The statuettes really are heavy.
Phillip Thomas, CEO of Lions Festivals, took some of that weight off this week. He travelled to Toronto to hand out some awards from the Cannes Lions advertising festival this summer to Canadian winners. While he was here, he talked about which countries are creative giants on the global stage, predicted it won’t be long before a piece of branded content wins an Oscar, and shared his thoughts with The Globe on where advertising is going.
In your presentation to the advertising agencies here in Toronto, you showed a map of the world with each country sized to reflect its wins at Cannes. Can you explain the trends you’re seeing globally? Who is over-representing, creatively, in the world?
There is another chart I didn’t show, which is Lions won versus advertising spend, and size of the economy. You might be interested to know that Canada, in terms of number of Lions, was number 12, but if you do it by advertising spend it was number 17. That to me says that Canada has got an opportunity to climb much higher.
What we’re seeing is in common with the global economy, you’re seeing Latin America and Asia coming up very strongly; particularly Latin America. Argentina and Brazil have been very successful for a long time. But now we see Mexico, Colombia, and Central America, and Peru, starting to win a lot of Lions. So Latin America is a powerhouse.
The really big winners, vs. their population, are Australia, Sweden, and New Zealand. They just smash everybody else to pieces when it comes to creativity, in terms of the size of the population.
We’ve just seen a milestone, the first ever ad to win an Emmy – Toshiba’s The Beauty Inside won a daytime Emmy this summer. Tell me about the blurred lines between branded content, and just plain good content.
There’s two things happening. On the one hand, you’ve got brands and advertising agencies finally creating content that is genuinely compelling, that stands up against entertainment content. There’s proof of that because it’s being released in the cinemas, like the movie from Canada [Kokanee’s The Movie Out Here]. There’s winning awards against TV shows, etc.
On the other side, you’ve got content creators seeing opportunities with brands. This is not happening as much, yet.
But you saw content creators like BBC, ESPN, Fox, and MTV all entering advertising work at Cannes for the first time this year.
BBC, ESPN, Fox, MTV, Paramount Pictures, Disney, all those guys are seeing opportunities to go to brands that want stories to be told, and saying to the brands, we’re the storytellers. Come talk to us.
What’s driving that shift?
On the direction of agencies producing great content, that’s just a question of their appointing different kinds of talent; they are understanding the game they are in much more.
In terms of the entertainment providers, I think they’re just seeing another revenue stream. They can see the dollars, and they’re moving in there.
Do you think ad agencies have a challenge on the horizon to compete with the likes of Disney and Paramount?
I do. And I think there can be a lot of co-creation, and work together. One of the winners last year was the Chipotle work [the animated video Back to the Start] from CAA in L.A. CAA started as a talent agency, linked to the entertainment industry. They saw an opportunity, which is, “We understand entertainment, we understand popular culture, so we should be creating content for brands.” They did that five or six years ago and they’re now creating incredible content for brands. They’re an interesting model. But if you talk to CAA and say to them ‘Are you in competition with agencies?’ They’d say no, they partner with agencies all the time. So I don’t think it’s necessarily anything to be scared of, but agencies should be aware of it.
The explanation you most often hear for this trend toward more entertaining advertising is that consumers are more skeptical than ever. But they’ve always been skeptical of advertising. What else is going on there?
The big change of course is the distribution system. You can just use the Internet and you don’t have to worry about distribution. That happened 15 years ago and it’s gradually getting easier for brands to do that. They’re now understanding that entertaining people gets their attention. The quality of work has to be so high to find new ways of engaging people.
I see this accelerating, I really do. Blurring of what an advertising agency is, what a media owner is, what a content creator is. I think this is going to be completely blurred in the future.
This interview has been edited and condensed.