What Cannes Lions Can Learn From Cannes Film

Opinion: Entertainment could impart valuable insights onto advertising

A audience admires a lego band perform on stage
"Cannes-Cannes" should be the ultimate goal of the festival. John Lewis & Partners
Headshot of Pelle Sjoenell

What, as advertisers, can we learn from the entertainment industry? What can we learn from an industry that is constantly creating content that people will seek out and watch instead of paying to avoid?

This is a particular challenge we are facing in advertising.

Over the last 25 years, I’ve been trying to work out how to bridge the gap between these two worlds. It’s the reason why every year I try to follow the Cannes Film Festival as closely as I follow the Cannes Lions.

A “Cannes-Cannes” has to be the ultimate goal. It’s like an EGOT for advertising, to create a single piece of work that wins a Palme d’Or at the film festival and a Lion d’Or a month later. Then I’d know I was really on to the future. But for now I can still feel the industries pulling in different directions.

Movies are good at serving an audience and telling universal stories, while brands have a tendency to talk too much about themselves. Superficially it makes sense, of course, because they have a product to sell, but that’s not the only way to engage an audience.

There are more important stories to tell, and the directors and writers taking home a Palme d’Or recognize this. Atlantics, which won the Grand Jury prize this year, is a tale of refugees, and many of the Palme d’Or nominations tackled social issues like zero hour contracts (Sorry We Missed You), gang violence (Les Misérables), the environment (Little Joe) and radicalization (Young Ahmed).

Those films all have something else in common that advertising can be reluctant to address: conflict. Because ads have only a short time to get a message across, we throw in a couple of protagonists, hope everybody likes it and forget to create a good story. But a story is only worth telling if there’s conflict in it. You need an antagonist and the protagonist to create conflict. And no film would ever win a Palme d’Or without that essential ingredient.

Making a winning ad is different from making a winning film in many ways. If I presented something to a client that had already been done before, I’d get fired for plagiarism. But in Hollywood, the same approach would get me hired because the entertainment world loves a sequel, and every pitch promises to be Avengers meets A Star Is Born. The famous pitch for Alien was, after all, “Jaws, in space.”

Imagine claiming your latest brand film is Colonel Sanders meets Geico. You would never do it, but perhaps we should be more open to Hollywood logic. Part of the reason why the John Lewis ads are so popular in the U.K. is because they’ve established a tradition and an expectation of a sequel every year. It’s like waiting for the latest Star Wars film release at Christmas. Show me a marketer who wouldn’t want to replicate that popularity.

I’m not saying that advertising needs to model itself entirely on entertainment, but when the battle for attention is so fierce, we need to keep an eye on the competition and learn from its success.

We might not yet have reached the Cannes-Cannes dream, but there are already great examples of where the two worlds collide. The Lego Movie would surely have won a Grand Prix if it had been entered at the ad festival, and it was nominated for a BAFTA, the U.K. equivalent of the Oscars. The film also bridged the gap by creating the world’s first all-Lego commercial break, featuring remade ads by Confused.com, the British Heart Foundation, BT and Premier Inn, as well as a trailer for the Lego movie itself. That work picked up three Lions for use of branded content and sponsorship, publications and media and branded content and entertainment.

In 2017, the Grand Prix in the entertainment category went to Santander Bank’s 18-minute sci-fi thriller “Beyond Money,” which told the story of a woman who sells her own memories as a way to question whether money is more important than experience.

Black Sheep Studios and Somesuch’s short film for the United Nations “Home,” which was about the refugee crisis, was difficult to watch but won a gold Lion and a British BAFTA in 2017. That’s the goal for us now: to create work and stories that can win at advertising festivals and film festivals.

The bridge between the two industries is slowly being built. The important place that Cannes plays in both of them is a manifestation of that. In 2003, Dan Wieden suggested to create the Titanium Lion category to reward work from brands that didn’t look like work from a brand (in part likely because BMW was making films that didn’t fit in any other category at the time).

This was a progressive move at the time and is still where I believe the future of our industry is going. I’m on the Titanium jury this year, and I hope to see work that encapsulates what Wieden created the category for: brilliant stories, innovative ideas and work that shows the potential of where we can go as an industry.

Pelle Sjoenell is the worldwide CCO of BBH.