Trends from Cannes and Beyond … From Purpose to Action
By Daryl McCullough
Move over purpose, stand down social experiments, there is a new Lion in town - and it is Action and
2017 was a great year for Cannes Lions, especially in the PR Lions group. After some controversial
choices in 2016 (and other years past, frankly) where the big winners were decidedly NOT earned ideas
or were not the consensus best work of the year, the 2017 PR Jury set out with determination to make
certain that the simply biggest, brightest and best “earned at the core” programs were rewarded and
As a member of the 2017 PR Lions jury, I’m proud to stake claim to having fallen in love with some of the
best work of the past year. Going into the process one simply cannot be aware of all the great work
around the world. But after 7 weeks and many hours of reviewing more than 2,000 entries, one’s
perspective, world-view, and opinions are clearly impacted.
Furthermore, as a judge in a blind process we couldn’t know which type of agency produced the work.
We would have loved to present awards to PR agencies, but since all Cannes Lions jurors, we are
agnostic and the work was submitted anonymously, meaning we have largely no idea who produced it.
What we can be confident in saying, however, is that we were thorough and fair in our review and
analysis of the work. Each shortlisted entry and all the winners (at least the PR Lions) were carefully
considered, and they were earned ideas at their core. Some of them were PR-firm led, and most
campaigns featured a PR team partnering as a major player and factor in their success. To an even
greater extent many of the ideas, I believe, will inspire generations of PR practitioners as they were
ideas that any PR or communications agency could realistically produce.
In every case the work we awarded was successful against the following key criteria:
1. Insight led program (born from data, social need, or brand/business truth)
2. Compelling and creative strategy with flawless execution
3. Measurable (demonstrated/proven) business or societal impacts
4. Earned idea at the core
This year many organizations appeared to be capitalizing on social, economic or political unrest or
uncertainty. Others were leaning into pressing matters of public health or human rights issues that may
have long seemed taboo.
There were campaigns that were years in the making -- paying off in extraordinary feats of integrated
marketing -- and there were other campaigns that were so exceedingly simple they left many of us
simply saying: “Wow, they made that appear easy” or “Gosh, why hadn’t we thought of that?”
Some of the themes this year centered on organizations and brands doing good and doing well because
of their good deeds. However, that isn’t what felt different this year; what was different from the
purpose-led work of the past is that this year’s work has become more powerfully emboldened. Or, to
borrow a word from the Grand Prix PR Lion Winner … quite simply “fearless.”
Of course I’m referencing the work of State Street Capital (and their agency McCann) for #Fearless Girl.
It was the best of a very clear trend of companies, brands and organizations not simply making a strong
statement … but in this case, but leveraging that statement, harnessed to the power of social media
channels and classic influencer and media relations to spark a movement that the public would claim as
No matter what the cause, purpose or movement was, the best work showcased amazing storytelling
that kept a brand message authentically resonant and also highlighted a clear reason to care with a
compelling call to action. Calls to action were as simple as “share this” or “sign this petition” or “repost
this with your own photo.” The more subtle calls to action were the more commercially branded ones
that seemingly inadvertently encouraged purchase or trial. And of course because these were PR Lions,
each of the best of Cannes included significant blockbuster-level media relations success, both regionally
and globally, along with waves of massive social media and influencer/stakeholder relations all working
together seamlessly to positive impacts or change.
I’ve taken some creative liberty to organize some of the work around what I saw as key themes and
trends from 2017 Cannes Lions:
Creating Action and Movements
At the core of the creating action and movements trend were organizations stepping boldly into big and
real social needs, concerns or injustices. Years ago some of these issues may have been too risky for a
brand to take on, but then trailblazing programs “Always LIKE a GIRL” or “Dove Real Women” clearly
opened up a collective consciousness and empowered brands and inspired organizations to action.
Common in each of these movement campaigns is the use of heightened emotional storytelling, creating
powerful narratives that worked across multiple platforms. This craft is not merely attaching a name to a
cause, it is storytelling that is more real, more human, more consequential and more urgent. It’s timely
and personal; it’s bold and done with not with reckless abandon, but a sense of longer-standing
commitment that makes a statement and sends a strong message.
Also common among these campaigns was the brand’s ability to deftly navigate sometimes tricky
public/social conversations and debate -- verging on potential crisis level -- across all major media and
These campaigns leveraged a mix of old and new. Classic PR leveraged to launch and spark the dialogue
and storytelling coupled with provocative owned content including long-form video, new apps, bespoke
Instagram accounts and other innovations.
Among my favorite movements ranged from modest and relatively simple program like “The Refugee
Nation” by Amnesty International. What began as an effort to raise awareness for the plight of the
refugees turned into a global message that galvanized the world in support of this new
There was also a clever and iconic effort in Japan that leveraged the image of rehabilitated old/used
plush toys (with transplanted parts from other toys) to promote the need for commitment to human
organ donation. A simple and very visual means to make people aware of this pressing need that is not
part of the cultural norm.
And the other end of the spectrum, there was a complex, multi-year integrated campaign to support the
issue of missing children in the E.U. called “Coins of Hope” -- the organization worked across public
sectors to get E.U. countries and the bank to put a missing child on the Euro coin. The campaign
launched across all major media, influencer and PR channels to great impact, including the ultimate
result: finding at least one missing child so far.
Finally, I admired greatly another integrated campaign by PepsiCo in India called “Release the Pressure.”
This idea leveraged their Carbonated beverage brand Mirinda -- beloved by kids and tolerated by
parents -- to “release the pressure” (twisting the soda caps literally) around exams time, a notorious
time of stress for students and conflict within families. Mirinda placed stories and brand messages on
bottles, and tapped into a clear deep insight to change the conversation around soda pop to a relevant
From Art to commerce - the Medium Is the Message
In years past we saw the advent and explosion of social experiments to serve as a backdrop for
presenting new ideas and narrative, but this year we saw the new creative form factor was art.
The multiple-Grand Prix winning Fearless Girl program had the simplest of media: a small bronze statue
of a young fearless girl. There was nothing particularly innovative about her or this work of art. But the
magic of the idea was achieved in its bold and provocative installation facing down the iconic Wall Street
bull. If less deftly managed it could have been seen as a cheap stunt. State Street Capital, standing up for
the issue of women's representation on Wall Street and in the Board Rooms, placed this statue to
promote it’s “She Fund,” a real purpose-based dedicated to women-directed holdings. In placing and
promoting this sculpture, State Street tapped into a pain point in the hearts and minds of women and
girls who applauded the statement and shared in the promotion of it … in all its glory. The campaign
embraced the issue boldly and public and influencer admiration for it snowballed, launching a
movement that included billions of media impressions worldwide and millions of Instagram and social
media posts/shares it inspired.
This year, art was in vogue. There were literally dozens of other fine art, art-gallery-inspired programs to
review, but one particular effort stood out as the clear brand-building winner. Cheetos Museum was a
one-time event idea that was so simple and true to the product it was honoring -- also used “art” to
build a brand movement. The campaign paid homage to consumers who love their Cheetos; they have
long adored their color (orange dust) and they are inspired by Cheetos’ amorphous shapes. In this
campaign Cheetos embraces that concept with an equally loving and adorable tribute program, putting
these shapes -- curated as found and submitted in social media by consumers -- in an actual New York
City gallery installation. The brilliance of this idea beyond the sheer photogenic nature of the concept
was that it was 100 percent on brand equity and completely and non-commercially drove incremental
consumption. Consumers everywhere were buying new bags of Cheetos in the hopes of finding the next
Statue of Liberty or another Silverback gorilla (which sold on eBay for tons of money). It was simply,
artful and billions of impressions later - a PR dream come true.
Other campaigns in trend:
- Meet Graham was an art sculpture installation designed carefully to showcase what a human
would need to look like today to survive modern car crashes. The sculpture was evocative and
visceral, touring the country as an art installation.
- Super8 Motel Art Collection/Auction was a program that attempted to reframe the cheap image
of Super8 during their multimillion-dollar redesign.
- Teddy Gun (a one-of-a-kind functioning Gun, artfully designed as a teddy bear) was created
solely to draw attention to outdated laws where guns were easier to lawfully produce than toys.
Real Time Done Right
One of my favorite trends this year included the use of Twitter and other social Channels reactively for
massive amounts of earned media. This category of work is truly PR and social media expertise
functioning together to create real magic, social conversations unfolding in real-time and deftly
managed by savvy communicators. It’s the art and science of PR at its best in this social era.
This year several Fast Food brands long known for the edgy fun-loving PR natures were dominant in this
sector, with Wendy’s not just taking home the trophies but truly having the best response teams.
Wendy’s social media team has been famous for not just staying on top of their consumer comments in
the Twitter feed but for getting its replies, responses and retweets pitch perfect. They use a blend of wit,
humanity and critical timeliness in their winning campaigns this year -- Nuggs for Carter and Twitter
Beef. Wendy’s was able to convert what might have been passing news into multi-month-long
campaigns that built in intensity and drove magnificently positive brand, influencer and consumer
These social-led campaigns, amplified deftly in real-time, have become folk heroes in the brand PR and
advertising communities, largely because they are real, organic and consumer-at-the-core. Hopefully the
massive results in this area will inspire other companies and brands to give their agency teams some
additional “leash” to be able to run with real-time marketing opportunities as they arise. Clients need to
reserve budget for these unexpected activities and they need to empower their teams to move and
move sometimes without full approvals. These cases showed unimagined (and unplanned) results and
value-added ROI that is through the roof. A company surely won’t bet their entire marketing strategy on
this tactic, but if you’re not empowering your agency teams to lead from their social drivers’ seats from
time to time, you literally won’t know what you’re missing.
Other campaigns in rapid-response trend:
- Spotify launched the President of Playlists to capitalize on President Obama suggestion that his
love of music should result on a job offer after he leaves office.
- Jordanian Airlines “Travel before the Ban” - a timely campaign that sold lots of airline tickets in
real-time as the Trump campaign announced the pending travel ban from the Middle East
- No Somos Asi (Mexican Bud Light responds to Super Bowl Jersey theft … this is not us, they said.
Data and Analytics to Power an Insight into Action
It’s true that data and its analysis hasn’t always been a core competency of the PR universe. But this
year we proved for once and perhaps for all, that data is key now and it’s here to stay. It’s not only
useful in identifying a core insight, it’s critical to showing major, life-altering impacts like Whirlpool did
with its “Care Counts.” For this campaign, data not only drove the idea, it helped prove the concept in
test, and then helped inspire and drive further roll-out … I mean, with results that showed clean clothes
could positively impact/improve by 20+ percent children’s school attendance in needy areas across the
country, who wouldn’t want to participate. Plus the campaign is completely in keeping with the brand
equity of cleaner clothes matter to everyone
Other great data-born ideas
- Meet Graham - the Multiple-Grand Prix winner started with driving accident data that was used
by the artist to form the grotesque sculpture features and storytelling of what it would take for
a human to be built to survive accidents. Not just PR Lions loved this campaign, it won many
awards from Health Lions to Data Lions and more.
- Safest route driving app - in New Zealand the public traffic alliance created an app designed to
not just show the shortest route but the safest one.
New Hacks - Innovation and Technology Create the Narrative
Technology will forever be a driver of creative winners at Cannes Lions, because technology drives much
of what’s innovative in communications and at Cannes. This year was no exception but it wasn’t
technology for innovation’s sake. Sure there were multiple efforts leveraging the data and lightning-fast
analysis of IBM’s Watson, but there were also many other organizations creating apps and other smart
technology to communicate with their constituents.
Two exceptional campaigns included clever “hacks” of social media channels that were breathtaking and
effective. The “Kiss the Kremlin” campaign -- an effort by an online LGBT organization -- focused on
changing Russia’s perception of LGBT issues and found a clever way to get Russia’s attention by
encouraging people the world over to geo-tag their kissing photos as if they were taken at the Kremlin.
It was easy-to-participate and millions of citizens and celebrities worldwide did just that. A more
controlled narrative campaign leveraged a fake Instagram account of “Louise Delage,” a young socialite,
who posted hundreds of photos gathering hundreds of thousands of fans and followers eager to live
vicariously through her social posts. What was later revealed was that each photo of her story featured
alcoholic drinks prominently. Louise was the life of the party for sure, but she was surely an alcoholic.
The question the public agency asked people to consider and discuss: Are you really noticing your
friends’ addictions, even when they're front and center? The campaign generated massive social buzz,
real-life conversations and earned media who found the story provocative and compelling to recount.
Other great hacks:
- The crazy-inspired work of Droga5 work on the “Did you mean Mail Chimp?” campaign by
creating lots of fun, fake campaigns that drove to google to ask what they are?
- Black Lives Matter hacked the Facebook “Safety Check-in” to flip it to the “unsafety check in
America” … sparking massive conversation around what it felt like to be black in the U.S.
- ‘Not Fair BnB’ was a clever copy of the look and feel of the actual “AirBnB” website, but
featuring homeless abodes. It was used to starkly promote homeless needs by emulating the
travel booking website features with homeless stats and messages; the idea was so strong,
countries around the world sought to duplicate the idea in their region.
- Salaam Loans leveraged a Facebook feature as innovation to help small businesses get
consumers’ support for their loan applications - consumers like applicants’ business proposals
helping crowdsource and convince the bank to issue the loan.
- Google Home of the Whopper smartly hacked Google Home and Amazon Alexa listening devices
to take you to Burger King page when it heard the ad word “Whopper”
- Smart hack of Google Maps allowed smart car to literally swap out photos in Google locations
with ones featuring their cars … cleverly effective
- IKEA turned print ads and love of cooking into innovative parchment paper recipes … simply
placed the food and spices directly on the parchment where shown, fold and bake! Done.
Smart, Effective Inventions
Cannes Lions is famous for not just innovations but actual inventions and this year was no different.
There were two car companies who put forth insight-driven ideas that all parents know to be true. The
ride, sound and motion of a car can calm the fussiest infant, so both Ford and Honda had car-ride
inspired inventions that mimicked the features of the moving car in a crib form to attract parents of all
ages with the universal truth.
Two of my personal favorite inventions were developed for the greater good, but both were put forth by
commercial businesses in India and Brazil. Both were companies hoping to show their dedication to
helping impact societal needs and spending time and investment to make the world better in small but
meaningful and humanistic ways. Savlon soap in India tackled the children’s hand washing issue in
school where germs are rampant and behavior change tricky. They designed and distributed boxes of
chalk for the classrooms, chalk that left a chalk-soap residue on the kids’ hands so when water was
added a cleansing foam was generated. The idea and execution was brilliance in innovation and
invention … and it worked for their brand, business and school children. A similar idea was created in
Brazil, for use in the Amazon where rural youth fight mosquito-borne disease. The chemical company
actually innovated repellant form factor that could be embedded in basic items like books, crayons,
superhero capes, posters and others small items easy to share among the kids. The company distributed
kits to schools throughout the high-need area, to protect them while also providing learning and play
tools for them … all for greater good.
Other great Inventions:
- When life copies art, PR can copy life. In India, a medical education team created the Immunity
Charm bracelet, an actual children’s bracelet that captured hearts of moms in India where
charm bracelets are common but immunizations are tough to secure. For every shot, mom and
baby earn the colorful next charm to collect them all means baby is protected completely.
- Impossible Signing Sessions was an idea created by a Dutch bookstore. They repurposed an
innovative robotic arm to sign books by a famous deceased author and several other beloved
but elusive authors. The weeklong stunt captured readers’ imaginations and hearts with a
keepsake like none other as the medium.
- Payphone Bank is a new invention in Colombia that enabled millions of users to start micro
savings accounts by depositing coins into payphones with their own number as the PIN.
- Unusual Spaces created unusual shaped football fields in Thailand where space is a premium
and the game is beloved by kids and adults. The organization cleverly showed the government
and citizens that the game could be reimagined and played in many available public spaces.
- Hangar 1 Vodka, a San Francisco bespoke vodka brand, leveraged the California drought and San
Francisco’s abundance of fog to produce an invention that converted fog to water and then into
an exclusive batch of “fog vodka” unique to them and the region.
- In Germany, where football is king, Burger King imported a patch of Wembley stadium grass to
celebrate their football legacy and on it they grew the ingredients for a special team Whopper.
Public Affairs Is Emboldened like Never Seen Before
Lastly and perhaps most importantly, we saw a trend of empowered non-profits using some small
efforts and minimal budgets to great impact. Public affairs -- using PR to change government or policy --
is not typically the most creative category, but this year there were many campaigns that were smart,
creative, impactful and actually successfully created change.
Among my favorites were the “Teddy Gun” - an iconic creation by an Illinois gun control group to
showcase to media, influencers, legislators and the public the message that there are fewer laws to
BUILD a new gun than to create a new toy teddy bear. The program was storytelling at a clear, simple
yet most impactful level.
Halfway around the world in Lebanon, a grassroots organization literally took to the streets with a
theatrical stunt -- models walking eerily in bloodied wedding dresses -- to help raise awareness and
change legislation (#Undress522, the name for the pending bill that would horrifically allow men to
actually abuse their wives. The campaign was relentless and actually showed the public and legislators
how insane and misogynistic the bill was.
Public affairs effectiveness was also shown by:
- A universal effort by Amnesty International to get the refugee issue more attention, they
created Refugee Nation, a country to the Rio Olympics with its own flag (made of orange life
- Two Guys Go to the Cinema - Spanish campaign to simply show a VAT tax inequity between film
and live theater
- On Hold Music Festival - a public watchdog group staged series of loud outdoor concerts aimed
at public services building playing their hold music to showcase the waiting for services
- Boost the Vote - Boost Mobile leveraged their retail spots as election polls to help their
- Multiple campaigns by NGOs in Various countries from Brazil to France to the Middle East
promoting an end to violence against women
Social Experiments Are Still Happening
As themes go, I actually haven’t tried to kill the social experiment, I just think it’s happening on its own.
There were many campaigns that tried to get real-life reactions to staged environments. Some were
verging on pranks, some created laboratory settings, some staged focus groups, and others built more
elaborate spaces: pop-up restaurants, galleries, storefronts and warehouses.
I write this not to trash the idea of the social experiment, but to raise the bar on these ideas because it is
no longer a trend among winners. This year honorable mentions go to out to Heineken for the “Worlds
Apart” work -- which was beautiful, emotional if not contrived, and to Guatemala's “100 cell phones” for
its valiant attempt to regain the notion of trusted destination.
For perhaps the second year in a row, a great stunt-experiment from Contours strollers which put real
adult consumers in “built to scale” baby stroller test rides to experience what their babies experienced.
The stunt was well executed and it made for a hilarious campaign video. But despite how charming and
narrative these campaigns appear, to me they feel staged and somehow inauthentic today, in an era
when authenticity counts. Further, I believe consumers may enjoy them, but they likely find them fake
too. In an era of “fake news” I think the bar must be raised higher on ideas like these that stage the story
rather than inspire it.
Just Some Great Ideas
All trends aside, at the end of the day there is still a place in Cannes Lions for great ideas … executed
flawlessly. I’ll point out three of my favorites that are not part of any trend but represent a simple idea
that was perfectly suited to the brand/organization. And because the idea was so perfect, it helped
make the execution easy and the result and ROI massive.
Perhaps my favorite idea of this year was a mix of creativity, ingenuity, pluck and savvy - it was Google
Sheep View, a clever idea used by the Faroe Islands to promote more than just tourism but to change an
entire worldview of their remote locale. They took the core truth that the Islands were so remote that
Google maps hadn’t even documented them yet, so they strapped video cameras with GPS to sheep and
allowed them to roam the island, uploading the location photos for them. The sweet and creative
footage was authentic and gorgeously captured hearts and minds of Faroe citizens, world travelers and
Google, which ultimately came with its vehicles and cameras to correct the matter for the record.
My second favorite campaign was a PR idea done perfectly. DNA Journeys was the idea of Momondo
travel company. It’s not the world’s most well-known or largest agency by any stretch, but the brand
captured the worldwide gestalt by bringing to life a simple notion … that we are all similar and different
based on where we come from. They invited their consumers to take DNA tests and then follow the
results of those tests in epic trips to explore their roots. Part social experience and innovation, it
leveraged something we all share: humanity and wanderlust to amazing impact. The program was led by
a PR firm and included more than a dozen regional PR firms around the world to help get the campaign
execution picture perfect.
It wouldn’t be a roundup of creative PR and social ideas without recognizing the “Spanish Lessons”
campaign by Netflix, done in multiple countries to promote their exclusive content, the Pablo Escobar
series “Narcos.” The hilariously funny campaign leveraged the bilingual equity of the show to teach
people Spanish (particularly the filthy words on the show.) The agencies created short snackable video
clips that were filmed for free with the show actors between takes on the set. These clips were released
and shared on social media and got consumers everywhere wanting more and more of the raunchy, but
completely playful humor. This one got the tone and content done exactly right and shows a little
controversy can be a catalyst for great results.
By the Numbers and How to Win
In the end, the PR Lions jury reviewed more than 2200 campaigns (other categories like film or Cyber
had thousands more). We honored about 10 percent of that work on the “shortlist,” which is a massive
honor in itself. We ultimately awarded 100 top prizes: 18 Gold, 32 Silver and 50 Bronze Lions. These
were presented to campaigns representing 4 continents and a diverse range of PR, social and ad
agencies, corporations, brands, in-house teams, public organizations, and NGOs.
Kudos go out to all the Cannes Lions winners across all of the other categories. Within our own
company, Cossette won 8 awards for their brilliant filmed work for Sick Kids children’s hospital -- it was
truly one of the big winners of the week.
Lots of opportunity still exist in Cannes Lions to win … several PR Lions categories were downright bleak.
There were no outstanding entries in the enormous FMCG category. There were a lot of brand programs
that were bleakly, blatantly commercial without a significant results story to back them up. There were
no Lions awarded this year in Crisis Communications, and we all know there were many organizations
that were plagued by issues and that managed them very adeptly. But not one solid entry made this
communicator very sad, and determined to find a client with guts to enter next year.
Overall, however, it’s simply not easy to win a Lion. The idea and the work need to be epic. You can’t
just ride the coattails of a good program with great results. It just won’t make the shortlist. When you
have that magical idea that was executed perfectly, with huge measureable business/organization/
societal impacts, you have to convert it into an amazing entry; that requires at its core a compelling
narrative video that will grab judges at the very start. The jurors see too much work to leave any
guesswork. Capture the drama in the opener and then tell the story crisply and clearly. The written entry
is key as well, given that is where judges turn for the detail. Don’t skip the steps of outlining the
strategy, execution highlights and of course this is where results count most. Good luck and go get a