Every year, the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity gives communications professionals an opportunity to reflect on the state of the advertising industry. This June’s instalment saw a whopping 26 Grand Prix awards, with three campaigns standing out with multiple wins: Burger King’s “Whopper Detour“, Nike’s “Just Do Itfeaturing Colin Kaepernick and the New York Times’ “The Truth is Worth It“.

As ever, the award ceremony was well-documented by specialised media outlets and business publications, which tried to discern the underlying trends shaping the sector’s future. This year, most journalists identified brand purpose as a reoccurring theme among advertisers and juries, and a wide talking point across the festival, with “purpose-driven brands” and “authenticity” being among the most often used words during the festival. 

Commentators also pointed out that the festival has made an effort to clean up its messaging away from its characteristic ostentatious spirit and towards a more serious value-based tone. In their discussions, attendees have focused on brand safety, data privacy and the latest worrying developments in the world of social media.

Cannes Lions reports also noted the ongoing and profound upheaval within advertising, with the shares of major ad holdings like WPP, Publicis and Omnicom going down in the face of new challenges for brands to reach consumers in a constantly evolving online landscape.

Social media in focus

Social media platforms and their relationships with advertisers were among the main subject matters in the media reports on the festival. This is evident from our analysis of the most often mentioned companies in the media conversation around the event:

Facebook, Twitter, Google and Pinterest all took large beach areas at the festival, hosting discussions and becoming the focal point of media attention.

Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram brought together diverse speakers to host conversations about inclusivity and celebrate the positive change happening on these platforms. The companies also announced new agency partnerships: most significantly, WPP’s Ogilvy as the agency of record for Instagram, Wieden + Kennedy for the Facebook app, and Accenture Interactive’s Droga5 for the corporate brand.

But Facebook was also discussed in relation to sensitive topics such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the 2016 election meddling, the “fake news” phenomenon, the sharing of sensitive data to third-parties and the hacking of millions of accounts.  Advertisers have taken into account that only 15% of Americans thought that the social media giant does a good job at protecting sensitive data, while only 22% said that they trust Facebook with their personal information

The advertising world is yet to get accustomed to Facebook’s supposed transition of emphasis from the News Feed to a “privacy-focused communications platform” which brings the company’s messaging products to the fore and unifies them around six principles: private interactions, encryption, reduced permanence, safety, secure data storage and interoperability between Facebook-owned platforms. The new corporate vision was recently encapsulated by Zuckerberg’s new mantra: “The future is private“.

For more on Facebook, read our analysis “From Media Data to Reputation Analytics: A Case Study of Facebook”.

Twitter was revealed as the social media platform that most often informs reporters’ coverage, ranked first by an average of 48% of reporters in the 2019 Global Media Influence Survey presented by Ogilvy as part of the festival. Journalists have also pointed out that corporate announcements including financial reporting, corporate social responsibility initiatives and strategic business decisions are most influential in shaping earned media coverage and driving brand reputation.

Driving industry change

In their reports on social media’s role in advertising, most publications noted that tech companies are currently facing unprecedented scrutiny, with some ad executives saying they will begin to move their advertising away from platforms like Facebook and Google if things don’t change.

Commentators cited political disinformation and malicious content as the main challenges for social media giants. Some mentioned that advertisers are ready to take action, as exemplified by the decision of AT&T, Nestlé and McDonald’s to pause or halt their YouTube advertising following reports about inappropriate comments on videos of young girls.

Almost all media outlets covered the launch of the Global Alliance for Responsible Media, which was announced during the festival. The initiative was led by tech companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google, major advertisers such as Procter & Gamble, General Mills and Mastercard, and advertising groups including Omnicom and WPP.

The companies have formed the coalition to deal with hate speech, bullying and divisive fake content, and to develop specific steps to safeguard both consumers and brands. Rob Rakowitz, the head of global media at Mars, another member of the alliance, said that the aim to go from chasing down breaches in a reactive way “to a much more proactive dialogue and concrete steps that are going to drive industry change”.

A shift towards new initiatives

Procter & Gamble, the world’s biggest advertiser, which  reported $7.1 billion of ad spending the last fiscal year, was perceived by the media as the firm dominating the festival, with its ads “It’s a Tide Ad” from Saatchi & Saatchi (from the last year’s Super Bowl) and “The Talk” from BBDO sharing the top honours in the high-profile Film category.

The company, which recently bought Merck’s consumer health division and rebranded it as P&G Health, has also been active in Cannes Lions Health, the festival’s event for creative communications in healthcare. With its teams of brand managers, the firm was seen as serving notice to consumer healthcare companies that it’s fully in play.

Many publications noted P&G’s value-based strategies: it’s one of the companies that have promoted their stance on topics such as gender equality, immigration and gun control via its advertising efforts. It’s also one of the companies which are more willing to take the risk of addressing controversial issues and to capitalise on the fact that 43% of consumers express purchase intent after viewing a product or brand communication relating to the brand’s stand, as per recent research conducted by Edelman.

However, many Cannes Lions reports pointed out that P&G plans to shift more of its marketing budget away from big advertising agencies and towards new initiatives, as consumers are increasingly avoiding ads. The company will diversify its marketing by striking creative partnerships and focusing on creative efforts involving journalism, filmmaking, music, comedy and technology.

For more on Procter & Gamble’s advertising strategies, read our case study “Gillette Ad Controversy: Social Media Insights”.

Reimagining creativity

P&G’s strategic shift was emphasised by its chief brand officer, Marc Pritchard, who was the most often quoted spokesperson in the Cannes Lions coverage:

He said that the advertising industry has been in its own world for too long and is becoming less relevant to consumers, which means that practitioners should reimagine creativity and reinvent the sector: “There are vast sources of creativity available, and today P&G is taking action to merge the ad world with other creative worlds through partnerships that embrace humanity and broaden our view of what advertising could be.”

Pritchard’s words were taken by many as a sign of the new direction in which the ad sector is going. He noted that several media trends influenced his new marketing mindset: the ongoing decline of TV advertising, consumers’ use of ad-blockers and the growth of ad-free over-the-top streaming content.

P&G’s initiative in focus at the festival was the partnership with behaviour change technology company Thrive Global, founded by Arianna Huffington, who said that the joint effort strives to leverage the daily habits associated with P&G brands: “Great brands are habits for their consumers,” she claimed.

Another hint about advertising’s future was dropped by David Droga, who sold his agency Droga5 to Accenture earlier this year. During a discussion with Brian Whipple, global chief executive of Accenture Interactive, Droga said that the deal will help the agency stay relevant as brands focus not only on advertising but on the entire consumer experience.

Some publications speculated that the deal exemplifies a new trend in clients’ willingness to get a full consultancy-like service which goes beyond advertising to include each aspect of the value chain. While highlighting that this doesn’t signal the ‘doomsday’ of advertising, Droga explained that this is the way to save creativity – “to make sure that it is effective all the way through”.

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg gained the media’s attention by focusing her messaging on her company’s planned cryptocurrency coin, which is a “long way from launch,”  although global policymakers are already preparing to scrutinise it. She underlined that Facebook is leaning into regulation: the social media giant wants to be an active partner in drafting new rules for the internet.

In contrast, Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s marketing vice president, focused on hate speech and fake news, warning it can’t build a platform impervious to human nature: “There are some bad parts of humanity, and the platforms are a reflection of that.”

Nicknamed the Mayor of Twitter, model Chrissy Teigen was the subject of a lively stage discussion entitled #AskChrissy, where she spoke to Twitter’s chief marketing officer Leslie Berland about her constant engagement with the platform, highlighting the importance of social media influencers.

The most often quoted agency spokesperson, Mark Read, CEO of WPP, concentrated on social media’s problems and the importance of brand safety for his clients. Reid’s company was the most often mentioned one in the media conversation, followed by the rest of the “Big Five” advertising groups and their subsidiaries:

WPP was seen as a trend-setter for its partnership with audio company iHeartMedia. Their joint venture Project Listen aims to enhance insights and creative capabilities in the audio sphere, capitalising on the rise of consumer listening, which is at an all-time high at an average of 17 hours weekly.

Omnicom was mentioned for becoming Holding Company of the Year having ended WPP’s 7-year reign last year, which was secured by its networks DDB, BBDO and TBWA, while Interpublic’s McCann Worldgroup became Network of the Year.

On social media

The social media engagement with the 2019 Cannes Lions circled around brands which have managed to provoke strong emotional or morally charged reactions. This is why Nikе’s integrated campaign, which won the top prize in the Outdoor category having already made big waves on Twiter, decisively outmatched rivals in the social media conversation around the festival.

Nike’s marketing effort, part of the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” campaign, involved former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who had participated in racial justice demonstrations during national anthem ceremonies. The campaign’s results were polarising, with consumers divided between praise and calls for boycotting the brand, “reigniting brand heat,” as the company’s Finance Chief Andrew Campion said after a 10% rise in sales in the latest quarter.

The festival gave social media users another chance to engage in outrage cascades — outbursts of moral judgment which start to drive the conversation around brands, their products and their corporate messages. The virality of moral judgements is facilitated by the fact that most of the content on social media feeds and timelines is sorted according to its likelihood to generate engagement.

A recent NYU research found a pattern in viral posts: the presence of morally charged and strong emotional words in messages increased their diffusion by a factor of 20% for each additional word. This content acts as a trigger for emotional reactions and tends to divide users into two opposing camps. Such polarisation guarantees engagement: users who strongly agree or strongly disagree with a certain message are more likely to comment on it or share it.

For more social media insights, read our analysis “The Anatomy of a Social Media Crisis: Lessons from the Fashion and Food Industries”.

The rest of the Cannes Lions campaigns didn’t elicit such levels of polarisation – their social media engagement rates were due to a strong emotional appeal. For instance, Ikea followed Nike with its “ThisAbles” campaign, which won the Grand Prix for Health and Wellness. Developed by McCann Tel Aviv, the campaign promoted a range of product adaptors for consumers with disabilities, evoking a wave of positive sentiments among social media users.

A similar level of approval secured New York Times‘ engagement level: the newspaper’s campaign“The Truth Is Worth It”, created by Droga5, dissected how journalists developed some of the most controversial stories in recent times. Meanwhile, Burger King‘s Whopper Detour, created by  Interpublic Group’s FCB was praised for its clever use of data analytics and humour.

When discussing the festival, social media users generally agreed with what business outlets and executives have been pointing out: that the advertising world is in a need for transformation towards new creative endeavours. This need has been perceived as especially acute when it comes to addressing new generations of consumers and working around the fact that as many as 84% of millennials don’t trust ads.

For more advertising insights, read our analysis “Super Bowl LIII: Who Won the 2019 Brand Awareness Championship”.