|Mike Hughes, president and creative director of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Martin Agency, Richmond, Va., is serving as a judge at the International Advertising Festival in Cannes. He will be recording his experiences in this series of columns.
Two impossibly tall, thin, sleekly dressed models assist the presenters. Screens project in all directions. Disco music blares. The master of ceremonies is in his best tuxedo.
At the beginning of the show my fellow judges and I parade down the runways on both sides. The bright lights make it difficult to see the audience in the opera-style theater. Then we're dismissed to our seats in the audience. Unfortunately, we have no idea where our seats are. I turn to my right to see if anyone can help me. I'm inches from one of those impossibly tall, sleek, etc. models. She's gorgeous. I try to ask her for directions: "Seatsy, sitesy, suitsy ..." She laughs in my face. I stumble off the stage.
Like everything at the Festival, the show itself is incredibly efficient. Before we've even found our seats, the poster winners are being announced. My hat's off to the organizers and their staff: They manage to juggle dozens of balls at one time without letting anything fall to the floor. Cannes is a well-oiled machine. Everything at the show moves quickly. Posters. Media awards. Print. I'd been warned that the audience would boo unpopular selections. There were, however, few catcalls.
Which disappoints me.
Press Grand Prix
I'm extremely disappointed in a few of the selections, especially the Grand Prix in Press, which strikes me as incredibly sophomoric. (More on that later.) But I'm more annoyed at the work that isn't included among the gold winners.
I think I'm right about this: I think only three or four Gold Lion winners have headlines. No more than one has body copy. The overwhelming majority have a visual gag of some kind and a logo. Maybe there's a tagline or Web address, but that's it.
Don't get me wrong: Some of these are awfully good and their creators should be rewarded. But they're certainly no more original or fresh or provocative than the best of the written ads. Carmichael Lynch's Harley Davidson ads won the Kelley awards for a reason: They're incredibly strong, thoughtful and fun. I was so impressed with Team One's Lexus ads when they appeared in The Wall Street Journal that I sent a congratulatory note to the team. They should have gold. There's work from Ecpat Sweden, a Stockholm agency, for a child pornography awareness effort that's knock-your-socks-off powerful. It should win the top prize in every show it enters.
Gags about sex
But these are ads that relied on words -- and maybe it's too much to ask an international jury to be moved by words in any one language. What moved the jury here were the things that work in any language -- visuals, gags and, especially, gags about sex.
About a dozen years ago, I was a board member for the One Club in New York. Back then we worried that the show itself would be cheapened if outrageous ads for questionable clients won a disproportionate share of the top awards. These ads, incidentally, aren't in and of themselves bad things. In fact, many of the best writers and art directors in the business first showed what they could do with posters for unexpected, little no-budget advertisers. Fallon's founders had work in their portfolios for a little bait shop. A couple of Goodby's stars created ads promoting bull semen. The Martin Agency built at least part of its reputation with advertising for a tattoo parlor, a pawnshop and more than one little-known museum.
The One Club's problem solved itself. The mostly American judges have become incredibly tough on the ads that felt like private creative projects. Those ads have become unfashionable. Creative people in America feel a little sheepish about being associated with work that somehow feels unsponsored and unreal.
That is, in part, a shame. Creative people of all ages can benefit from stretching their muscles on projects that don't have all the day-to-day pressures of "the real world." Creating advertising for most of us is a hurdles race. The hurdles may come from the strategy, the agency, the budget, the timetable, the creative director, the client, the process. As soon as you clear one hurdle, another pops up. It's wonderfully liberating to remove most of the hurdles and see what you can do. You're free to work on the idea and on the craftsmanship -- the writing and the art direction.
That's valuable practice for anyone. The creative awards may be the incentive to do this work, but the real winners are the paying clients who get a more confident, energetic, inspired creative team -- a creative team that's having fun and enjoying work.
'Practice' work at Cannes
The good news is, "practice" work is alive and well at Cannes. The rest of the world is getting better at making ads because young creative people outside the U.S. are vigorously and imaginatively attacking the marketing needs (or imagined needs) of piercing parlors, sex clubs and pet cemeteries.
The bad news is, that work is also dominating the Cannes creative show. It's not unfashionable here; in fact, it's vehemently supported and encouraged. To most of the judges, everything else seems staid and old-fashioned. Classic work, especially classic American work, is dismissed no matter how persuasive the selling argument, how beautiful the art direction, how smart the strategy. Copy itself becomes an indication of a lack of imagination. It's tedious, they say. It's boring. (Besides, what is there to say about a piercing parlor?)
The Club 18-30 entry
The three press judges born in North America (Jeff Goodby, me and Nancy Vonk of Canada)
But to give it the Grand Prix? Give me a break. This confirms our clients' darkest suspicions about us. We're just out to see what we can get away with. We just want to thumb our noses at society and impress our friends with how wickedly clever and sophisticated we are. The only audience we care about impressing is the audience of our peers -- 25-year- olds with spiky hair, fraternity boy values and overactive libidos.
Not by a mile
Is this campaign smarter than the Harley work? More imaginative than the Lexus campaign? More powerful than the Swedish all-type ad? More creative than any of them? Not by a mile.
Don't get me wrong. Advertising can be both great and naughty. Goodby Silverstein's work for Norwegian Cruise Line ("It's different out here") was both. But it was also persuasive in a way the club's work isn't. (OK, OK, sex as a come-on can be very persuasive. But a neon sign that says "LIVE NUDE GIRLS!!!" shouldn't win at Cannes.) Goodby's work deserved the honors it won. Saatchi's sex club campaign might be a good portfolio piece for a young art director, but it shouldn't be presented as advertising at its best.
I made this argument to the group. So did others. But we weren't at all effective.
American work not in fashion
The reporter covering Cannes from USA Today told me there was a rumor that some of the jury members were working together to hold down the number of American winners. I told him I didn't get that feeling at all. But I do get the feeling that some classic styles of American advertising were not in fashion with the majority of the judges. (That's not just American advertising, incidentally. Think of the great
|Headquartered in Richmond, Va., the Martin Agency has 350 employees providing advertising services to a client list that includes Coca-Cola, UPS, Olympus and Saab. Some of its most recent campaigns include the UPS' "What can brown do for you?" and Vanilla Coke's "Reward Your Curiosity."
Brits and Brazilians
And I do think there is a conscious effort not to be intimidated by American styles. The Brits and the Brazilians, especially, are feeling their oats. And that's wonderful -- and very healthy for our industry. We Americans can learn a lot from their energy and enthusiasm for making in-your-face advertising.
So despite my disappointments, I'm returning to America unexpectedly energized. By the work, by the stubbornness of the judges, by the joy of the winners and, of course, by the women on the beach. Did I mention the women on the beach?
There's life in the old fogy after all.