American Duty

I’m still kind of unclear about how exactly I ended up as part of the 22-member jury privileged to spend so much quality time in a windowless room in the south of France. International packaged-goods clients pack our roster at J. Walter Thompson in Chicago, and Cannes has not historically favored packaged-goods work. Nonetheless, eight days spent viewing the largest number of film entries in the history of the festival gave me an entirely new, albeit somewhat bleary, view of our business. And it made me feel pretty good about my own office’s reel.

The jurors themselves came from widely diverse backgrounds. The Tokyo juror led a 3,000-person office, the Copenhagen juror’s had 15. Still, the various types were instantly recognizable. Some were loud and outspoken, others quietly contemplative. At times, some niggled hypercritically about production details, while others plodded gamely on, foggy and hung over. All were opinionated and obsessed about meeting jury president Bob Isherwood’s decree that we re-establish integrity and impartiality with our final selections.

This was made easier by enhancements to the computerized judging system, which flagged the sort of blatantly nationalistic voting that has dogged past festivals. In fact, the most egregious instance of patriotic favoritism came at the Saturday morning press conference, where we spent two hours defending our choices before shamelessly partisan members of the Fourth Estate who seemed entirely too indignant about their own countries’ medal count.

The most striking outcome was that the Lion winners de fied the conventional wisdom of the American industry press. Nike’s captivating “Freestyle” spot barely made the short list. Quiet, elegant product spots deemed surefire international favorites, like the Café Pilao spot in which the coffee absorbs a pint of cream without changing color, passed unnoticed. What captured every juror were stories built on easily recognizable human insights, like how a simple yawn can be contagious or how flowers can make doltish men more lovable. And, ultimately, how foreign sports broadcasts are inexplicable to viewers unfamiliar with the subject. Many predicted that the Grand Prix-winning work for Fox Sports would be deemed too xenophobic to win. Whoops.

In fact, dialogue—long considered the kiss of death for international advertising—played astonishingly well. From the wonderfully acted and edited portrait of a couple talking in bed for Disney to the pants-wettingly funny chatter of an obsessive L.A. Dodgers fan to the cheeky bravado of two trash-talking NBA wannabes, dialogue spots transcended the 10 native tongues of the jurors because the fundamental ideas spoke a universal language. With the notable exception of two French jurors who were scandalized by the broad comic hamminess of the Stella Artois ad, every judge responded to well-told stories and good jokes. The final two entries, John West Salmon’s “Bear” spot and Fox Sports’ oddball-sports-themed campaign, were both familiar thanks to the viral democracy of Internet exposure. These spots had spread through the Web, downloaded and passed along simply because they were so much fun to watch.

Despite the lackluster reputation of this year’s ads, great ideas fill the final 2001 Cannes Festival reel. Every juror has his own list of a few bad calls, but overall we were pleased that the work played to a minimum of whistles from the Palais crowd. And don’t think that concern doesn’t weigh heavily on the jury as it makes its final deliberations.

It’s easy to characterize award shows as self-indulgent navel-gazing, but I believe a truly outstanding international festival like Cannes has a definite value to our industry. A few years back, Leo Burnett did a study correlating Cannes winners with advertising effectiveness and found that 85 percent of Lion winners significantly advanced their brands. Next time you’re toiling away on a thankless project, tempted to phone in something merely to appease a client, remember that. And keep at it. The big cats are special.

Dennis Ryan is executive creative director at J. Walter Thompson, Chicago.