What does UK Cannes awards decline say about the state of British creativity?

Cannes Lions: US dominated this year
Cannes Lions: US dominated this year

Why did UK agencies underperform at this year's festival?

The rain that poured down on the union flag umbrella in the Creativity is Great cabin outside the Palais was meant to be a reminder of the UK’s importance as a global centre of creative origination. It could equally have been a symbol of the metaphorical rain that the Lions juries then proceeded to pour down on the UK’s parade of Lions entries.

A year in advertising is a very long time. This time last year, the UK returned with pink faces, clutching seven Grands Prix and with Adam & Eve/DDB being awarded Agency of the Year.

In 2019, they mostly returned (with a couple of honourable exceptions) with red faces and largely empty hands. There were no Grands Prix at all, the number of gold Lions was down 14% and silvers fell 24%. Only the barely coveted bronze tier saw some slight improvement. 

Not only were the number of awards down, but so were the number of UK agencies that were gifted them. In 2018, 33 shops took home a gong; this was down to 27 this year.

That is not to say there weren't some notable highlights. Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO and FCB Inferno can return pleased – the latter particularly so. AMV’s "Viva la vulva" for Bodyform continued its winning spree; Huawei’s "StorySign", an app that helps deaf children learn to read from FCB Inferno, also impressed. But, this year, the US trumped – if you’ll pardon the expression – the UK’s performance.

Moreover, if you look at the total number of Lions that the UK has won from 2013 to 2018, there has been considerable variance. In 2013, the UK won 101, rising to 112 the following year; there were 139 in 2015, 164 in 2016, 131 in 2017, 117 in 2018 and 90 in total this year.

So why did the UK not perform as strongly as last year (admittedly a stellar one) and what does the decline say about the state of UK creativity?

Nicky Bullard

Chairwoman and chief creative officer, MRM McCann

OK. So we didn’t bring home as much shiny stuff as last year. But the work that won was still cracking. "Viva la vulva" is quite frankly a work of art. The FCB Inferno "StorySign" work is beautiful. John Lewis is still going strong – a massive achievment as every piece has to stand on its own two feet every single year. And my own McCann Worldgroup fam won across all the UK offices with work including the brilliant Vogue "Non-Issue". So, in short, the pride of Lions may be smaller. But the pride I feel for UK creativity hasn’t diminished one little bit.

Alex Grieve

Executive creative director, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

Bad news is more exciting than good news. And in an industry that likes nothing better than to indulge in a bit of self-flagellation, the news that the haul of Cannes Lions from the UK is down by 24% has set the prophets of doom wailing. I don’t subscribe to this point of view. First, selfishly, at AMV towers our reception is groaning under the weight of six gold Lions and a Titanium. What’s more, we were a few votes off winning a Grand Prix or two. Secondly, turning my gaze outwards, last year Adam & Eve/DDB and AMV were the two most awarded agencies in the world. We should have celebrated and PR-ed that achievement more. But we’re British, so we didn’t. Not really. It’s true that as an industry the UK didn’t hit the heights at Cannes 2019. But one swallow of rosé doesn’t make a summer. Form is temporary; class is permanent.

Richard Brim

Chief creative officer, Adam & Eve/DDB

I’m not sure one average Cannes for Britain doth doomsday bells for UK creativity ring. It’s a game, a lottery, based on trends, tactics, timings and (shit, can’t think of another T…) tonnes of bloody luck. There is no denying that the last five years have been a vintage run. But I, for one, have questioned some of the metal that has been brought home by this nation in that time, even by our own agency, but we took them. So being all zen and karmic, I guess you win some, you lose some. Not being so, we got three golds in the hotly contested Film category, as well as skin in the game in Titanium and many other categories, which is not to sniffed at. We’ve been spoilt, but let’s have some perspective before we all pack up and give in. Instead, let’s roll up our sleeves, use it as fuel and annihilate them next year.

Debbi Vandeven

Global chief creative officer, VMLY&R

It was less about the UK not doing well and more about the US having a particularly stellar year. Work like Wieden & Kennedy’s "Dream crazy" for Nike, FCB’s "The Whopper detour" for Burger King, VMLY&R’s "Keeping Fortnite fresh" for Wendy’s, as well as work from Droga5 and McCann, combined to give the US a very strong showing. Creativity in the UK is still strong – I believe when all is finalised, the UK will do well in terms of Lions and points. The focus for us all moving forward needs to be on creating powerful work that truly connects with people in the perfect moment.

Trevor Robinson

Executive creative director, Quiet Storm

Creativity has been hit by all the different genres at play. Creative time is thinning because it’s trying to spread over multiple channels and the importance of creativity is diminished in favour of maximising reaching people. This shows in the standards of the outputs we’re seeing. 

The decline is a reflection of the turbulent climate we’re in and the problem this brings is that bigger agencies who can still afford to enter huge amounts of work are sometimes creating the more risk-averse, less distinctive work. Whereas the smaller shops that are potentially permeating more maverick work because they often have the luxury of clients who want to do so maybe simply can’t afford it at the moment.

James Murphy

Export champion, Advertising Association

While the UK’s haul of the really big prizes dropped this year, analysis by industry think tank Credos gives some comfort. The UK has, again, won the most Lions of any European market – by a clear distance – and we are second in the world. However, Brazil is close behind in third place.

Impressively, we overperformed best in Creative Effectiveness, where we picked up a third of the Lions awarded. This is vital territory as the UK can rightly claim to be the world centre of creative effectiveness thinking and skills. I heard judges say the UK was lacking bold work this year. So let’s sort that out while making sure the rest of the world continues to look to us for the very best work that works.

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