A good time to have brands in our corner

As the damaging implications of Brexit began to dawn on people at home, Cannes reminded those on the Riviera how brands can make lives better.

There is much to take from last week. And I’m not talking about the bombastic leap into the unknown this country decided to make on Thursday. I mean Cannes Lions, the event some of you chained to your desk might be sick of hearing about by now. Well, you shouldn’t be. Alongside the jeroboams of rosé and the pop stars, a host of brilliant people were speaking, learning and resolving to do better.

Interpublic’s Women’s Leadership Breakfast was a particular highlight for me. It began with chief executive Michael Roth boasting that 54% of its leadership globally and 40% of its board are female. They are not stats I was aware of or would have predicted given the make-up of some of the holding company’s UK management teams. Let’s hope the figures are reflected at IPG’s British shops soon.

So many women’s conferences end up focusing too tightly on issues related to gender. Not this one. Instead, IPG’s session kicked off with Mae Jemison, a former astronaut and medical officer in the Peace Corps. 

She spoke about her "100 Year Starship" mission to encourage the developments that will enable us to travel to the closest star, Alpha Centauri, by 2112. Jemison said all the things we need to figure out – from the energy and navigation tools right through to the way people will be governed – will help us live better back on Earth. I walked down the Croisette afterwards all fired up and ready to change the world.

But there was lots of inspiring talk that bore more relation to our day jobs too. At a session describing his partnership with Unilever brand Omo (Persil here in the UK), educationalist Sir Ken Robinson talked about how they started working together on the "Free the kids" initiative – and it was not from some desire to help a washing-powder brand. "My interest is not in any particular brand. It’s not that I thought: what can I do to help Omo? These people are really struggling," he said, to much laughter.

Robinson was a refreshing reality check among a host of celebrities angling for commercial work. When asked whether he’d learned anything from collaborating with agencies, his answer was a resounding no. When he then qualified his answer, it appeared to be out of politeness. But, despite his relative ambivalence toward the industry, he said there are important things that well-trusted brands can do better than governments: "Not only their communication skills. Not only the reach they have in markets but the loyalty they inspire." So, in his quest to get children to play outside more, Robinson was willing to partner one. 

In a week when an agency appeared to be attempting to use the migrant crisis to win awards without actually helping any migrants, it was comforting to be reminded that brands can genuinely improve people’s lives. Especially at a time when our government was causing such chaos. 


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