The ad industry is descending on the south of France this month to schmooze at yacht parties, sip rosé and celebrate itself by recognizing the best ads from around the world.
But while the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity is suffused with a good deal of hype and splashy excess, the awards also matter a great deal to the industry. For clients, it can be a sign that the money they are spending on marketing is actually getting noticed. For agencies, winning Lions helps attract and keep the best talent – who all want to go where they can do interesting work and win awards – which leads to more good work, which wins more clients.
And in a globalized world, it helps countries to position themselves as creative hubs that can vie for a slice of multinational marketers' budgets and for the chance to create strategies for those clients – rather than being seen purely as a kind of "branch plant" churning out small, local variations on global ad campaigns.
But is Canada competing at a disadvantage in Cannes?
While other countries take pains to prepare the judges they send to the award show – making sure they have seen all the work from their countries and understand the business strategies behind that work, and communicating about the strategies used in and out of the jury room to keep work in the running – Canada has not been as strategic, according to former jury members.
"We as a country don't understand what we need to do to perform better, because we don't share information about what goes on," said Steph Mackie, co-owner of Mackie Biernacki in Toronto who was on the Direct Lions jury last year.
For example, Cannes fields so many entries that many of them fall by the wayside in prejudging – and jury members only prejudge a portion of the overall entries, so they may not ever see entries that were ruled out before they arrive in France. In judging, there is one day when judges can argue to bring work back into contention for the short list. Smart countries ensure their judges know about all the work submitted by their peers from home, so that they can advocate for it if they want to.
Cannes has protections in place against bias: only the jury president sees the credits on each entry, while judges just see the case studies. Judges who give disproportionately high scores for work from their own agency networks or their own countries may be warned, or even have their votes discounted. They are, however, permitted to argue for work, particularly if they can explain the context of why it was effective to others who are unfamiliar with the market. There are rumours of countries engaging in bloc voting, to co-operate on moving each other's work forward.
While the Canadian judges don't advocate for such behind-the-scenes dealings, some wished they had been better prepared for the kind of informal campaigning needed to better make themselves heard: Informal jockeying for votes happens during cigarette breaks, and over drinks and WhatsApp channels, in addition to the formal debates in the jury rooms.
Countries also frequently put together glossy books of their work, sending them to judges' hotel rooms and distributing them around the festival – not so different from the "For your consideration" ads that run prior to the Academy Awards each year. Judges say they have not seen Canada do the same.
If this all sounds a bit shady, however, judges are unanimous that the work that wins gold at Cannes is undoubtedly the best work; where strategy comes into play is keeping work in the running that might fall of the radar in the process of sifting through thousands of entries.
"There's a naiveté, that great work rises to the top. There are great pieces that do get lost," said Judy John, chief executive officer for Canada and chief creative officer for North America at Leo Burnett, who has been a judge four times, including once as jury president. When in charge, she has implemented a "no haters" policy, discouraging negativity in an effort to kill other agencies' or other countries' work. However, she does believe Canadian judges should be advocates for Canadian work – as long as they think it's good.
"We're so Canadian sometimes, we're too polite," she joked. " … We're a small country. We should be rallying for each other."
One effect of promoting Canada is to keep young talent not just at a winning agency, but in a winning country: there is always a risk of a brain drain of talent who feel they have to move to the United States, Britain or elsewhere in order to bring their careers forward.
In the past five years, Canada has seesawed in and out of the top-10 countries for awards at Cannes, ranking as high as seventh in 2015 (partly due to the pile of awards given to Leo Burnett Toronto, Chicago and London for its "Like a Girl" campaign, for which Ms. John was creative director) and as low as 22nd the year before. Last year, Canada ranked 20th with 12 awards. While being strategic would not make Canada immune to fluctuations in years when submissions are weaker, former judges suggest that it could help the country perform better over all.
Nancy Crimi-Lamanna, chief creative officer at FCB Toronto, says that when she judged last year, she had to take it upon herself to e-mail other creative directors and ask them to send her any entries in her category so that she could familiarize herself with them.
"We need to be aware of each other's work. When you get to Cannes, it's not about your agency or your network. It's about playing for the bigger team," she said. "There's that added pressure because Cannes is the world stage."
Not all jury rooms are the same: Melanie Johnston, president at DDB Canada, said the process on the Creative Effectiveness jury was much more cut and dry, because work was compared primarily on the business results it generated.
That's not to say other work is not business focused: research has shown that more creative campaigns often have a higher return on marketing investment than others.
Of course, Canada is a small market, and marketers here often have small budgets. But there can also be an overabundance of caution from marketers afraid to stick their necks out: Excelling at Cannes could help the industry make the case for more adventurous work too.
"Creativity creates results," said Tom Eymundson, a former Radio jury president and CEO of Pirate Group Inc. in Toronto. "The more case studies you have, the better chance you have of convincing clients why it works."
"It's important for Canada to do bigger and better work. That's how we attract business to Canada and don't become a branch office," Ms. John said. " … We want our work being exported, because it's good for our country."