Real message from Cannes is to trust your gut instincts

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You, gentle reader, consuming this column, are at an advantage over me, your scribe, writing it. You will know the identity of the Cannes Film Grand Prix winner and will be debating the relative merits of "Cog" vs. "Sheet Metal" vs. the MTV Latin America trailer where the suckling baby fondles his mother's other nipple! I write in advance of that announcement.

But I do know the print, media, direct and cyber decisions. Leaving aside for a moment the row over the print Grand Prix from Portugal that wasn't, the overall feeling has been one of disappointment with the general standard of work.

Fernando Rodes, the president of the media jury, summed up the mood for the other juries, too: "I am not entirely satisfied with the quality of the overall work. The Cannes media competition is the best in the world. Our expectations were very high. We saw a lot of very good work but not much excellent work," he said.

While some jurors looked to the current caution-ridden, recession-hit climate, Rodes said that agencies, creative and media alike, must challenge themselves to produce still better work.

Easier said than done, of course. It remains to be seen whether the much-vaunted delegation of 28 executives from Procter & Gamble Co., attending Cannes for the first time on a look-and-learn mission, translates into more creative advertising over the next 12 months. Perhaps it will. But the heart sinks at creative insights and daring being nibbled away by all those focus groups.

Beyond the knowledge that Domaine Ott rose wine only tastes this good here, and that Cannes Mayor Bernard Brochand has banned unattractive women from the Croisette, the real learning at Cannes is that the way to succeed in global advertising is to trust your gut instincts.

This comes from years of watching the most consistent top winners at Cannes-Volkswagen and Nike. They share some similarities in their approach to advertising two very different products, and two stand out. One involves a process: Neither uses pre-testing. The other is a belief in what advertising should do: Get noticed with relevance.

We saw it yet again in the last 12 months' work, headed by the latest VW Beetle "squares" and Nike "angry chicken" work. Wieden & Kennedy and Havas' Arnold Worldwide are two fine agencies, but the freedom they enjoy from their clients' ability to trust in their agencies' gut instincts is self-evident.

Nike CEO Phil Knight, who became the first two-time winner of the Cannes advertiser-of-the-year award on Saturday night, expressed it succinctly ahead of the ceremony. Knight stressed he had enough people who knew what they were doing to eschew most testing.

"My No. 1 advertising principle, if I have one, is to wake up the consumer," Knight told me. "There's no formula. It can't just be about getting noticed. And it doesn't matter without things like distribution. You need to advertise who you are. You can't have a great ad that just shows product and doesn't say who you are."

If P&G or any other advertisers come away with that learning from Cannes, then it really will have been more than just a heady boondoggle in the Mediterranean sun.

Stefano Hatfield is contributing editor to Advertising Age and Creativity.

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