It's in many ways the unlikeliest of years for Promo and Direct awards at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity -- from a harder focus on building commercial brands rather than charities to awards that break some norms of their categories.
Venables Bell & Partners San Francisco won the Promo & Activation Grand Prix for the ultimate "anti-promotion," retailer REI's campaign around its decision to close stores on Black Friday, the busiest U.S. shopping day of the year.
Ingo Stockholm won the direct Grand Prix for a campaign that really wasn't so direct, "The Swedish Number" from Swedish Tourist Association, which let people who were interested in visiting the Scandanavian country dial a number to talk to a random Swede for more information.
Juries in each case strove to honor work that could potentially make a commercial difference for brands, making it tougher for charitable work that often has dominated Cannes Lions and other award shows to get honors.
Why They Won
The Promo and Activation Jury honored #OptOutside, the campaign from outdoor retailer REI urging people essentially to go outside and play rather than shop on Black Friday, closing their own stores for the day. The effort generated 2.7 billion PR impressions, inspired more than a hundred other retailers to also close for the day, and got by REI's estimates 1.4 million people to go outside rather than shop that day.
REI's #OptOutside "was just an amazing demonstration of a brand walking the talk," said Rob Reilly, Promo & Activation jury president and global creative chairman for McCann Worldgroup. He called it "the greatest anti-promotion of all time."
The Swedish Tourist Association had people around the world talking to random Swedes about the country -- ranging from truck drivers to Prime Minister Stefan Lofven. Mark Tutssel, Leo Burnett chief creative officer and Direct jury president, said, "It's really refreshing to see a campaign that unites 9.5 million brand ambassadors with the world through the most direct form of communication, which is speaking." Realistically, though, the indirect communication -- which included 9.4 billion media impressions -- also played a role. "Ultimately it transcends tourism to become a demonstration of national pride," Mr. Tutssel said.
Other Grand Prix Contenders
"Brewtroleum," a campaign in which Colenso BBDO Aukland joined Heineken New Zealand to turn byproducts of brewing into petroleum and market the product, was a strong runner-up in each category, and the subject of much debate in Promo and Activation particularly.
"It you watch the case, it's hard to sometimes think of how important it is, because it's really funny," Mr. Reilly said. "It happened to come in the year of #OptOutside. We went back and forth. Everybody loved both pieces, and it just came down to which one was more appropriate for a promo/activation award."
The Promo & Activation jury awarded a total of 107 Lions from more than 3,400 entries. The Direct jury awarded 75 Lions from more than 3,000 entries.
What They Didn't Like
It's hard to find anyone to say something bad about charity at Cannes, which has become increasingly wrapped up with good causes. But these jury presidents are tired of so many awards going to charity, which Mr. Reilly said may be to the detriment of the industry by taking top young talent off big brands.
"First and foremost, we wanted to focus on big brands," Mr. Reilly said. "We want to send a message to young people. Doing charity work is important. It's great. You can win some awards. But real work for real big brands that solves real problems using creativity, that can make a difference."
He distinguished the charity/NGO work from "purpose-led marketing" for brands, such as #LikeAGirl from Mr. Tutssel's Leo Burnett for Procter & Gamble Co.'s Always, which he said, "took a stance on an issue and did a very good thing for young women, but is marketing at its finest. It sold a lot of product at the same time."
Mr. Tutssel said the Direct jury took a similar approach. The idea is "not necessarily to get tough on charities," he said, but, "the purpose, the existence is to put the spotlight on the value of creativity to drive business success."
Hot Topic at Press Conference
So, did the Grand Prix winners drive business success?
"It's really hard to quantify what this has done for sales," Mr. Reilly said, but added, "I think it's helped solidify REI as not only the thought leader in how we should live but also as a brand committed to the outdoors."
Mr. Tutssel said it may be difficult to "look at it from the very simple lens of money," but added that with Swedish tourism, "you're talking about a brand that's living its purpose … and the money and business success will follow."
REI, by the way, while it's a co-op and didn't report specifically on how the decision to close Black Friday or the #OptOutside campaign affected holiday sales, did report sales for the full year rose 9.3% to $2.4 billion, with comparable-store sales up 7%, as membership rose by 1 million.