Judging the PR Lions at Cannes: Reflections

In a career one gets few once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Being a judge for the 1st PR Lions  is certainly one of them.

While I looked forward to Cannes, my vision was an over-the-top glam week of parties, parties and more parties ending with awards, the global advertising businesses gushing self congratulations – think unrelenting double-cheek kissing (its France naturally), fist pumping in the air Gold Lion in hand, and all night carousing. (One of the agency winners even brought his dog on stage…4 times! Talented agency. Lucky dog?)

Perhaps that is true. Yet with digital media and a shattered world economy, things have really changed for the communications business. And in my experience, and that of my fellow judges, the new PR Lions and the content of winning campaigns mirror the emerging new “world” order.

First I feel the advertising industry has moved beyond just ads with spectacular creative – to a world of amazing ideas executed in multiple mediums. So many times the presidents of the various juries said “The lines have blurred between disciplines.” Great ideas, born from considered insight, executed in surprising ways that engage and deeply inspire audiences win the day.

Questions asked during the judging at the three concurrent juries – PR, Direct and Promo – revolved around their very definitions. Throughout our reviews we kept asking; “What is PR?” Besides shining a spotlight on great, breakthrough work, what message were we, as well as the other juries, trying to send to our communications colleagues around the globe?

At the awards ceremony Monday night, it was fascinating to see campaigns winning across disciplines. The Best Job in the World, winner of the PR and Direct Grand Prix, was such a simple idea that became a “shot heard ‘round the world”. The client, Tourism Queensland, sought to inspire visitors to visit. With a limited budget was born the idea: offer "The best Job in the World” – become the guardian of a magnificent island, with simple responsibilities – feed the fish, clean the pool, take in the mail (delivered via sea plane) and blog daily. All this for about $8800 per month, at a fabulous three bedroom villa overlooking breathtaking green and blue sparkling lagoons. Small space ads around the world announced the job; sent in a short video telling us why you should be selected: 35,000 responses, narrowed to 50, then 16 finalists flown to the island for a hands-on interview, then selection. Mountains of publicity, online submissions so clever providing non-stop entertainment, followed by mountains of publicity. The buzz throughout the judging, even before Cannes, this campaign was THE ONE TO BEAT! Just “brilliant.” CumminsNitro, Brisbane.


Another campaign winning multiple categories included Yubari Resort, The Store of Hope, The Great Schlep and Khede Kasra, among others.

Yubari Resort

Yubari was a small Japanese town, fallen on very hard times, $300 million in debt, with an aging population – what was the city to do? Beacon Communications, Tokyo, on a small budget, started with the right move: through research of the city’s history and personality, they found it to have the lowest divorce rate in Japan. Thus was born the idea of focusing Yubari as the city of happy couples. Their line, “No money, but love.” (Surely in Japanese that was more eloquent, but you get the idea.) A mascot was created to draw attention to the new positioning. Over 3,000 couples came to renew their marriage vows. The mascot soon took off with organic uses around the city, from the obvious T-shirt, to packaging of foods and other items.

Massive press covered the repositioning. Over 100 articles and tons of TV. The City gained much-needed word of mouth, exciting energy, more than $30 million in new revenues, 10% year-over-year increases in tourism and most of all – restored pride.

I just loved this campaign for its core insight, its highly cultural execution and deep results. I was so please my other judges agreed and gave it a PR Lion. When it won the Promo Grand Prix, I jumped out of my seat with joy, pumped my fist and cheered. It wasn’t slick. It wasn’t fancy, though the mascot was right on, not too Hello Kitty, just correct to represent a happy couple. The campaign reflected the inner spirit of Yubari in its better times, gave it hope and a new future. What a great PR result!!!!

The Store of Hope
The Store of Hope won PR, Promo and Direct Lions with a very simple, elegant idea – How to raise funds for the Lisbon Red Cross?

They created a real retail location, basically a pop-up store around the holidays, complete with items on racks, dressing rooms, a counter and cash register. Large, beautifully designed cards with big red crosses and equally large UPC codes hung on rows of racks. The message: Buy Hope as a holiday gift. Again, deep insight and elegantly executed. Again, brilliant. Leo Burnett, Lisbon.

The Great Schlep
Last fall you had to be living under a rock not to notice this idea during the Obama campaign. Sara Silverman in only her so, so funny way, scolded (with a wink) Jewish grandkids to, “Get your fat asses on a plane to visit your bubbies and get them to vote.” This absolute hysterical online campaign became one of the hottest viral events of the fall. Mountains of publicity extended it massively onto TV, print and radio. And its result: the highest turnout of elderly Jews in Florida’s history. Florida went for Obama and the rest we know. Droga 5, NYC.

I list all of these as they were PR Lions winners, as well as big winners across the three categories. With more judging taking place this week, they may win more.

Other great PR campaigns that won: 

Khede Kasra

This campaign, from the Hariri Foundation, was designed to raise awareness about the inequalities suffered by women in Lebanon, with an aspirational goal to encourage widespread cultural reform for gender equality. The idea was elegant: use the simple “kasra” accent in the Arabic language to change word meaning from masculine to feminine. Without the accent, all words automatically default to the masculine meaning. Red accents were put on billboards, posters, pins and online with heavy engagement of personalities throughout Lebanon during International Women’s Day. Word of mouth and media coverage was massive discussing this groundbreaking campaign, the first of its kind in a Middle East country. It sparked substantial debate, especially about female regulations in the Lebanese judicial system. The issue of gender equality was finally in the public domain. 

Simple. Impactful. Courageous. Another campaign I wished we had done. Leo Burnett, Beirut, Lebanon.

P&G Protecting Futures

A marvelous cause-related program to provide sanitary protection and hygiene education to girls in Africa so they can stay in school during their monthly period. (Note: this is one of the many new global campaigns P&G has created to link its values to the value of its brands. This Value with Values is a huge trend taking place in our global, reset economy.) MS&L, New York.

Haagen-Dazs Loves Honeybees

A big winner in the States in multiple awards competitions, this campaign linked the global ice cream brand with an issue vital to its very survival: saving the drastic collapse of the honeybee population, critical to 40% of the ingredients in its products. Ketchum, San Francisco.

Love Distance 

(YOU MUST view this video when it is available.) The idea is “blind branded online entertainment” for the world’s thinnest condom, Sagami. Contest held to find a Japanese couple separated by long distance, then slowly bring them together through streaming live video over a month as they physically run over 100 km to finally reunite. As they journey over the month, their emotions and challenges are covered in blogs and live streaming video on a website with separate areas for men and women. Comments and voting are taken daily regarding issues related to love and relationships. Throughout, there is no commercial company mentioned. The couple became national celebrities, covered massively in the press. There is suspense throughout the country about who the sponsor may be.Once they rejoin, the company, Sagami is finally revealed with the tagline: Love has no distance, yet it must = .02 (the distance of the world’s thinnest condom). Again,rilliant. Executed as a sensitive, deeply compelling love story. GT, Tokyo.

Ephemeral Museum for Pampero Rum

Lisbon’s streets are covered with graffiti. Some of it great art interspersed with doodles and scribbles. When the government declared a “beautification” project to repaint the walls, the museum idea was born. Pampero Rum is associated with alternative culture, art and music. Why not create an outdoor museum, focusing on the great graffiti art throughout a city section? The campaign created a “walking” museum complete with descriptions of the work and the artists, put it online and made it downloadable to MP3 players. Local residents and tourists exploded with joy and excitement surrounding this innovative idea. Soon other sections of the city created new tours of their own graffiti. So fresh and aligned with the brand’s audience and persona. Leo Burnett, Lisbon.

These were my favorites. Most of the ideas came from a simple insight with fresh, breakthrough creative, executed superbly, thus building massive word-of-mouth online and offline, gaining mountains of publicity. In most cases, they increased reputation, sales and awareness (even renewed spirit and pride), while others deeply contributed to social good.

The great rub to this wonderful work is that of the 18 PR Lions, only five were won by PR firms: Protecting Futures – MS&L; Haagen-Dazs Honeybees – Ketchum; Guinness St. Patrick’s Day – Taylor; Relaunch of the Football Pools – Resonate, London; Pigs Are Worth It! – Weber Shandwick, London. The other 13 winners came from advertising, direct and promotion agencies.

What does this tell us? First, as I have said earlier by joining other commentary, the lines in the communications business are blurring. Great ideas come from anywhere. To build brands – indeed relationships with audiences – engagement is key. Invite consumers, friends, employees and partners to join in. With digital and social media, they “play” with products and brands daily, so encourage their input. Honor it. Have fun with it. Celebrate it. Word-of-mouth and viral online and offline content are key to creating interest and engagement with brands and issues. Fresh ideas that embrace ideas with “legs” and real people have power – whether saving a city, reuniting lovers, winning the best job in the world, saving art or empowering women in Lebanon.

Also, the PR Lions were announced without sufficient lead time for many agencies to respond. The ad agencies were already planning on entering Cannes, so extended appropriate ideas to the PR Lions. Or, agencies were not as familiar with the Cannes awards, as they have been the province of the ad world. Or, the recession and the need to provide a video summary (although optional, all winners had really good ones) was an additional expense that, in a tough year, did not make the have-to-do cut.

There will be debate. But this I know: while it took 56 years for Cannes to “recognize” PR, they embraced the awards with vigor. Our experience as judges was excellent – superbly managed with the same careful and gracious attention as all other judging panels. These awards recognize the best of global PR campaigns. Great work does rise to the top. When it is recognized, it enlightens and inspires us to do even better.

I know I came away from Cannes with new friends from around the world in the advertising, promotion and direct industries, tremendous new insights toward fresh ideas and brilliant executions. For that once-in-a-lifetime experience, I am grateful.

Now just when you thought this really long blog post was over………. all of the PR judges have committed to spread the word about the PR Lions in their home countries. In the US, we will be hosting an event or a series of events, with our hosts USA Today, to highlight the wonderful work, provide insights in these new global honors, as well as insights into the creation of attention-getting award entries or how to go from “boring” to “brilliant.” There are very few global PR awards. Winning a PR Lion will grow year over year into a greater and greater honor. I predict at least a doubling of entries next year, I bet to 900 or a 1,000. If you want to win, start early. It is highly likely this category will attract ever more entries as its reputation spreads.

Thanks USA Today for this honor. I will cherish it forever.

- Carol Cone