Why Content Is Struggling to Find Its Place at Cannes

Category Came Up Empty in the Jury Room Because of Questions Around Definition, and Ultimately Execution

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Branded content is struggling to find its place on the awards circuit.

There were 11 Gold Lions awarded at Cannes for branded content and entertainment this summer. But no one took home a Grand Prix. It was the first time since 1995 that no top honor was awarded in a category at Cannes. So what happened to the little category that couldn't in its third year of existence?
First, the submission criteria was excessively broad; second, some contenders didn't meet the jury's definition of branded content; and, ultimately, the work submitted simply wasn't judged worthy of a Grand Prix.

Narrowing it down
The initial jury room debate was stuck on the definition of branded content. "It is so broad you could drive a truck through it," said jury president Doug Scott, exec VP-marketing and brand solutions at WME IMG.

"Cannes used to be just ads, and then it grew into PR and activation and media and film and so on, and it seems some people view 'branded content' as a repository for all of that," said Brian O'Rourke, director-production at TBWAChiatDay.

"Our responsibility was to start to define the category," said juror Jon Hamm, chief creative officer at Geometry Worldwide. "If we can't define it at Cannes, where can we?" And so, the jurors looked at what branded content was in relation to each sub-category among the 730 submissions -- music, cable, gaming, TV, feature films and integration. In some categories, it was easily defined as product placement. For the most part, however, content was interpreted as something culturally relevant that people invite or seek out.

Commercial vs. content
"There's no line between advertising and branded content, no straight line anyway," said Jennifer Golub, creative director-exec director of content at TBWA content arm Let There Be Dragons. "It's more of an ambling brook."

This proved to be the issue some had with Volvo's "Epic Split," a short film that featured actor Jean-Claude Van Damme straddling two Volvo trucks and then lowering himself into a split as the vehicles increased the space between them. The jury room discussion, said Mr. Scott, was, "Is it a commercial or is it a piece of content?"

That debate carried over to Chipotle's "The Scarecrow," a short film providing commentary on the "big food" industry backed with a haunting cover of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" tune "Pure Imagination," by Fiona Apple, and accompanied by an interactive game.

Another contender was Volkswagen. Following the automaker's decision to discontinue production of its Kombi van in Brazil, AlmapBBDO launched a farewell tour for the bus' last edition. The campaign encouraged fans and longtime drivers of the car to share their experiences on a microsite, turning them into a collection of short docu-films. "It was a great example of an integrated program that was built out of content and cascaded into other marketing efforts. There was still a story at its core," said Mr. Scott.
The jury then weeded out noncommercial contenders. "Two had to be dropped out because they were social issues or social-good programs," said Mr. Scott. "Then, out of nine, three [Grand Prix contenders] were Chipotle."

The 'great' debate
Then "Scarecrow" was picked apart by the jury.

"It was great, but was it original? They had done something a little similar a few years before," said Mr. O'Rourke. (Chipotle took home the Grand Prix in the category's first year.) "'Scarecrow' had the game and Fiona Apple song, but wasn't seamlessly integrated," said Mr. Scott. "It needed to be more than just a game and more than just a piece of film. You really want to elevate and raise the bar."

In the end the two contenders were Volkswagen Kombi and Honda's Drive-In project, a monthlong campaign to save drive-in movie theaters in the U.S.

But what truly did in the entries was that, unlike a commercial, branded content generally carries its story though varying forms of media and executions. And in the jury's estimation, the full body of work by the contenders was not Grand Prix worthy.

The jury reviewed every component submitted by the agencies -- in the case of Volkswagen, for example, there were eight mini-documentaries -- and in the end, found no contender's body of work consistently excellent.

The lesson? "We have to try harder," said Justin Wilkes president - media and entertainment at Radical Media. "Creatives, we can't just recycle stuff that's been done and seen before. For brands, CMOs or marketing directors should note that they can't just put any crap out there with a big media buy and expect people to watch it."

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