Another Cannes festival has gone by, leaving its lingering sense of disappointment in the air in this part of the world. It’s a familiar feeling, with Campaign’s archives littered with lamentations over poor performances and a lack of precious hardware.
True, there are some feel-good stories about the triple-Grand Prix wins for ‘Palau Pledge’ out of Australia and India’s Grand Prix for Good for ‘Blink to Speak’. True also that last year we saw glimmers of hope on the rising fortunes of markets like Singapore and India and a total Asia-Pacific award haul that continued to climb.
But let’s face it, the ‘Asia-Pacific’ award total leans heavily out into the ‘Pacific’, with Australia and New Zealand providing nearly half its regional award haul in each of the past three years.
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But this year laid on a new level of hurt. As our scorecard revealed, this year pretty much reversed all of last year’s progress, with those rising fortunes dashed in India (winning half as many Lions), decimated in Singapore (dropping to two from 32 in 2017), eroded in Japan (Lions awarded nearly cut in half) and ever-languishing in China (a paltry nine manes).
New entry restrictions and category reductions accounted for a 21% drop in overall Cannes entries this year, but APAC’s total award count plummeted 40%.
So what gives?
After all this time, Campaign Asia-Pacific has heard it all: the myriad reasons (some might say ‘excuses’) as to why creative work out of Asia can never seem to break through, from the lack of liberal arts education programs to the inability to make strong clear case videos.
The lead contender, however, seems to be that work out of Asia is simply not brave or daring enough. It’s a thesis we’ve heard repeatedly, especially out of China, which continues to baffle anyone working in such an inventive and technologically advanced marketing arena. Too often, it’s been argued, risk-averse clients opt to pull away from work that’s unique or provocative for fear of a backlash.
There’s some truth to this, and certainly Campaign wants to champion more work in Asia that stands out. But there are also subjective elements to defining what brave work is. Advertising peppered with swearing, genitalia jokes and political or religious lampooning may be celebrated in Australia and the West, but doesn't go down as well in Asia. Provocative messages may be considered ‘bold’ elsewhere but might be ill-received here.
More importantly though, work that’s built to resonate in creative ways with audiences on Asia’s unique platforms will often be lost on Western audiences. So if different cultures view work differently, shouldn't Cannes Lions ensure the work is judged by a representative sample from each region?
Social & Influencer jury president Mark D’Arcy, whose category shortlist of 178 entries included 11 from Asia and 83 from the USA, told Campaign Asia-Pacific his jury wanted to avoid falling into cultural biases.
“We spent a lot of time thinking about the cultural context of the work. Unconscious bias and the biases we have towards these things came up a lot…we challenged each other constantly when these pieces of work came up, like within the context of China and the context of here, how it would play,” D’Arcy said. “We had a very diverse jury. But it’s impossible with 10 people to have everybody represented.”
That’s a big part of the problem, according to media juror Amrita Randhawa, APAC CEO of Mindshare, based in Shanghai, who shouldered the responsibility of providing context to fellow jurors but noticed that case videos out of some markets were burdened with a larger mandate than others.
“You have to explain the different platforms, specifically for China, because if you’re submitting a video you first have to explain to people ‘what is Alibaba’, ‘what is WeChat’, ‘what is ‘iQiyi’, and then you have to explain the actual work that you do,” said Randhawa. “I think perhaps if we had one or two more perspectives in the room [from this region], that discussion of ‘why that was difficult to do in that market’ would come out more.
One has to wonder whether much work is getting lost in translation. One area where Asia, with half the world’s digital population is taking the lead is in mobile usage and mobile ecommerce. Yet by Cannes standards, advertisers in this region can’t market creatively on mobile worth a damn. In the mobile category, the shortlist of 90 entries included a grand total of two(!) entries from Asia, with more than a third of the list originating from the US.
The jury problem
Randhawa, who sat on the awarding media jury, where Asia fielded just 16 of the 259 shortlisted entries (ANZ added another 27) had also hoped for a better outcome. “This was quite disappointing for me,” she told Campaign. “I expected more Asia-Pacific work to get through to the shortlisting process. Being based [in China] I just see a lot of creativity and a lot of great work. But this is something perhaps Cannes could do a bit better on and it’s certainly feedback I will be sharing with them. I would like to see more jurors from India and China in the final awarding juries.”
By our count, Asian countries contributed about 15% of Cannes jurors, roughly equal to numbers out of the US. But China and India, with their combined populations of 2.5 billion, contributed only eight jurors out of the 413 total. Surely this is under-representation.
True, the US is easily the largest market by adspend, and it enters more work into Cannes than all of Asia, even Asia-Pacific, combined. But there’s a bit of a chicken and egg factor here. How do you encourage China to enter more work next year after only nine of 898 entries were successful? The US submitted an impressive 8,291 entries, but with 332 Lions, enjoyed a success rate four times greater than China.
Other regions, like Africa and Latin America, are facing similar issues, and the job of a Cannes organiser in ensuring fairness to all regions isn’t easy. Cannes introduced China Day last year, and this year India's Pandey brothers were awarded the Lion of St. Mark, both positive developments but without much effect in the jury rooms. The Festival has however made great strides in boosting the number of women on the juries to 46% after a concerted effort.
And that’s what it takes—a concerted effort. Surely if there was one single message being shouted from the yacht tops and cabanas and red carpets at Cannes it was that diversity matters (though yet again, many of these discussions were decidedly US-centric).
So don’t just award work for promoting diversity without encouraging a more diverse sample of work in the shortlists. A good start toward this would be adding representation from the world’s two most populous countries.
“It’s a barrier,” Randhawa said of ensuring Asian work is understood by jurors. “And I think the only way you get around that barrier—given it is almost half the world’s consumers—is putting more people who can speak to the context of that market and that region and that culture into the jury.”
Robert Sawatzky is Campaign Asia-Pacific's head of content.