"It's hard to be a pioneer."
The line, spoken by a sleep-deprived jurist during the second morning of judging, was met with laughter of the you-had-to-be-there variety. We laughed in part because to compare our hardships to those experienced by the likes of, say, Lewis & Clark, was obviously laughable. But we laughed as well to break a tension in the room that reflected how seriously we took our responsibility as the first jury to judge the branded content & entertainment Lions at the Cannes Festival of Creativity. Lions, after all, can win or lose accounts, and make careers. And a jury in a new category sets the standards for deciding what great work looks like in an emerging discipline.
We had just spent the better part of the first 30 minutes of our day together debating two pieces of work and whether or how well they fit into a particular category: "Best use or integration of user-generated content." Since we had to judge about 200 pieces of work that day, a pace of four per hour was clearly not efficient or sustainable. But the issues we were discussing were important ones. They included the difference between content created by users and content inspired by users (then created by professionals), and the bravery of marketers who allow their audiences to define their brands. Our answers would decide not just the winners this year but the standards for the category in future years. We didn't want to penalize those who had invested their money and hopes to enter campaigns they were passionate about in a category that may not have been clearly defined. At the same time, we didn't want to reward work that might set false signposts for future juries.
In our own task, then, it was at times (relatively) hard to be a pioneer. Also, fun at times. Exhausting. Inspiring. Tedious. Educational.
It's difficult enough to describe the notion of branded content in your own mind. Now imagine doing it alongside 15 other people from countries including India, China, Australia, Argentina and Denmark. We also had to define the criteria by which we would judge entries, eventually settling on a list of questions related to how relevant a concept was to the brand, how well it engaged the target, the originality of a project and its impact on a brand's goals. "Am I judging the quality of the production, the entertainment value or the ad experience?" one jurist asked. The jury chair's answer: "Judge the idea."
In the first year of the branded-content category, there were about 850 entries, more than double the amount festival organizers expected. It was a powerful testament to the discipline's coming of age. This is the year when brand storytelling came into its own. More marketers than ever realize that as the 30-second spot loses its power, content and experiences become more important communications tools. Brands as diverse as Gatorade, Air New Zealand, K-Swiss, Canon, Hyundai and Montblanc have created and shared stories to engage consumers in ways that surprise, delight, motivate and move them. With so many entries, much of the work we judged was mediocre. That, of course, just made the gems easier to spot. One jurist put words to a feeling we all know, saying she reserved her highest scores for work with the "I wish I had created that" factor.
As I write this, nearly halfway through our commitment, we haven't yet gotten to the harder work of finalizing a shortlist or debating Gold, Silver and Bronze Lions. But as the guy to my left just said, "We're getting there."