Lessons from Cannes (and other awards) on what makes for great PR campaigns

There’s an art to creating great communications campaigns (image source: Cannes Lions)

I’ve just finished judging hundreds of entries for the Cannes Lions. The experience has been overwhelming, not just due to the amount of work submitted but also due to the work’s quality. I’ve judged for years, and there are few competitions that come close to the overall level of excellence (I’d say the Effies, the IABC Gold Quills, and the Holmes Report’s Sabres).

Throughout all of my judging experiences, there’s a couple of simple lessons that communication professionals need to bear in mind. These four steps will help create powerful campaigns that should be worthy of putting into any top-tier awards competition.

1. The Why – Is What you Want to Say Powerful Enough?

First of all, why do you want to communicate. Are you launching a new product, or do you want to improve your company’s reputation. The clearer you are on why you want to engage, the simpler it will be to come up with a narrative that your audience will understand. There’s got to be a strong purpose to your communications, which then links into the second step.

2. The Insight – Listen to your Audience

You know why you want to communicate, but how does your narrative tie into the interests of your audience? Far too often communicators don’t take the time to listen and observe their publics, and simply go out, all guns blazing, with messages that don’t resonate. Powerful insights connect your audience with your narrative in a way that engages them and makes them want to listen to you. If you don’t do this well, your campaign won’t cut through the thousands of messages that we process on a daily basis, and you’ll have made no impact whatsoever. Take your time, do your research, and get out of the office (and off the Powerpoint presentations) to understand what your audience cares about and how you can tap into those emotions. In other words, bring the outside in.

Bold communicators are also ready to tie in their narrative with social issues. This isn’t always easy, and can alienate certain groups if your target audience is the public. However, as business becomes more politicized, I expect communicators (and organizational leaders) to realize that companies can’t shy away from taking a stand on issues that matter both to them and their stakeholders.

3. The Strategy & Execution – Go Personal or Go Mass, Blend Online with Offline

Now we get to the fun part, which can make or break a campaign. No matter now good your planning and research is, all your audience will see is the execution of your strategy. Effectively, what do you want your communications to achieve and how are you bringing it to life?

There’s a couple of themes I’ve noticed of late. Either campaigns go as big as possible during their execution, and include as many people from the target audience as possibly during the execution itself (this is different from sharing the campaign’s content). Or, they execute an execution with a handful of people, and use that content to tell a person narrative. Both can work very well if tied in well enough with the brand/product narrative and with the audience insight.

What’s also not surprising is how the best campaigns are using both online and offline mediums to amplify the narrative. Print, radio and television plays a role in engaging an audience, whilst digital keeps the engagement alive and allows for dialogue. Some of the most recent campaigns I’ve seen also use dark social; one smart team were creating content solely to be shared on WhatsApp. I expect this trend to gather pace as communicators realize the power of one-to-one or one-to-a-few messaging platforms.

Another noticeable trend is the use of paid media to boost the reach of content. The social media platforms have become masterful at ensuring we have to spend money to reach our audience, no matter how good the content. Influencers help to mitigate the anti-viral nature of social media platforms. Either way, it’s going to cost more to reach your target audience today online than it would have done a couple of years ago. At the very least, creating content has never been easier (or cheaper).

4. The Measurement – Use Indicators that Align with the Business (not AVEs)

Finally, how do you prove your success? The most common measurement was AVEs or advertising value equivalency. Communicators are dropping this measure, but at a rate which is slower than I’d like. Most of the work I’ve judged this year uses AVEs. Another common measure is impressions, basically the number of people exposed to the message.

Smart communicators are shifting to more meaningful indicators. A simple one which does crop up more frequently is sentiment, either in traditional media or online. Communicators are also borrowing from their marketing colleagues, and are using some digital metrics (engagement, CTRs etc), as well as brand measurements focusing on reach and response Brand measurement helps us understand if the campaign has won viewers’ selective attention and leave a brand-associated impression and if the campaign has triggered a change in behavior or attitudes favorable to the brand.

The ultimate measures are those which are tangible. Has the campaign helped sales, has it raised more money? Has the campaign resulted in a behavioral shift, has it resulted in new regulations? Some communicators are capturing and sharing this, but it’s still only a small percentage (I’d say single digits). This needs to change, especially if communications is to be seen as a strategic function within organizations.

Here’s my four pointers to what makes for an award-winning campaign. As always, I look forward to hearing your inputs. Please do share your thoughts with me.

And best wishes for all those who have entered this year’s Cannes Lions! There’s some outstanding work.

Lessons for the PR Industry from the Dubai Lynx

Dubai-Lynx-Branding-in-Asia-696x496

The Dubai Lynx highlighted the issues that communicators (and their marketing colleagues) will need to face up to. But is anyone listening?

It was an early morning, but the 6.30am start from Abu Dhabi was certainly worth it. The Dubai Lynx is always worth a visit for anyone working in marketing and communications. The Festival, which is organized by the people behind the Cannes Lions, has been going for over a decade. And, as the two disciplines of marketing and communications coverge, the Dubai Lynx (which billed itself this year as the MENA region’s biggest celebration of creative communications) is becoming a must-attend for communications professionals.

For me, there were two basic takeaways from the Dubai Lynx:

  1. It’s all about data, data, data: Every other word seemed to be data. The push to incorporate data – big, small or something in-between – is understandable; the marcomms industry has always struggled with the question of ROI, and data measurement, when used wisely, should help answer the question of what are organizations getting for their money’s worth. When analyzed well, data will also help marcomms professionals better understand both their audience and their impact. However, what wasn’t mentioned was ‘creativity’. Have we swung too far over to talking about data, rather than marrying data with creativity? While I’m sure there are computers and algorithms that are far smarter than me, I doubt there’s any machine which understands the human mind better than we can. Could a computer have understood why the ice bucket challenge would have gone viral? Or the success of the Chewbacca mom? I doubt it.
  2. Agency Convergence gathers steam: There’s no marketing or communications in our industry anymore, as the list of agencies offering everything under the sun grows longer. Those marketing agencies who were already one-stop shops are going further, and breaking down the internal silos to promote better integration between the various disciplines. Some PR firms are creating new roles, such as creative leads and digital heads. And then there’s the big consultancy firms, the data goliaths such as Accenture, IBM and McKinsey, using their IT know-how and their understanding of strategy to break into the marcomms industry (we’ve already seen this with Accenture and IBM, and expect to see it with McKinsey in this region following their acquisition of marketing firm Elixir). For an industry which used to be mainly focused on media relations about a decade or so ago, this is a seismic shift. Expect to see the gap between those offer an ever-expanding range of services (think creative, digital, public affairs, technology) and those who stick to old-school offerings such as media relations to grow significantly over the coming year.
  3. Marketeers are doing PR (and some of their work is exceptional): One of the best PR executions I’ve seen in a long time was from last week. It was the ‘Fearless Girl’, a statue commissioned by State Street Global Advisors and executed by McCann New York. The concept, which was timed to coincide with International Women’s Day, saw the ‘Fearless Girl’ face off against the famous Wall Street Charging Bull. The stunt symbolized the power of women in leadership and emphasized that companies with women in top positions perform better financially. Ask anyone in the business and they’ll tell you that McCann isn’t a PR agency, but rather a creative. However, much of the work which has been winning plaudits at Cannes recently has essentially been PR work executed by creative agencies.

The PR industry has gone through some remarkable change over the past decade. However, we’re going to see much more disruption over the short and medium term as creatives and consultancies move into new disciplines. Are PR firms ready to both embrace data and expand their own offerings? Or are we about to see another wave of industry consolidation over the coming five years? Time will tell.