Last year, just days after the bombshell announcement by Publicis Group CEO Arthur Sadoun that the agency company would abstain from awards shows in 2018, two of its agencies won Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.
The reason for the company's coming absence on the award-show circuit, Sadoun said, was to give Publicis—the agencies of which span 100 countries—the ability to devote its resources to Marcel, its new AI platform. Which meant that the wins were bittersweet. Digitas LBi nabbed the top prize in Creative Data for Whirlpool's "Care Counts," which showed how clean laundry could improve the lives of underprivileged students, and Leo Burnett earned the Grand Prix in Creative Effectiveness for "Van Gogh BnB," a campaign for the Art Institute of Chicago that invited people to enter a real-world version of the artist's painted bedroom. But the Marcel news seemed to shutter the prospects for another year's worth of creative glory.
After Cannes' Friday-night closing gala, Leo Burnett Global Chief Creative Officer Mark Tutssel and team walked straight from the Palais into the agency's annual cocktail party on the terrace of the Majestic hotel with the big Lion in tow. But the vibe was palpably subdued. Meanwhile, at the agency's Chicago headquarters, someone placed a plain white piece of paper imprinted with the name
"Marcel" over the agency's logo at one entrance. What incentive would creatives have to make great work if there isn't a Lion or Pencil beckoning them?
Turns out, it didn't matter.
While word is still out on Marcel after the company's grand unveiling last month, great—even fantastic—ideas kept coming from Publicis shops, new honors have already rolled in and, on a broader level, the awards industry has addressed ever-growing issues of bloat and renewed its focus on creativity.
In the 12 months that followed, Publicis agencies continued to rack up awards. Saatchi & Saatchi New York topped its 2017 Super Bowl "Bradshaw Stain" campaign with its string of "It's a Tide Ad" spots, which turned out to be the most talked-about work of the big game. It's already nabbed the highly coveted Black Pencil at D&AD—an award often cited as harder to attain than a Lions Grand Prix—as well as honors at One Show and the Andys. Work out of Publicis agency network BBH also fared well at the various shows, with campaigns for Audi and Ikea earning multiple nods.
While Publicis Groupe restricted its agencies' investments in award shows, partners on the campaigns have remained free to submit. "If a client is willing to pay the entry fee or cost of an award submission directly, our teams will continue to partner with them on developing content for the submission," the company said in a statement. "Clients submitting awards on their own behalf can mention the agency as a contributor."
And they did. "P&G supported Cannes Lions submissions on 15 campaigns from our agency partners as a way to demonstrate the value we place on creativity and the esteem with which we hold the creatives on our business," says spokeswoman Tressie Rose. "The decision was because we recognized the challenges our agencies are facing.
"This is the first time we have selected campaigns to support," she says. "We will evaluate again next year."
Production companies, meanwhile, continued to partner with agencies to enter work, now taking the lead by necessity.
In all, Publicis Group says 399 campaigns from its agencies had been submitted as of June 9 via clients and partners. (It carved out one policy exception to directly fund the submission of a pro bono campaign for Justice4Grenfell from BBH London, which co-opted an idea from the film "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" to drum up support for victims of the London's Grenfell Tower fire.)
Sadoun acknowledges that Publicis relied heavily on its clients and partners to get work recognized. In the case of Grenfell, he made an exception, he says, given the cause it supported and the fact that the client had funding restrictions of its own.
There will also be a number of Publicis Groupe faces along the Croisette. Twelve group leaders, including Tutssel, Saatchi Global Chief Creative Officer Kate Stanners and new Publicis Global Chief Creative Officer Nick Law, are attending as jury presidents or judges on the festival's dime. Law and Publicis Groupe Chief Strategy Officer Carla Serrano will also be making a presentation on Marcel, by invitation from Cannes Lions.
The festival is paying for another dozen Publicis creatives to join as part of the Young Lions competition, while clients are supporting the attendance of 25 more. Fifteen Publicis employees on top of those will be funding their own trips, while Publicis Groupe will fund 20 account leaders' trips to Cannes for meetings unrelated to the festival.
Outside of Tutssel, "no one else from Leo Burnett is going," says North American CEO Andrew Swinand. Asked how he is handling potential complaints from employees about sitting out, he says: "For me, this was a problem a year ago. A year ago, we had the discussion and it was well publicized."
It remains unclear whether Marcel will be a big win for Publicis—but the holding company clearly scored by saving considerable cash. Along with savings on entry fees, there will be no parties to throw, no dinners to host. Others will occupy that spot on the Majestic Terrace once claimed by Burnett.
Even Saatchi's annual New Directors' Showcase, which for 27 years has borne the agency's name, will just be the New Directors' Showcase in 2018, according to Publicis. Ridley Scott's production company, RSA, is funding the event this year. The event coincides with RSA's 50th year in the business, so fortuitously, a takeover seems to make sense.
When the Marcel announcement was made, one of the fears on the Publicis side was that the company would start hemorrhaging talent. "Of course, it affected the young, hungry creatives at the Publicis agencies most who felt that their platform for fame had been taken away," a senior creative executive says. "Other holding companies started poaching, but apart from a few departures, the feared mass exodus did not happen."
The most high-profile departure was perhaps Javier Campopiano, the Saatchi New York creative chief who led the Tide work but recently departed to become chief creative officer of FCB Mexico. But multiple people close to the matter attributed his exit to personal reasons, not the awards pullout.
It's even possible to argue that in terms of talent, the company scored. Publicis Groupe last August tapped former TBWA Worldwide President Emmanuel Andre for the newly created position of chief talent officer, and in January it nabbed Law, a respected industry leader who had been chief creative officer at R/GA. Recruiters say his arrival is likely to draw even more talent to the company.
Marcel aside, the awards withdrawal resulted in a significant coup beyond Publicis' doors. Sadoun's announcement arrived at a moment of maximum awards sprawl. While Cannes Lions long worked with industry leaders to help shape the festival, complaints grew nonetheless that it had lost the thread amid category proliferation and new flanker festivals, such as the addition of the Health Lions in 2014, tacking more days onto the event.
Immediately on the heels of the Publicis move, festival organizers called together an advisory board of industry leaders to address how it should go forward. Six months later, Cannes Lions made a dramatic announcement: Things were really, actually, honestly, swear to God, going to change. The schedule shrunk to five days from eight. To encourage agencies to be judicious in submissions, work was limited to entering a maximum of six categories.
"My immediate reaction was, obviously, great disappointment and sadness," says Ascential Events CEO Philip Thomas. "But [Publicis] made it incredibly clear that it wasn't about Cannes—it was about all of their activities, all of their events in the following 12 months." Even so, Thomas acknowledged that the Publicis pullout was the spark for the festival's changes. "It perhaps gave people the opportunity to express their views," he says.
Sadoun says that when he decided to make the Marcel announcement at the Lions last year, it was primarily a challenge to commit to radical change for his company overall. "It was a very hard decision and I owe my career to creativity," he says. "I would have loved not to do it this way, but at a certain point, you need to draw a line in the sand. We needed to be bold and show our people even though change hurts, it is necessary."
"You know how I justify my choice?" Sadoun asks. "I show my team a picture of the Snapchat Ferris wheel in front of the Palais. Before, creativity was in the first row. Now, we're in the basement. If we had any part in changing that, I'm very happy with it."
UPDATE: An earlier version of this story stated that Publicis Group said 336 campaigns from its agencies had been submitted as of June 6. That number is now 399 campaigns as of June 9. This article has been updated to reflect that.
Contributing: Alexandra Jardine, Jack Neff, E.J. Schultz