Cannes Lions

Should Cannes Categories Be Canned?

Former Judges Wonder Whether Festival Is Getting Too Big to Be Meaningful

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Credit: Provided by Cannes Lions

The world's most respected creative awards show started in 1954 with a single category: TV commercials. But since the early 90s the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity has exploded with the addition of 16 categories encompassing everything from media and branded content to product design.

While that reflects the growing sophistication of the advertising and marketing industry, many believe it also dilutes the significance of a Lion -- and not by simply increasing the odds of winning. Those critics say it risks favoring revenue over relevance when the same ad can (and does) win in multiple categories, and results in some anachronistic categories like Cyber, given digital's omnipresence in most marketing plans.

"As the industry changes, if we don't mirror those changes we become irrelevant," argued Cannes Lions CEO Philip Thomas. "How can you not have a mobile category? We need to give the industry an opportunity to celebrate work in the best new categories."

But with more categories comes growing complexity -- Film now includes three subcategories of TV/cinema, internet and other screens, for example. "I wasn't really sure of the criteria or what I was voting for," said Mick Mahoney, exec creative director of RKCR/Y&R in London and a former Cannes Film judge. "We were judging pop promos against documentaries and branded content. In one way, it's a wonderful reflection of the changes in the industry, but there are too many categories and not enough clarity."

Many argue the sheer number of categories leads to multiple, pricey entries as agencies try to improve their chances of winning. That gives an advantage to big networks with pockets deep enough to stack the deck by sprinkling their submissions across a wide range of categories.

Credit: Photos courtesy of Cannes Lions

It can also, in the words of one former juror, "give an advantage to guys who like to look at under-entered categories and make work specifically for those. It's the equivalent of a guy in the bar waiting to find the drunkest girl."

One category in particular that many believe needs reform is Cyber, which celebrates digital creativity. Cyber was once the stepchild of the festival, drawing few attendees to its gala and comprising largely websites and banner ads. Now, it's one of the most exciting and quickly evolving categories, rapidly multiplying in size -- 3,660 entries in 2014, up from 2,500 last year—alongside the technology that drives it.

Cyber spawned a whole other category, Mobile, in 2012, and has been refined this year to cover three areas: social, branded technology and branded games. But the idea of "digital" often touches the other 16 categories, from PR to Outdoor.

"It's time to assimilate the Cyber Lions into other awards," said Mr. Mahoney. "Digital isn't segregated in agencies -- I don't have a digital department; we all work as one discipline."

Nils Leonard, chief creative officer of Grey London, thinks there are too many categories overall, but understands Cyber's appeal: "Agencies try to redefine themselves by the awards they win. There's no better way to tell people you 'get' digital than by winning a Cyber Lion."

But even the festival questions if a separate Cyber award is still relevant, with Mr. Thomas admitting that Cyber almost didn't make it into the 2014 awards. "We thought it would be great to collapse Cyber and take it away, because digital is everywhere. We talked about it at length with our industry working groups, but in the end we found there was still quite a lot of work that sits only in the Cyber category."

What's next? "If Cannes keeps adding categories, it should also consider deleting categories, if only to make the point that awards shows aren't just adding them to make money," said one former juror. "It is important to recognize creativity in every sector in the industry, but in time there will be certain categories that may not be as relevant as others."

JWT North America Chief Creative Officer Jeff Benjamin, a former Cyber jury president, agreed that "as we're adding stuff, maybe we should be getting rid of stuff." But it's tricky. Cannes is a global show, and "what is irrelevant to us in the U.S. could be still very relevant to somebody in India or the Middle East who is still making that kind of work. We've got to be sensitive to the forms of creativity from region to region."