Why independent PR agencies aren’t entering Cannes

I have to admit that the majority of my free time in the last week or so has been following the ups and downs of England in Brazil and watching obscure matches, mainly involving Iran. However, it would have been impossible not to have noticed my Twitter stream choked with updates about another festival happening in Cannes. The build up to Cannes wasn’t as long as the World Cup qualifiers, but it certainly felt like it.

I have taken quite a distant view of Cannes and have asked myself a few times whether that was the right approach, as both an agency founder and also as one who oversees the creative output of the agency. I have watched from afar with some amount of envy as CEOs of larger networked agencies tweeted about parties, networking and judging. One day I hope to be there with them enjoying an Aperol Spritz overlooking the yachts.

Until that day comes and I have the luxury of time and budget to attend, then I will continue to harvest and develop creative thinking.

Edelman picked up the first ever PR award for amplifying an ad and then the party really got started on Twitter. Goal-line technology used by Fleishman Hillard then revealed that the ball hadn’t in fact crossed the line as it had apparently won a PR award but everyone had failed to notice. All very confusing, but at the end of the day PR is the winner – or is it?

If I was running a PR business with global clients and within an agency network then Cannes would be important. As it is, I am not and it isn’t. I recognise the importance of having a voice at Cannes in an agency landscape that is changing every day – I fight this battle regularly. I am pleased that there are people out there (not on my expenses tab) doing their bit for the industry but am yet to be convinced of the value – especially when we celebrate a win that actually continues to build the stereotype of our positioning in this complex agency landscape.

I was pleased that the PRCA and ICCO were at Cannes to represent not just the networked agencies, but also the independent agencies that on the whole are responsible for the best creative output this industry has to offer. Their efforts need greater support and financial investment rather than us relying on the energy sector’s equivalent of the 'Big Six' to represent the rest of us.

This would probably help ensure a higher number and quality of entries which would stand a better chance of breaking through and making a splash. Much like the England teams woes in Brazil – there are institutional reasons why PR didn’t perform well at Cannes and self-appointed leaders of the PR industry have failed to communicate to the rest of us why we should care about Cannes. The case has not been made to the rest of us and they wonder why we don’t care as much as they do.

I also have some reservations about there being a separate PR category at all at Cannes. The creation of yet another category creates yet another perception of comm silos between us all that don’t, in the main part, actually exist. When more sophisticated clients are creating open briefs that are sent to multiple types of agencies and when we are increasingly pitching against agencies from other disciplines, we somehow take comfort in demanding our own comms channels to be separately recognised. I have sympathy for many industry veterans that claim that Cannes has become too complicated with too many categories and has strayed too far from celebrating creativity.

The PR category reminds me of tuning into the Oscars or the BAFTAs where they run 90 seconds at the end to tell you who won in all the other categories that people (apart from people working in those areas) don’t really care about.

Cannes is like the traditional B2B publishing houses, on steroids, having umpteen titles and awards ceremonies for each marketing discipline. Why? Because it makes money – not because it is an accurate reflection of the work being done – we don’t work in these comfortable channels anymore. We can’t conveniently be put in a box and labelled PR. Yet our industry continues to demand a separate category and celebrates when we amplify an ad.

Jim Hawker is owner and MD of Threepipe.