sent back to Atlanta, where they wait to be deployed in another market.

In addition to cause-marketing campaigns by paying clients, there has been a spike in charity work that's being entered. Some judges wish could it earn a Grand Prix -- but that's against festival rules.

"We were slightly heartbroken that we couldn't award a Grand Prix to a charity, as there were lots of great cases," said Shelly Lazarus, the legendary ad woman and longtime Ogilvy exec who chaired the creative effectiveness jury. "We tried to change the Cannes rules in the middle of judging, but to no avail."

Cannes Lions' Mr. Thomas believes it's often easier for agencies and others to do better or riskier work when there isn't necessarily a brand behind it, and that is why the festival doesn't permit charities to win a Grand Prix. Festival Chairman Terry Savage said the criterion to be Grand Prix eligible is that the work must be brand-driven. "Dumb Ways to Die," for instance, is inseparable from the Metro Trains brand.

Mr. Savage said the festival settled in favor of making brand-driven work for a good cause eligible for a Grand Prix in 2010 when "Chalkbot" for Nike Livestrong by Wieden & Kennedy won the top cyber prize. "Chalkbot" was a robot that imprinted messages of hope along the Tour de France route, where they could be seen by athletes and bystanders during the race.

At the mobile Lions press conference Tuesday, jury president Rei Inamoto, VP-chief creative officer at AKQA, said that there were a number of campaigns done for charities that could have won the Grand Prix. One jury member, McCann Erickson's Matias Palm-Jensen, named "Reborn," a campaign created by Duval Guillaume Modem Antwerp for the Organ Donor Foundation, as one that could have been the Grand Prix winner, if only it wasn't executed for a charity. Four of the nine Gold Lions in the category were for cause-related or charity work.

This is likely just the start as both clients and agencies aspire to go beyond just selling products and doing the kind of creative work that has the power to make a difference.

Said Orlando Hooper Greenhill, director of global planning at JWT, during the creative effectiveness press conference: "It's not often we get to save lives in advertising."