Advertising firms dominate in the PR category at Cannes. Here’s why.

The role of measurement may surprise you.

PR agencies aren't racking up PR awads in Cannes.

The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity celebrates greatness in a variety of categories, including film, advertising and, yes, PR.

But according to an analysis by media intelligence firm CARMA, only 11% of those shortlisted in the PR category are actual PR firms. The lion’s share (pun intended) are advertising companies, who took home 84% of shortlists in the category.

To better understand why advertising dominates, PR Daily interviewed Richard Bagnall, co-founder of CARMA, via email. His answers, lightly edited, give insight into the roadblocks — and how PR can catch up.

Why are ad agencies so dominant at Cannes even in the PR category?

There are several reasons behind this. The Cannes Festival has its original roots in advertising and has expanded to include many more disciplines in the marcomms world. The emphasis on the event is creativity, which suits ad agencies as their work is visually compelling and built on creative concepts.



Ad agencies typically have much larger budgets than PR agencies, allowing them to focus on high-production campaigns. As Jo-Ann Robertson, CEO of global markets at Ketchum and chair of this year’s PR judges pointed out — Cannes is also a numbers game. Of the 1,600 entrants, 85% were from ad agencies, and Jo-Ann stresses that PR agencies (need) the confidence to step up and enter. The judges are not looking for multi-national large-scale campaigns to win. Instead, they want creativity based on a well-researched idea and strategy that delivers meaningful impact.

Here lies the issue. PR and communications are frequently reluctant to plan and measure in ways that link to organisational value. As the challenging economic situation mounts, it is paramount that the PR industry demonstrates its value and proves campaign effectiveness. The “Insights & Measurement” category had the fewest entries out of all the categories, which should send alarm bells ringing across the industry.

Do you think that says more about the judges, the ad agencies or the PR agencies?

The results say more about the ad agencies as earned first is becoming the only way to build a large-scale campaign … Audiences continue to dwindle, and trust in paid is declining too, which is why earned media is making a comeback. The ad agencies are, by default, moving more into the lane of PR and comms as a result. Due to higher budgets and relationships already established at C-level, ad agencies are well-positioned to be the lead.

PRs must have the confidence to earn a client’s trust to take the top-end budgets and stakes. PRs need to get comfortable with data analytics, measurement and insights. They frequently lack the evidence to support their strategic planning and delivery of campaigns. The industry has a lot of work to do to embrace and lean into insights and measurements available to them. What is the cultural and commercial impact for clients beyond the counts and amounts of media evaluation? The results from Cannes show PRs need to up their game.

How could PR agencies catch up? Is that worth doing?

These awards matter and are a part of the biggest global event in the marcomms sector. The Cannes Festival attracts thousands of people, like many big brands and marcomms CEOs and leaders.

Firstly, PR agencies need to have the confidence to enter. The work doesn’t have to be multi-market for already famous brands but must take research and measurement seriously and demonstrate impact against organisational objectives. Agencies can’t just focus on “stunts” and events. Equal attention on planning, research, data and insights will help PRs evolve with sophistication, lean in and not confuse counting activity with demonstrating value.

To improve the chances of success in the future, impact and value matter as much as creativity, and certainly more than scale and budget. There seems to be a trend in PR that the campaign must be flagship for the client, which isn’t the case. Take the Daily Star’s “Lettuce Liz” campaign, which won a bronze award. That is a testament to not needing a big budget to have an impact and securing great earned coverage.

What trends are you seeing among the PR winners?

It was great to see the diversity of regions globally represented in the winner list, including the first winner from Kenya.

The popularity of effectiveness, planning and our ability to offer credible strategic counsel were woefully under-supported. This needs to change. Many PRs globally are regularly doing excellent work, so the industry needs the confidence to step up and pit themselves against the agency’s big boys!

See the full list of Cannes PR winners here.



One Response to “Advertising firms dominate in the PR category at Cannes. Here’s why.”

    Andy Swassoc says:

    This seems to be a reflection of the current demand that we all have been seeing lately: Clients/Leads want to use PR as a form of promotion vs its actual main benefit of controlling a narrative. Instead of PR trying to “catch up” we should further clarify this divide. Personally, I tell potential clients that they want promotion that they should try advertising instead. I happily let them go, promotion feels like bottom feeder PR that none of us enjoy doing. Clients that are ALREADY being talked about and want better control over public perception is the best use of Public Relations. Govt and Investor Relations are also ideal uses for PR. So this boost for ad agencies makes total sense and is 100% OK.

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