Looking Back: 50 Years of Grand Prix

Director Joe Pytka, a two-time Grand Prix film winner, was thunderously booed when he walked onstage to collect the 1986 Grand Prix in film for a John Hancock Financial Services campaign. “It was scandalous,” he says, of the notoriously vocal Cannes audience. “It was like sounds out of a Breugel painting – imagine those paintings coming to life.”

The ruckus was inspired by the emotional quality of the campaign, he presumes, a sentimentality not often appreciated by festival goers but nonetheless honored by the jury that year.

Created by Hill Holliday Connors Cosmopulos, Boston, the Hancock campaign featured people dealing with money during important life situations. One showed an older brother counseling his younger sibling on investing. “Europe doesn’t like to do emotionalism in advertising,” says Pytka, who also won a Grand Prix in 1985 for BBDO’s Pepsi spot “Archeology.” Cannes often rewards work that is “a bit more avante garde,” he says. “Or somewhat universal, which all good work should be anyway.”

Over 50 years, the International Advertising Festival at Cannes has awarded work for products as varied as Plexiglass to whiskey and themes as disparate as dating, growing old and the thrill of a shiny new car. U.S. agencies have taken the lion’s share of Grand Prix, with 22. France is the second most awarded, taking 10 Grand Prix in all. DDB has won the most Grand Prix of any U.S. agency, four, including 2000’s Grand Prix for “Whassup.”

Two of J. Walter Thompson’s three U.S. Grand Prix winners show the range of themes in winning spots. An earnest ad for Eastman Kodak in 1966 took the TV Grand Prix showing a father singing about his children growing older. In 1972, however, the agency won again for “UN Story” featuring a man dating a life size 7Up bottle. Spain stole the show in 1992, with an ad for rubber cement in which nuns glue back broken-off genitalia on a statue so the statue appears to be erect. The year before, a French Grand Prix winning ad showed a woman roaring down a lion so he won’t take her Perrier.

The festival honored TV and cinema ads separately until 1983, when they were combined into a single film category. In 1992 the Press & Outdoor category was added. Cyber Lions were added in 1998, Media Lions launched the next year and Lions Direct was added last year.

Whether booed or cheered, the Grand Prix experience is always memorable. DDB creative director Vinnie Warren, who won the Grand Prix in 2000 for Budweiser’s “Whassup” campaign, experienced sensory overload when he arrived. “When I got there, and saw the whole circus, and the hoopla surrounding it, I realized this was the one – the world championship of advertising.”

After the creative team, including chief creative officer Bob Scarpelli, and group creative director Don Pogany, picked up the award, Warren hit the parties. “It was the biggest professional high ever,” he says. But even winning the award can also be daunting. “I keep [the award] at home,” says Warren. “I had it in the office for awhile, but it was intimidating to have it staring at me all the time.”

Creative director Mike Byrne and the creative team behind Wieden + Kennedy’s Nike spot “Tag,” which won the Grand Prix last year, arrived just a few moments before the award show began. “It was surreal and dreamlike,” says Byrne. “People came up to congratulate you from all over the world.”

A ceremony on Thursday will honor multiple-Grand Prix winners from the festival’s various competitions, including agencies, advertisers, directors and production companies. A reel of winning ads will be shown, and past presidents will be honored.

Its doubtful Pytka, who will be honored at the ceremony, will be booed this time. He laughed off the reaction then, however, and still does now. “The ‘boos’ last 60 seconds,” he says. “The Grand Prix lasts forever.”