Going into the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, one of the most talked about Grand Prix contenders was Red Bull "Stratos." The years-in-the-making event saw professional skydiver Felix Baumgartner break the sound barrier in a record high jump from the earth's stratosphere. The project has had starts and stops since it was announced in 2010, but last year it finally happened and became one of the most talked-about events in mainstream media. It even opened, and closed, Google's annual Zeitgesit video.
As the week of the Cannes festival carried on and Red Bull continued to not show up on the winners lists, award watchers began to suspect it entered only choice categories, like branded content, or titanium. But by week's end, it became clear: Red Bull did not partake in Cannes.
Red Bull Speaks
"We are very honored to hear that Red Bull 'Stratos' was a topic of discussion at Cannes," said Patrice Radden, director of corporate communications at Red Bull. But "our approach towards communications is that we don't really talk about ourselves too much. Rather, we focus on what we do -- the events we create and produce and the athletes we support -- versus who we are. With this guiding principal, we do not submit for awards very often."
What appears to be a nose-thumbing to the Festival, is an expected move for a brand that's notoriously press and publicity averse. It's just not part of the marketer's DNA to pimp itself via traditional channels -- rather, it relies on word-of-mouth and smart partnerships in which it nurtures talent not only in sports but also in music and the art world.
Those who've worked with Red Bull vouch for that stance. Tom Webster, a partner at Mother , New York, has worked with Red Bull on a number of initiatives like the Red Bull Music Academy, said, "I'm absolutely certain there's no intention to snub Cannes, but they're probably too busy thinking about the next thing. [Stratos] is old news and to them. While Red Bull may achieve some of the greatest marketing communications ever, they have the self-confidence that they don't really need to shout about it, and that's incredibly cool."
Its potential competitors observe the same. "Getting a guy to jump from space is seriously cool, but I was actually a little surprised that so many people were predicting Stratos to win big, because traditionally Red Bull just doesn't enter advertising shows and I naturally assumed it would continue the tradition," said McCann Melbourne ECD John Mescall, the man behind the five-time Grand Prix winning "Dumb Ways to Die" Metro campaign.
The juries may have experienced a bit of suprise, but didn't linger on it. "Honest to goodness, 'Stratos' wasn't discussed much at all once we realized it wasn't entered. It happens all of the time in award shows," said Jimmy Smith, Chairman/CCO/CEO of Amusement Park Entertainment and a member of the branded content jury. "There's always a piece of work that a particular judge or judges talk about as having potential. Then the actual judging process begins and the chatter all dies down for that work once the judges realize it's not in the show. Happens all of the time, not just with Red Bull."
Cannes Good for Some, But Not for All
It turns out, however, that Red Bull did enter "Stratos" to compete for a Sports Emmy -- and ended up winning the honor in the category of "sports event coverage - new approaches." Among those it bested? The London Olympics (on NBCOlympics.com) and The Super Bowl (on NBCSports.com). "Both [the Lion and the Emmy] are incredibly prestigious among their own industries," but "we see an award like an Emmy as more fitting for a documentary broadcast project like Red Bull Stratos, versus an advertising award," Ms. Radden said. The brand also entered the Webby Awards--a more mainstream show--and came home not just with an honor in "events & live webcasts" but also one in "branded entertainment short form." The latter, of course, is a category that has a counterpart in Cannes.
But perhaps the marketer's priorities are different. "It's important for agencies to enter because doing well at shows such as Cannes helps us to differentiate our offering and really demonstrate our abilities to prospective client,"said Mr. Mescall. "Winning at Cannes is good for business. Could you say the same for Red Bull? Probably not, so the impetus for them to enter just isn't there."
The Google 2012 Zeitgeist Video, featuring Red Bull and Metro
Given the ad industry's love for the project going into the festival, it's easy to imagine that we would have seen a very different outcome in Cannes had Red Bull participated. Speculation aside, there's a lot to be learned from both the absentee and this year's big winners. Take Pereira & O'Dell's "Beauty Inside," a campaign jurors celebrated for elevating the quality of digital storytelling to a level you'd expect from an HBO show. That, too, earned an Emmy -- and not in an advertising-related category, but in "daytime original programming - new approaches." Meanwhile, McCann Melbourne's "Dumb Ways to Die" was praised for achieving something advertising rarely does -- becoming a part of pop culture.
"Stratos," "Beauty Inside" and "Dumb Ways to Die": While their approaches to awards shows may differ, all three projects share one thing: they made the average person -- not just the ad industry observer -- give a damn about them.