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A PR postcard from Cannes Lions: Why do PR companies so rarely win?

Ben Titchmarsh enjoying his week in Cannes

Why is it that PR companies rarely win the PR award at Cannes Lions? This year The Drum asked Propeller PR’s Ben Titchmarsh to do some PR industry soul-searching.

The PR awards at Cannes Lions are a somewhat strange affair. 2014 was no exception.

Held on the Monday night when the majority of attendees are on the Croisette enjoying their first ‘big night out’ out of the week, successful PR category nominees share a stage with winning entries in categories for ‘direct marketing’ and ‘promo and activation’.

Within the Cannes Lions food chain, PR sits alongside mass mailings, brand emails and vouchers – sectors many marketers tend to view as far from glamorous. Whether intentional or not, it gives an insight into where PR is perceived to stand within the overall hierarchy of ‘the marketing mix.’

But most illuminatingly, the PR awards are seldom won by agencies that view their primary function as…err…PR. The PR sector may famously have a PR problem but take a step back for a second – imagine if Crufts was won most years by cats in disguise. We’d compliment their owners on their excellent grooming techniques. But we’d still want an inquiry.

The numbers are stark. Internationally 37 per cent of the entries in the PR category were from PR agencies, up from 26 per cent in 2013. But the vast majority of the remaining 63 per cent of this year’s PR entries were from advertising agencies. Of the 71 Grand Prix, Gold, Silver and Bronze winners drawn from around the world, no UK PR agencies or UK offices of global PR agencies won any awards. The only UK winners in the PR category were ad agencies TBWA\London and JWT.

Clearly something isn’t quite right in flackland and the possible reasons shine an interesting light on the evolving nature of modern brand communications.

“And the winner is…”

This year’s Cannes Lions Grand Prix winning PR campaign was created by lead ad agency Creative Artists Agency, Los Angeles with Edelman as ‘the PR partner agency’. Everyone behind ‘The Scarecrow’ will rightly feel proud of their efforts. Many people, myself included, would give their right arm (though admittedly I’m left-handed) for a Cannes Lions statuette on the mantelpiece. Yet the details are telling.

The Scarecrow’s PR award submission stressed the campaign’s impressive mix of integrated communications, including apps, an attractive website and a cool accompanying game. The jury were impressed by the creativity and the outcomes of the project and according to Ad Age “the campaign launched on YouTube with no paid media for the first four weeks and was followed by a placement in a national newspaper and a social and PR push".

Doubles all round for everyone involved. But hang on a second. Did I read that right?

“A placement in a national newspaper”

Forgive my facetiousness, but for most PR companies worth their salt, ‘placement in a national newspaper’ hardly warrants writing home about. It’s just a part of what’s expected. If the PR winner had generated a monsoon of global TV, radio, magazine, newspaper, website and blogger and social media coverage then fair enough. But it seems having done some research it was predominantly the integrated nature of the campaign that swayed the judges.

If we agree that the reach and quantity of the coverage The Scarecrow created isn’t what impressed the panel, it poses some serious questions: can PR agencies only hope to win the PR category at Cannes Lions by aping the mannerisms of creative, digital and social agencies? And have PR companies lost sight of the subtler art of influence and their primary raison d'être in the rush to embrace a multi-channel digital world?

“I read the news today, oh boy”

Yeah I know. PR has changed massively in recent years. We’re constantly guiding our clients to think beyond the press release and work hard to create engaging sharable content, insightful research and ‘useful’ PR collateral that will have a life beyond an initial coverage hit. Modern PR is about creating content that gets shared in earned media by all manner of influencers, from ‘the media establishment’ to opinion-forming bloggers.

But fundamentally PRs earn their crust by understanding the way the media works and by advising clients on how to influence the news agenda.

Yes all the most effective modern PR campaigns are multi-faceted. Yes PR is such a broad church that the work defies easy categorisation. Hell there’s plenty of other PR awards for agencies to enter.

But fundamentally media coverage of the Scarecrow primarily focused on controversy around the ad. Does it really reflect PR at its subtle, ‘earned’, impactful best? Or stand out as a PR idea in its own right?

Reading through the descriptions of the shortlisted entries in full on the Monday afternoon in the Palais, the same feeling kept returning. I loved #FootballOnYourPhone and Duracell’s Trust Your Power, but didn’t see in them what drew me from journalism into PR in the first place.

At Propeller PR we specialise in representing what could loosely be termed ‘Adland’ – creative agencies, digital agencies, media agencies and digital marketing ad tech companies. Hopefully this gives me a perspective on both sides of the argument and an insight into how the marketing sector is changing. So here goes.

“If I go forwards and you go backwards, somewhere we will meet”

The story of modern media is one of ever-greater integration and convergence. There have never been more channels for brands to communicate through and the Chipotle campaign utilised them superbly. Cross-agency collaboration is more important than ever and ideas that can play out across all disciplines are now the golden egg all top brand marketers want to be credited with laying.

The hottest buzzwords in modern marketing are ‘native advertising’ and ‘real time marketing’ and talk is often of ad agencies needing to adopt an ‘agile’ approach.

Many of these techniques rely on the same instincts that lie at the heart of PR: spotting a story that resonates while subtly conveying key messages; finding an angle that implicitly ‘sells’ yet somehow still feels authentic and relevant.

It should never have been a better time to be a PR person. Storytelling was the big term at Cannes Lions and in theory no one should be as used to saying they’ve got a story as PR people. So why are ad agencies and social media agencies so effectively muscling in on our turf? Eating our lunch? Winning our award?

Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos recently made a comment about his business that seems pertinent. He said his company’s goal "is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us" and the remark echoes what the PR industry is going through. Are many sections of the PR industry failing to evolve at precisely the point the wider marketing sector is ever more successfully embracing a real time, PR methodology?

“All the news that’s fit to print”

For all my soul-searching, I would love to believe that in years to come when something out of the blue happens like the lights going out at the Superbowl it will be PR people and people with a background in PR calling the shots. We have the skillset. We just need to have the confidence to show it. During Cannes Lions, I dropped by the Havas Social Newsroom in an area opposite the Grand Hotel and was struck by how the initiative, created by Cake, the Havas-owned PR and brand entertainment agency, echoed the vibe of a news desk as they imaginatively covered events at the festival in real time.

Other innovative PR agencies are also moving with the times in how they respond quickly to the news agenda in real time – and at Propeller we do our bit to fight a daily battle to stay ahead of the news cycle with the stories and thought leadership comment we push from our clients. We even tried to “eat our own dog food” as they say in Silicon Valley by creating a piece of sharable content to celebrate British creativity at the festival. Propeller's Pride of British painting of 20 leading UK advertising creative directors that we unveiled at Cannes Lions was covered extensively and was even shown on Clear Channel's 'Grand Vision' big screen that overlooked La Croisette – one small example of creating content with good ‘talkability’.

PR is still an exciting field. We’re paid to reach the people that can’t be bought. To fight the corner for our clients as journalists play judge, jury and executioner on the stories we share. To do all we can to earn the right to receive earned media.

In an era of ever greater agency collaboration when ‘the best ideas win’, PR agencies must have the brains and testicular fortitude to make our voices heard at the high table of marketing. Here’s to Cannes Lions in 12 months’ time and to the PR industry rising to the challenge with award-winning campaigns. It’s time the PR industry said: ‘Yes We Cannes’.

Ben Titchmarsh is head of media, marketing and partnerships at Propeller, which you can follow on Twitter @Propellerites

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