'Dumb Ways to Die' Nabs Grand Prix in PR, Direct Categories

McCann Campaign About Train Safety Won Big on First Day of Cannes Awards

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Credit: McCann

One of the campaigns widely predicted to win big in the South of France this year -- "Dumb Ways to Die," a safety-promoting campaign for Metro Trains by McCann, Melbourne -- picked up two Grand Prix awards on the first day of the Cannes International Festival of Creativity.

It won the Grand Prix in the PR category, as well as the Grand Prix in the direct category. While it's been expected to perform well at the festival this year, the campaign's win in the PR category will likely be unwelcome by the PR-agency community; this is the fifth year PR has been a category at Cannes, and the Grand Prix has been won by an ad agency all five years.

What it is: This campaign, a public-safety message to encourage people to be safer around trains, was anchored by an original song about rail safety, "Dumb Ways to Die," that positioned dying or getting injured by a train as the dumbest way one could expire. It was released on YouTube as a three-minute animated music video and garnered 20 million views in a week. The song was played by radio stations as music programming and, after the agency released a karaoke version of the song, people started recording their own cover versions. The campaign also had a direct component, encouraging people to pledge to be safe around trains via outdoor billboards, a smartphone game and a children's book. According to the campaign case-study video, the metro has seen a 21% reduction in accidents and deaths compared with the same time last year.


The jury: The highly international jury was chaired by David Gallagher, senior partner and CEO of Europe for Ketchum. He said the jury spent the first half of the first day discussing what it would be looking for -- work that drives, starts and amplifies conversations primarily through earned media. Mr. Gallagher noted the jury didn't rule out work that used paid media -- even work that heavily used it -- but wanted the primary driver to be through earned media. They were also looking for strong communication strategies vs. a flash-in-the-pan.

Why it won: "Dumb Ways" represented a great strategic idea and pointed to the future of public relations, said Jury President David Gallagher, who is also senior partner and CEO at Ketchum, Europe. "It wasn't that long ago when most of our content was centered around a press release and we were pretty happy when a press release was distributed and received and maybe even used by journalists to engage and amplify a message to the public," said Mr. Gallagher. "Those days are behind us. What we need now is content like this, based on real human insight that understands safety isn't a fun message, that the way to reach children in particular needs to be fun, engaging and imminently sharable, and it needs to bring about real change." While it wasn't a children's campaign, per se, it was very appealing to children, the jury noted. "Strong content is one thing, but it must really connect your goal with a powerful insight regarding social and cultural environment," said Jennifer Scott, global managing director at Ogilvy Public Relations. "Deliberately and with great craftsmanship, [McCann] made sure it was seeded in schools, online, on train platforms, so that it was a surround sound that allowed for a lot of amplification of message." 

Controversy or clear winner? Another campaign that’s been widely predicted to perform well in Cannes this year, Dove's "Real Beauty Sketches" by Ogilvy, Brazil, was the other serious contender for Grand Prix. However, in the end, Mr. Gallagher said that “Dumb Ways to Die” was the clear winner. It was a campaign the jury fell in love with early in the process, and it was clear it would win awards in multiple categories. He said it won on the first ballot.

Interesting trend: Strong visual storytelling was a major theme among winning work, said juror James Wright, managing director of Red Agency in Australia. Virtually every campaign had some sort of visual element to it -- often a video that was shared and sparked conversations. He noted that PR today is about creating great content that sparks conversation and coverage.

Advice for next year: The jury emphasized progress for PR agencies at Cannes, even if PR agencies aren't winning Grand Prix awards at Cannes yet. One problem the jury noted: Some of the best work isn't necessarily being entered, as several strong PR cases from the past year were missing from the Cannes awards, said Mr. Gallagher. He added: "It's clear the competition is fierce and ideas come from anywhere, and it doesn't take any particular type of agency to deliver excellent public relations." Meanwhile, traditional bread-and-butter categories of PR -- including corporate affairs, corporate communications and internal communications -- don't get the number of entries that others do, noted juror Nancy Seliger, exec VP-senior partner at Fleishman-Hillard in the U.S. She encouraged more entries from those categories, as they tend to be highly strategic work. "You have to be in it to win it," she said.


Why it won: “Shock tactics are used in so many ways to create a direct response, but this did it in a completely fresh new way and it created an interactive sensation,” said Mr. Tutssel of the “Dumb Ways to Die” campaign. He added that it wasn’t enough for work today to work -- it needs to be famous and seen widely. The online video for the campaign claims to be the third-most-viewed in the world, and Mr. Tutssel, a little hyperbolically, referred to it during the press conference as an example of work that has been seen by everyone. To illustrate his point, he said: “Every single person on the planet is aware of this idea.” Mr. Tutssel in after the conference what he was trying to demonstrate was that a major factor in the selection of this campaign for the Grand Prix was that people beyond the ad industry had interacted with it. Other direct jurors, from places like Japan and Germany, during the deliberations confirmed that it had been sent to them by family members and friends, which helped make the decision.

The jury: In its 11th year, the jury for the direct category at Cannes was chaired by Mark Tutssel, worldwide chief creative officer at Publicis Groupe’s Leo Burnett. He’s a seasoned judge at awards shows and has been a repeat chair for juries at Cannes. In 2008, he served as president for the titanium and integrated jury and in 2010 he did double duty as president of both the film and press juries. His remit to the other judges -- several who were from Europe, including Spain, Austria and Italy -- was to reward “brands that use creativity to break the rules.” Said Mr. Tutssel: “We were looking for those [brand] ideas capable of competing with the ideas that already exist in popular culture.”

Controversy or clear winner?Mr. Tutssel described the deliberations as “intense,” with the debate strong and the arguments intelligent.” However, the Grand Prix winner was the clear top choice and the jury couldn’t have been more effusive about the McCann work. When the video was played for reporters during the press conferences, judges -- such as Nico Pimentel of +Castro in Argentina and Hadas Liwer from JWT in Israel -- sang along with the “Dumb Ways to Die” song. And after the video was finished playing, Mr. Tutssel commanded a round of applause from reporters at the press conference.

Interesting trends: Overall there were 2,578 entries, and under 10% made it to a shortlist. The jury awarded one Grand Prix and 13 Golds. Of those top 14, six went to Australia and New Zealand, resulting in a standout 2013 performance for that region. Many entries tugged at the heartstrings and had an emotional approach, including one that John Immosoete, chief creative officer at the Ryan Partnership, said was particularly good: “Driving Dogs,” a pet-adoption campaign by DraftFCB in New Zealand. There’s been a falloff in the traditional direct-mail campaigns, and the vast majority of entries in this category now are an experience or some kind of event or stunt that involves customers. Said Emma de la Fosse, executive creative director at OgilvyOne in the U.K., “One of the Gold winners was what you might describe as a much more traditional piece of direct mail, so it can still be done, but there wasn’t a huge amount of work like that being entered.”

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