Why are PR agencies underrepresented at Cannes?

“Much of the external criticism is levelled at the lack of creativity coming from the communications function,” writes Gambit's Judy Bakieh

This week marks the Cannes International Festival of Creativity 2024, the undoubted Oscars of the marcomms sector, where the industry’s biggest names go head-to-head for the prestigious Golden Lions.

Unfortunately, PR agencies are often outside observers at Cannes, with powerhouse advertising agencies taking home the biggest prizes and making up around 84 per cent of the shortlists.

There have been valid concerns within the Public Relations field about why the industry is so sparsely represented at the festival, and much of the external criticism is levelled at the lack of creativity coming from the communications function.

It is true that a different approach to thinking is needed on some level. The PR function is built on a healthy dose of pragmatism and practicality, and PR people tend to be trained to be sensible.

Pablo Picasso famously once saidThe enemy of creativity is good sense, so practitioners do need to think a little ‘crazier’ to produce more innovative work.

However, this line of reasoning doesn’t consider the glaring logistical barriers to PR agency success at Cannes.

Judy Bakieh, Senior Integrated Communications Manager, Gambit Communications

The barriers to PR agency success

First, Cannes is an event that historically celebrates the advertising industry, so there is an emphasis on exciting creative ideas versus well-rounded comms campaigns.

This is reflected in the attendees and the judging panels, which can create closed feedback loops.

Secondly, PR agencies are at a disadvantage when it comes to presenting their work, as advertising agencies tend to be better at doing campaign summary videos, something their PR counterparts might not even have budget to do.

Lack of proper video summaries can impact judges who are checking hundreds of entries and rely on the videos as an easy way to understand the campaign.

It is also worth pointing out that advertising agencies by and large deal with much bigger budgets, so they are able to execute large-scale impactful campaigns with world class production, huge reach, and an overall bigger footprint in terms of visibility and impact.

Finally, and most glaringly, PR agencies are simply not entering enough.

A Carma report found that over 85 per cent of entries come from advertising agencies, and even within the PR categories, only 11 per cent of those shortlisted in the PR category are actual PR firms!

You have to be in it to win it, and PR agencies are not present in the same volume as their counterparts in advertising.

Creating a bigger impact

So what does the PR industry have to do to have a bigger impact at Cannes?

There are legacy issues to deal with, such as the proclivity to focus on a media strategy versus a campaign strategy, or to have tunnel vision with earned media instead of thinking integrated, but there are more practical changes too.

PR Agencies need to make a concerted investment in producing better entry material, work hand in hand with clients to achieve a higher volume of entries and encourage more left field thinking when conceptualising campaigns.

In addition, the value of earned coverage, whether press, social, digital or influencers, needs to be better measured in order to compete against the major advertising metrics like impressions.

When it comes to creativity festivals like Cannes, you get back what you put in, and the PR industry is ready to make an impact if agencies can pivot correctly in the coming years.

Judy Bakieh is Senior Integrated Communications Manager at Gambit Communications, and the winner of the Gold Lion at the Cannes PR Young Lions 2023.