Lost in translation? Why Asia wins less at Cannes Lions

Cannes Lions

The creativity of the industry is under the microscope once more as the biggest global advertising event and awards takes place in the South of France. Cannes Lions is one of a handful of chances the industry gets to take stock of the quality of its output at a global level but when you take this step back, some interesting trends can emerge.

From a geographical view, it is no surprise that developed markets like the US and UK are heavily awarded but with the likes of Brazil consistently ranking highly, the lack of Asia representation at the top is conspicuous in its absence. The Cannes Lions 2015: The Global Creativity Report from last year found the US top, followed by the UK and Brazil. New York, London, São Paulo and Paris were the top cities. Where is Tokyo? Mumbai? Or Bangkok?

We spoke to regional and global creative and media talent to find out why this happens and what can be done. Is it a case of things being lost in translation or is there more to it than that?

Eugene Cheong, chief creative officer, Ogilvy & Mather, Asia Pacific and Singapore

The world’s most developed regions are North America, Western Europe and ANZ. They produce the most original ideas, the most well crafted executions, innovative strategies and, not surprisingly, the world’s best marketing. They rightly deserve to be the biggest winners in Cannes, the One Show and D&AD.

Let me comment briefly on Latin America (in which I’m including Spain, Portugal and Italy) and Asia.It’s not even controversial anymore to say that Latin American judges vote as a bloc. They know each other’s work and they speak up for each other’s work. They do it barefacedly. I don’t have the stats, but, compared to other regions, I reckon a Latin American entry has a 20% better chance of winning in Cannes.

Coming from the world’s most diverse region, it never occurs to Asian judges that they can ‘work together’ to improve their odds of winning a Lion. With some exceptions, Asian judges find vote rigging unsavory.

The problem is deeper than [work being lost in translation]. Asian work is weak compared to other regions primarily because creativity is not really valued in Asia.

Take Singapore, for example, the people who run the country and business are usually lawyers, doctors, engineers and accountants. In a left-brain society, right-brainers are never the main event. ‘Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford,’ the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew famously declared.

Inside most Asian agencies only the creative people are in love with ideas and celebrating creativity in festivals like Cannes, D&AD and The One Show. To get our managers involved with the creatives, we have to, unfortunately, hold a gun to their heads and link their bonus to their office’s creative performance.

If you look at a typical Latin American agency, the entire agency is involved in making sure the work is first class. They seem to derive their self-esteemed from the limelight of the world’s stage.

Another region that’s newly smitten by creativity is the Middle East. It’s beautiful to behold agencies in Dubai and Lebanon aching to produce the world’s best ideas.

Asians are too pragmatic and rational to be creative. I can’t see Jack Ma shelling out $21,000,000 to purchase the clock design of the Swiss Federal Railway.

Jacques Séguéla, VP, Global Creativity, Havas

There are three ways to look at creativity: the English one starts from the head to go to the heart, a little too intellectual. The French and Latin one starts from the heart to go to the head, a little too emotional. And the American one, starts from the head to go to the wallet, a little too materialistic. The good way for Asia is the future of creativity, it starts from the heart to go to the heart. In a world of constant multiplication of media and messages, we need simplicity, directness and efficiency.

It's fair to compare markets. Europe and America are the old world, Asia the new world, Africa the next world. So it's the time for your country to fight for new creativity, new freshness, new connectivity, and first of all, coherence between all the mediums. Brands can lose their soul in dispersion.

Cannes' problem is its Anglo-Saxon supremacy, I have been fighting for more diversity for decades, it's time to award glocal campaigns as much as global campaigns.

Chris Garbutt, global creative president of TBWA

I think it can be true that some cultural work gets lost in translation but there is a lot of cultural representation on juries and a healthy debate around work. If something has done well in market and doesn’t get well awarded then the system is not in place to discuss it. Generally great work still shines through. South America does well because it is great at strong emotional storytelling and that is universal, there’s lots of universal work.

In terms of Asia, there are some markets like India where there’s a lot of really local work that perhaps people don’t understand. There’s also a lot of scam on the side. It’s happening less but sometimes but people have witnessed that where agencies do specific work for Cannes. We wouldn’t do that at our agency, we want to embed creativity at the heart of everything we do.

Steven Chang, Tencent corporate VP

Cultural changes and differences can come up in all things. However, I think marketers are uniquely placed to make a difference here. Translating global brand and business goals into tactical programmes that make a difference - as well as entertaining customers - is where marketers and agencies can demonstrate their creativity.

I think the Asian market is at the forefront of creativity, and China in particular is leading the way when it comes to the collision of mobile, e-commerce and creative campaigns.

I think it has encouraged marketers in China to think bigger around mobile and social campaigns, and the fact that the whole customer journey can be tracked also makes it easier to demonstrate ROI from these campaigns compared to those taking place in the West.

The marketing landscape in China was – for many years – viewed solely as an extension of sales rather than being a skill in its own right. Today, I think that mindset has been left behind. There’s greater willingness to learn around the potential for marketing strategy to lead to business change and wider commercial success.

At the same time, China is unique in its social and technology position. The growth of mobile has led to many changes that are specific to us.

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