A Prize at Cannes Comes With a Price You Shouldn't Want to Pay

The Criteria That Really Count, Strategy and Truth, Have No Place in the Judging

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I bet you're still celebrating if you're a CMO and your agency won an award at Cannes last week. It's a big deal to be recognized for creative excellence by your communicator peers. Everyone will update resumes accordingly, many people exaggerating their responsibility for the wins. Your agency will use the award as cause to propose more award-worthy work, and you'll get pitches from other agencies hoping to win your business with promises of winning different awards.

There are only two audiences who won't care at all: Your C-Suite, and your customers. They celebrate strategy and truth instead, and you'd be smart to figure out ways to win their favor instead of another creative award next year.

Whether you were at Cannes or lived it vicariously through all the coverage, Instagram photos and Vine videos, here are some thoughts about the world to which you've returned.

Nobody wants more branded content. Well, except the agencies that produce it for you. Consumers want more truth, and they need reasons again to believe in what we tell them. No amount of volume or frequency of engagement is a substitute for truth; in fact, you can talk a lot less often if you make a point of saying something truthful and useful when you do (like Apple, Amazon, or any other customer-centric businesses).

You get a nanosecond to deliver your message. Advertising has lost its luster because we stopped using it to inform and inspire consumers, and not because they woke up one morning with a predisposed hatred for, say, TV commercials. They just didn't like wasting 30 seconds any longer, even if it was mildly entertaining. Yet Intel and Toshiba won top honors for branded content and entertainment for a series of little movies that got 70 million views of a beautiful convoluted, star-laden story about "Beauty Inside" (Get it? That's Intel's slogan, sorta).

Engagement has no inherent value. A Twitter evangelist said it in Australia a few weeks ago, and it's high time your campaigns accomplished more than made-up metrics. The challenge is to break out of the circular logic that informs every social argument (a branding plan to get people aware of your branding isn't a "strategy," no matter how many folks declare as much).

At Cannes, Heineken won the Grand Prix for creative effectiveness with a movie about some James Bond-type character who walks into a room and can juggle knives, dance or otherwise be the guy you wish you could be. Heineken won with data indicating that its share of sales increased everywhere the campaign ran, according to the jury. The problem with those metrics is that the sun also rose and set in those markets; it's usually very hard to indisputably discern a causal connection between fun commercials and sales. Traditionally, advertisers never even tried to claim sales results for branding content, so it should be somewhat suspect that now it's as effective as sales promotion. Brilliant film. Horrible advertising.

Mobile is the ultimate brand killer. It can be a huge brand enabler, too, but only if you think about it less as a creative medium, and more as a creative challenge to figure out how to make it relevant, useful and true. Brands don't own mobile and never will, thankfully; it's where the promise of peer-to-peer communication meets the reality of real-time. Unless you're enabling consumers to be more successful and satisfied in their consumption, your award-winning creative will be for naught.

Arguably, little of the judging criteria for any Cannes Lion demands much in terms of strategy in ways business operators or members of the C-Suite would describe it, and I'm not aware of any that overtly recognize truth. There are no consistent definitions of terms or units of measurement.

Maybe your strategy for next year should be to lose, or perhaps not enter at all.

I love advertising. I love creativity. I love laughing. And I really love a good party. But CMOs don't get paid for winning awards. You pay a price for them. So you might want to skip funding the next round, and instead focus on strategies and truths that will win favor with the two audiences who actually do pay you: Your C-Suite, and your customers.

JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is the author of "A Thousand Words: Why We Must Fight The Tyranny of Brief, Vague & Incomplete," and the president of Baskin Associates, a marketing consultancy. You can follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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