At Cannes, let's celebrate the value of creative ideas

GE's "Enhance Your Lighting" is among Gerry Graf's favorite creative at Cannes.
GE's "Enhance Your Lighting" is among Gerry Graf's favorite creative at Cannes.

If you're spending more time trying to win a Lion than creating work that sells, you're doing it wrong

The value of creative ideas seems to be at a premium these days. For the past few years, we have definitely been in a bull market.

It hasn’t always been this way. Everyone would always say that it’s all about the work, but it wasn’t. It was about maintaining the status quo, offering clients every service under one roof, global networks, but not having the best ideas.

But not now — now is a good time.

That’s the reason I opened an agency four years ago. Never before in my 20-year career had I seen clients truly value breakthrough, creative thinking. Six years ago, as CCO of Saatchi NY, I was running the P&G and General Mills accounts, two traditionally conservative marketers. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that both clients were pushing the agency for great work.

My valuation of the creative commodity proved correct when my then five-person agency beat out two global agencies to win the Dish Network account. I asked the CEO why he chose us, and he looked at me like I was an idiot and said, simply, "You had the best idea."

Marketers now realize that no one has to watch or read or click their ads anymore. Consumers can easily avoid or ignore almost all forms of advertising. These days, we have to create campaigns that not only stand out; we need ideas that people want to see, see again, seek out, share, talk about and sometimes create themselves. In short, most marketers know that they need great creative. They need ideas that are forward thinking, ideas that embrace the changes in media, ideas that people love.

But what is a great idea? How do you recognize it? I had no clue when I started in advertising. I had to teach myself how to recognize great work. I turned to the award show annuals for my education. And I believe that is why Cannes has changed so much over the years. Instead of just a creative and production department ego-fest, Cannes has turned into a learning experience for both agency and clients. Like me when I started, many people do not know what a great idea looks like, and they come to Cannes to be educated and to be inspired.

I once had the pleasure of walking a CMO through the Integrated short list. And it was wonderful to see the look on her face when she realized what was possible in advertising.

That’s Cannes at its best — a place  where the world comes to embrace the importance of creative ideas and celebrate those who have achieved them.

That’s a lot of responsibility for the Cannes people, though, being the arbiter of advertising taste for the planet. And with all that responsibility comes some dangers and begs a few questions.

People now strategize over how to win a Lion, not over how to create a campaign that sells.  At a former agency, I was presented with a 20-page deck titled, "How to win at Cannes." I simply said, "Do great work," and left the room.

The danger is Cannes becoming an end in itself, winning awards just to prove you are creative as opposed to creating breakthrough work that sells and being rewarded for that.

The heads of the holding companies brag about all "their" Grand Prix awards, trying to prove to the world that they are the most creative network, rather than talking about the actual work that won those awards.

And who is telling us what is great? An award is only as good as the people who judge it. Who are the juries? I have absolutely no clue how Cannes picks their jury or what a judge’s qualifications have to be. My ECD, Scott Vitrone, suggested every Cannes juror has to have won a Lion. Seems fair. Don’t judge my work if you haven’t done the work to win yourself.

What will win big this year? I don’t know. The work that has inspired me and made me think I better get back on my game, includes Allstate "Mayhem Sale"; Spotify "Year in Music"; Google "Made with Code: Holiday"; GE "Enhance Your Lighting"; and Uniforms for the Dedicated "Rag Bag."

We should come to Cannes to surround ourselves with the best work in the world and the great minds that make it, then take that experience home and push for our own great work. Not because we want a trophy on our resume, but because great work is the only way we will sell anything. And that’s the point, right? Selling things.

Gerry Graf is founder and CCO of Barton F. Graf 9000.

Cannes Lions 2015 Coverage

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