5 South African ad heavy-weights report back on judging at the Cannes Lions

Nine South African creative heavy-weights were invited to join the 387 judges at this year’s 63rd Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, which took place between 18 and 25 June. These included Nathan Reddy, Chief Creative Officer & Founder of Grid Worldwide Branding and Design; Suhana Gordhan, Creative Director at FCB Africa; Rob McLennan, Creative Founding Partner of King James II; Marc Taback, CEO of Initiative Media South Africa; Emma Carpenter, Creative Director at Accenture Interactive South Africa; Jonathan Beggs, Chief Creative Officer for Saatchi & Saatchi; Eoin Welsh, Chief Creative Officer of Havas Worldwide Johannesburg; Fran Luckin, Chief Creative Officer of Grey Africa; and Jenny Glover, Executive Creative Director for TBWA/Hunt/Lascaris

This esteemed panel reviewed work from around the world across categories ranging from Design Lions, to Film Lions, to Outdoor Lions to Media Lions. Keen to learn what trends are shaping the forefront of the industry, we asked these creative experts to share a few insights from their experience. Below we hear thoughts and comments from Emma, Jonathan, Suhana, Eoin, Marc, Nathan and Rob on the work they judged at Cannes this year as well as how South Africa stacks up.

What are your Cannes Lions 2016 takeouts?

Emma Carpenter: Judging by the entries we received in the Mobile category this year, we need to stop thinking mobile = phone. We need to see it as any portable product or connected device that enables the audience to consume services, content and experiences on the move. In most cases, mobile phones were often a supporting role to a larger idea and in some entries such as WiFi powered burglar alarm it didn’t feature at all.

Digital and any work with technology at its heart has often been seen by traditional advertising as too focused on metrics and lacking emotion; I think this year the awarded work in these categories has proven that this is not the case. WhatsGermanBeats By Dre. Straight Outta and The Sydney Opera House #ComeOnIn are all based on human insight and were extremely successful because Mobile enabled these stories to play out. We awarded the New York Times VR the Mobile Grand Prix, and together with their 360 film ‘The Displaced’ (also awarded the Grand Prix in Entertainment) demonstrated that digital provides a solid platform for creativity and is more than capable of capturing the audience on a deeper emotional level.

Jonathan Beggs: Categories are becoming meaningless, as it’s all about how work adds up to deliver earned reach and brand “fame”. There also seems to be a decline in the idea that everything must be digital. It’s good to see traditional media playing in position rather than jostling for relevance. Even though media gets more complicated, it’s still the bold, provocative, simple, ingenious ideas that cut through. (McWhopper, Swedish Number, Brewtroleum, REI #optoutside are notable cases). 

Eoin Welsh: Winning at Cannes is hard. As hard as it gets in our game. It’s not good enough to be really good or even great – there has to be a certain virtually indefinable x-factor that elevates a piece even above great. Gender equality is by far the most prominent social issue right now. The days of scam and trying to buck the system are pretty much over. As are the days of block voting, network pressure on juries and pretty much anything other time-honoured ways of cheating. Where humans have failed, technology has triumphed – these days, there’s an algorithm that will hunt you down and kill you. The days of charity = award are not over as such, but it’s more difficult than ever to win purely for a social cause. By contrast, purpose-led advertising by big commercial brands is rising and rising. 

Suhana Gordhan: Really big, fresh thinking will always be loved and will most certainly win across categories. While there are still a lot of pieces entered for charity work, Cannes is looking for real work that truly builds brands, so I think the ‘do good and win an award’ trend is dying. Technology exists to improve our lives and enhance our thinking but really fancy tech cannot replace a simple, powerful idea. The best ideas are those that employ tech and make the ‘wires’ invisible. 

Marc Taback: I had philosophies or criteria I was looking for. Those were uniqueness of the entry, how simple the execution was, how effective the work was, how clever it was, how measurable it was, that’s in terms of results, especially media results, and lastly how memorable it was and how memorable it can be. For me, you can see something once and never remember it again. So with something like the McWhopper, you saw it, you heard about it and people are talking about it. At the end of the day, if it’s memorable it moves feet through the doors and through stores. 

Nathan Reddy: The take out is to do relevant work, that’s memorable, bold and simple to understand. Of course it must have a great idea that’s beautifully executed. And it must have the X factor. You as the jury got to say I wish I had done that.

What is the South African advertising and marketing industry doing right and what needs to change? 

Emma Carpenter: South Africa needs to embrace digital in the same way that other emerging markets from the Far East to South America have. There are a number of reasons why I think we are failing to win international awards consistently in digital categories. Firstly, the larger South African creative schools place more emphasis on traditional advertising and therefore turn out students that sadly believe the only careers worth having are in advertising agencies. Secondly, despite better return on investment and the ability to iterate, the slice of the marketing pie given to digital is small. Unlike above-the-line, digital has always been a team sport due to its complexity and constantly evolving environment. Big ideas in digital often need big teams, and bigger budgets to create them. We’re only going to start winning when we’ve changed the perceptions of clients, creatives and the schools that teach them.

Jonathan Beggs: South Africa dominated this year in radio with great ideas, writing and craft. In my category (Print), Native VML’s work for PASSOP was the most outstanding piece. SA does some amazing work, and we should be proud. On the other hand, I’d love to see us winning in a broader range of categories – we certainly have the spunky ideas. It would be great to see us winning more with “long” campaigns and ideas, and not just shiny moments of brilliance. Having said that, we’ll take whatever we can get! 

Eoin Welsh: We’re certainly doing radio right. But we’ve fallen behind in most other categories. Quite why is hard to say – budgets and time are certainly factors, but other countries smaller than us are doing better, so they’re not really excuses. Perhaps we’re not as aware of the opportunities afforded us in this digital age, as the big arenas like Europe & the US are. But what needs to change is a very difficult question to answer indeed.

Suhana Gordhan: We continue to have the radio stronghold and will always do so. But there are so many other categories we need to break into. A big idea doesn’t necessarily have to have scale in spend but it can have mass appeal and reach because it is an idea people can get behind and love. In Direct, we awarded a Grand Prix to ‘The Swedish Number’ and I know it is because the idea is so big, it’s impossible to ignore.  And it’s not just big, it’s brave. Together with our clients, we need to stop playing it safe. 

Marc Taback: There were very few South African entries in the Media category, and none from media agencies. Firstly, it’s very expensive to enter, and people need to spend time, money and effort to enter. Sitting in a little room, you’ve got to see things visually, audio-visually. So all the entries that were just a storyboard didn’t make it through as they didn’t resonate with us. If you’re judging up to 400 entries per day, it’s got to be stimulating, eye-catching and touch all your senses. I don’t think the South African media industry really know how to enter awards properly. I think we should have a workshop in South Africa on how to enter awards, not just Cannes, but other global awards and even Loeries. There’s a way of doing it, and all the past media judges at Cannes should get together and present what we believe as great ways of winning awards, especially from a media point of view.

Nathan Reddy: We are very good as a nation with the smallest budgets punching way above of weight. What we need do however, is improve our craft and improve on categories design, film and digital.

What are you most excited and/or inspired about in relation to the industry right now? 

Emma Carpenter: Having worked in digital for 17 years I’ve seen a huge amount of change and not knowing what new technology you’ll be working on next week let alone next year is inspiring. At the moment, I’m looking forward to independent brands emerging in advertising, producing their own content and services in house without an agency or partner. Its already happening if we look at Netflix and Google, and we had one Cannes Lions entry this year in the Mobile category that was for Facebook by Facebook. As more and more creatives flock to work outside of the advertising industry, it’s just a matter of time before we see this as standard, who knows maybe creatives from Snapchat and YouTube might even edge out the agency jurors? It’s exciting because it’s definitely going to happen and when it does its going to change everything.

Jonathan Beggs: I’m inspired by brilliant ideas and, more than that, the teams who make the work happen. I’m excited by the diversity of skills and views that is making their way into advertising. I’m also relieved to see a decline in the “goodvertising” gold-rush. 

Eoin Welsh: Big brands are doing genuinely selfless things for more than just social brownie points, but as a genuine component of their business model. 

Suhana Gordhan: I’m excited about breaking patterns of thinking. The work I was exposed to has taught me that we are too formulaic and too rushed in our approach. And we’re far too conservative about the way in which we make ideas happen. I’m inspired by ideas that have never been done before and the ideas that people will reference from now on. I have seen the value in giving a piece of work enough time and enough tender care to get it to a Cannes-worthy state, and that’s not just about craft – that’s about giving an idea enough time to simply grow to its full potential so that the results are tangible and genuine. 

Nathan Reddy: The most exciting thing is that this industry is changing the world. It’s not about selling anymore it’s about telling. If you look at this year’s winners, from product design all the way to film, it’s about inspiring the world to solve problems and a motivation to improve on self.

Rob McLennan on judging the Film category:

Judging in the film jury takes up the entire festival week while everyone else is out on the Croisette having fun and seeing what wins in the various categories (of which there are many) and then celebrating that, so I’ve been pretty much out of touch with the rest of the trends and it’s take outs in the Cannes universe other than in the film category. So here’s how it went down in our universe. 

There was a healthy balance between classical television spots, digital film content and innovation in film this year. There were the big budget, A and B celebrity filled 90 seconders, along with a whole bunch of very varied content, some short and some very, very long. There were the usual peak in various relevant themes that trended quite heavily. The refugee crisis was heavily represented. As were the rights of women in general, from why they are paid less than men (I can assure that in this day and age they still are), to abuse and stereotypical perceptions. 

In terms of innovation, Virtual Reality communication or VR as it is called, will undoubtably be the next big thing in film. It really allows you to step virtually into any other world and feel like you’re experiencing yourself. It was pretty mind blowing. But it’s still new and there were two entries in this category. Watch this space. 

Judging  was an incredible experience in every way. Apart from the work, the privilege of judging with and picking the brains of the best creative minds in the world was inspiring.

Now for the bad news. There were close to 3 000 pieces of work to judge from all over the world and initially the jury was segmented into 3 groups to cope with the long list to get to a shortlist. To obviate any bias, work from your own country was diverted to the two other jury segments. By the time it came to reviewing the shortlist, I hadn’t even seen a South African piece of work and none even appeared in the shortlist. 

Why? I could tell you that there are superior production facilities and better directors elsewhere and that the television overseas has a much higher budget than we have in South Africa. I could also say that the work is given more credence because they riddle the work with celebrities and sports stars. All of these combined could make a compelling case, if it weren’t for the fact that the Ad that won the Grand Prix for Harvey Nichols could have been done by any agency, big or small, anywhere in the world. And everyone agrees that it is a fresh, amazing piece of work well deserving of the Grand Prix. So I really have no fix on why South Africa failed to feature in film this year.

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