Cannes Lions Is Asking Sustainability Questions for 2023 Submissions. Here's What That Means

Agencies applaud the move, but standard measurement is needed

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Submissions open today for the 2023 Cannes Lions, which will be awarded at The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, held June 19-23 in southern France.

For the first time this year, the organizers are requesting information on the carbon footprint and sustainability impact of each creative submission.

A new set of questions on the form includes to what extent diversity, equity and inclusion was considered in the conceptualization, production and impact of the work, and the business growth that resulted from it. While the moves have been praised, many note that global standards of measurement are necessary before these components are made mandatory.

“Cannes Lions has always been an agent of change within the industry,” Anna Lungley, chief sustainability officer at Dentsu, told Adweek. “If they’re setting down judging criteria related to DEI and carbon, then that’s really, really important.”

Laying the groundwork

For this first year, reporting around sustainability, DEI and growth information isn’t mandatory.

“Because it’s the first year, we didn’t want to spring it on people. So we thought it would be unfair to make it compulsory,” said CEO of Cannes Lions Simon Cook. “The whole point is that we’re trying to get a base. Because at the moment, we just don’t have any visibility.”

Cook wouldn’t share whether this reporting would be mandatory in the future, or whether the Lions would deny application fees for submissions in the future that didn’t include sufficient detail regarding carbon emissions measurement, or certain sustainability, DEI or growth standards.

Standard measurement

The current sustainability submission questions ask whether the carbon emissions of a piece of work were measured, with a link to Cannes Lions’ partner Ad Net Zero’s five-step action plan for reducing the advertising industry’s climate impact. A second question asks, “What consideration was given to the sustainable development, production and running of the work?”

Still, for these questions to be taken into serious consideration during judging, there will have to be a clearly defined standard. Right now, it’s unclear what that would be. While Ad Net Zero offers a starting point, it doesn’t have a clear benchmark of success—arguably, no one does.

Gemma Redgrave, global marketing director for AKQA, handles all the agency’s award submissions. The WPP-owned shop has about a $250,000 annual budget for all awards—and Cannes is only one of many. The fees for each Lion range from around $680 to $2,800, depending on the timing and the award.

As agencies plan how to spend their award budgets each year, reporting requirements and certifications tend to layer on top of the baseline submission price. While AKQA supports adding information related to sustainability and DEI, Redgrave said that a clear focus on measurable progress would help agencies justify the additional costs.

“There’s more clarity that is needed,” Redgrave said. “How that information is collected, stored, and then used—in terms of allocating awards—remains to be seen. Anything that drives positive change, we should absolutely be doing it. If it’s lip service, why are we doing it?”

Still, the burden of those extra costs falls disproportionately on smaller agencies and those without the backing of a major holding company.

Kelly Taylor, new business and marketing director at London-based agency Creature, said her agency had to forgo one award entry last year that required a costly sustainability membership platform—one that would’ve been redundant given Creature’s other certifications and memberships. While the agency was aligned with the values of the award requirements, it just wasn’t in the budget for a small, 50-person shop.

Cannes can do better

The most important question that the new sustainability-related submission requirements raise for Jake Dubbins, managing director of agency Media Bounty and co-chair of the Conscious Advertising Network, is how far along the Ad Net Zero action plan it’ll go.

While the first four actions focus on the climate impact of agency operations, ad productions, media planning and events, the fifth action gets to the heart of the industry. It aims to “harness advertising’s power to support consumer behavior change,” i.e., to change the metric by which advertising is measured.

The risk, Dubbins said, is that “the sustainability part becomes literally a tick box exercise in epic greenwashing.” If the broader cultural impact of advertising isn’t taken into account, the current standards would allow major polluters to win awards simply because they used agencies who cleaned up their own operations and production.

Still, Lungley believes juries may be where Cannes Lions shapes the awards more clearly than within the stated policy requirements.

“You see these beautiful campaigns that have an actually driven social or environmental impact, and you see them coming from organizations who are actually behaving in a way that has a negative impact on society or the environment,” She noted. At that point, it’s up to the jury. “Whether or not the criteria is mandatory, you’ll see juries taking that responsibility very seriously.”

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