Yes we Cannes (and do)

PR people often remind me of my kids. They moan how unfair things are but do nothing to help themselves make it better. Thus it has been – again – in Cannes this week as ad agencies continue to sweep the board in the PR awards.
I am unphased by this.
Firstly, although this is PR’s fourth year being represented at Cannes, it is still pretty much advertising’s party and we are the gatecrashers drinking their free booze, nicking the CDs and occasionally breaking the plumbing.
Secondly, as its new name spells out, Cannes is basically a festival of creativity. PR has to be about creativity – as my team know it is one of the four strategic pillars of our business at WS in Europe – but about creativity with consequence. For our clients that is about creating real engagement and dialogue with customers and stakeholders, engagement that entertains and informs and drives more than just brand awareness. Story listening not just story telling. Not just creativity that wins gongs.
I don’t entirely agree with my friend and sister-agency colleague Matt Neale at GolinHarris who talked with UK PRWeek of a groan when briefs come in stressing the importance of national print media. It still takes a good deal of creative thinking to get break through in an increasingly stunt and spin weary mainstream press, but I do agree with Matt that clients need to take a more holistic view of engagement in an INLINE world.
Thirdly, Cannes is a huge learning experience to be embraced. It is a unique melting pot of people and ideas and entrepreneurs and cultural influencers. For me it is an opportunity to cherry pick ideas and adapt them to my business, and learn about the roads we just don’t want to go down. One of the most professionally rewarding experiences I have had in recent years was as a judge in Cannes. Yes an ad agency won the top prize, and deservedly so (though WS London won a Lion that year also, which was a blast), but boy did I learn a lot.
Fourthly, as my chief digital creative James Warren put it to me over a bleary eyed expresso session in Nice airport yesterday, we do different things to ad agencies in PR. We don’t sell a one off idea, we sell services and insights to drive engagement around that idea, from traditional media to social media to experiential etc.
Fifthly, our industry is in the ascendancy. We should enjoy the ride, not moan that we have not got it all and got it now.
Earlier this week we had a really interesting round table of clients and agency creatives jointly with US PRWeek, which they will be reporting on on their website, where we picked over the key issues for PR raised by Cannes. For me one continues to be our recruitment strategies. I worked in house for years before moving into consultancy. I love talking with in house folk about how they see their role and the client-agency relationship. Truth is we as agencies have whole ranks who go straight from college into consultancy. They see public relations as activating a client initiative. In house people see the initiative itself as real public relations. I think all agency recruits should be made to spend time seconded in house to learn, not just see in house jobs as less risky and better rewarded jobs after they have put in their time agency side. Otherwise we will end up like UK politics, dominated by very clever people but who have never done anything but work in a bubble. Our people need to understand the clients’ businesses, not just their short term communications goals.
So, let’s not be downhearted by what’s happening in Cannes. Let’s look, learn, party, recruit more broadly, take the best ideas and strategies from disciplines like advertising but not beat ourselves up that we don’t beat ad agencies at their own game. For me Cannes really is about taking part and not just winning.


Two weeks ago I found myself heading back from Brussels to London and the Jubilee Weekend after the annual Sabre Awards and Holmes Report Think Tank.

Managed to stay sober enough the pick up the EMEA Consultancy of the Year Award from Paul at the end of a long but fun evening without falling off the stage.

A big theme at the conference, and most PR gatherings these days, was Storytelling. Now we are all storytellers – some of us in more ways than one – and really we always have been. But the presentation from my digital dynamic duo James Dot Warren and Mark Pinsent posed a twist. It is not about storytelling, because if you tell a story and no one is listening or likes it you are wasting your time. In the Engagement Era it is about “story listening.”

As Mark pointed out, in PR we traditionally told our story to a relatively small group of journalists and relied on them to retell it for us to our target audience.

This reminded me of my time working with Peter Mandelson on the overhaul of Labour’s communications in the run up to the launch of New Labour, one of Europe’s most successful and dynamic political brands post-war.

We had a problem. Much of the media was anti-Labour, following the wishes of Murdoch and other proprietors. We needed to tell our story directly, bypass the print media and take our story direct to the voters. Our digital channel then was television.

The other similarity between politics and modern brand engagement I picked up from the guys’ presentation was around the measurement of how stories are heard. They illustrated it with a quote from Obama, “I am a big believer in reason and facts and science and feedback.” Amen to that.

In politics, long before brands really got the hang of it, we were testing the soundbites and having folk dial up and dial down their responses to policies and the way politicians put them across, the language used etc. That’s why agencies like mine are hiring strategic planners and researchers, often from ad agencies. They always understood the measurement thing, but not always the listening thing.

I loved one of their phrases, “content with contact.” That’s what effective story telling – and listening – is about.