CANNES — After creating history at this year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity by awarding the Grand Prix to a PR agency for the first time in the PR Lions’ 15-year history, members of the Cannes PR Lions jury joined PRovoke Media for our annual jury roundtable in Cannes.

The morning after the awards ceremony – which saw Golin win the PR Lions Grand Prix for idea creation for its ‘Misheard Version’ hearing aid campaign with Rick Astley for Specsavers – the awarding jury were unsurprisingly exhilarated and exhausted after their mammoth judging session, having whittled down 1,525 entries and a shortlist of 106 to one Grand Prix, eight further Golds, 16 Silvers and 25 Bronze awards.

The awarding jury for the PR Lions this year was led by president Kat Thomas, founder and global chief creative officer at One Green Bean, as well as Porter Novelli’s outgoing EMEA MD Fenella Grey; Ian Black, CEO of New Vegas in Brazil; Kofi Amoo-Gottfried, CMO at DoorDash; Burson South Africa MD Lerato Songelwa; Marie Claire Maalouf, Edelman’s chief creative officer for EMEA; Sama Al Naib, MD of digital innovation for EMEA at Burson; Sebastian Stępak, CEO Central and Eastern Europe at MSL; Tomoko Tagami, chief corporate communication officer at Shiseido; and Vanessa Ho Nikolovski, Weber Shandwick’s chief client and growth officer for Asia-Pacific.

Thomas reflected on her role as president of the jury, saying she had felt a responsibility to “support the discussion and debate and ensure everyone’s voice was heard, versus having an agenda of my own.”

In advance of being in the jury room together, the 10 jurors connected to agree their focus and criteria for the process: ‘We talked about three things,” said Thomas, “Is this an idea with earned at the heart; if you strip everything back does it still have value exchange, momentum, is it useful or entertaining. This earned piece was critical for us.

“The second was relevancy and cultural relevancy – does it make sense, feel authentic and credible for the brand and the audience they are trying to connect to, and for the world we live in? The third was the impact of the work, above and beyond reach metrics – what did it achieve, how did it move the dial?

“We saw game changing ideas where we were astounded at the potential – but in the end they were ideas and had not yet been executed with significant scale.”

Thomas said when deciding on the final Grand Prix from the Gold Lions, “there was momentum around a top three, then we came down to the top two, and we discussed the Grand Prix winner for nearly three hours.”

Al Naib – who pointed out that the jury never sees the agencies involved in the entry until their decisions are made – said the process had been “eye opening”: “We talked about creativity from a problem-solving perspective and the world of earned. It was a huge learning – we all have fire in our bellies for creative work, but it’s beyond the beautiful two-minute movie and about creative excellence in the craft of earned.

“Usually in Cannes we see a lot of consumer brand work, and what we really tried to do is to give space for more corporate storytelling, taking it back to injecting creativity in everything we do. There was so much purpose work, but we were really querying the commercial, business and policy impact, and being really forensic about what we mean by impact.”

Stępak said it had been an “amazing couple of days”, especially with two creatives in the room, a marketing director, and the rest of the jury being more client facing: “I believe it was a big difference in discussion from 2015 when I was a jury member for the first time – we were respectful but earned is ruling everything right now and it’s not about budget – it’s about campaigns bringing an enormous amount of return.

“We triple-checked every hunch we had, and were really rigorous." Where a juror was from the country where the campaign was executed, "we asked each other, how did the work impact your countries? Did it reach you as a person? You have to trust your fellow jury members.”

At Weber Shandwick, Ho Nikolovski said the PR jury “really did make history” this year: “I’m so proud of what we accomplished together. The Grand Prix was deliberated for hours. We really looked at all the top contenders inside out (and outside in), and brought everyone’s views to the table to get to a final consensus. It was truly a rigorous process, and each entry got thoroughly reviewed – over and over again. We critiqued our own thinking, refined it, scrutinized our blind spots, and saw things in new ways through an open and respectful process of listening, learning and enriching. So at the end, we were all very solid about the final decision.”

On her learnings from the experience, Ho Nikolovski said: “It really sealed for me the power of and necessity for diversity to bring breadth and dimension of insights, critical viewpoints and ultimately creative excellence to work. We have to consciously and deliberately build diversity in our teams if we want to truly elevate our ideas and our work. I’m going to figure out how to hold that standard in the face of time pressures in agency life today.”

From the client side, Tagami agreed the “diversity of cultural context” brought to the discussion by jury members from different countries” had made it a “once in a lifetime experience”. She said: “I’ve been in this industry close to 30 years now and learned a lot, including brilliant creative from countries like Brazil. It brought many interesting insights which have inspired me.”

She added: “Where I tried to give fresh perspective as a corporate person, was how the work is authentic to the brand and the result should not just be immediate – the impact on building the business and corporate reputation should also be clear in the mid- and long-term. Only PR can do that.”

This rigour also applied to looking deeper into purpose driven campaigns, and beyond any immediate emotional response to the work, said Grey: “It’s really easy to fall for the tear jerkers, but then we looked at what the work is actually doing, and whether the organisation has licence and permission to have that conversation.

“There’s been a lot of chat over the years about purpose, but I really loved the hidden, understated purpose embedded naturally in campaigns, which were commercially and reputationally fantastic but also delivered against plantenary and social needs.”

In terms of the metal-winning campaigns, Grey added: “I’m so proud of the body of work we selected: the cultural and geographical diversity, as well as diversity of format, from documentary long form to really smart WhatsApp use, and then all the AI, not just for its own sake, but that delivered against cultural and brand relevance and were extremely powerful.”

Speaking about Golin’s Grand Prix winning campaign – which transformed one of the most famously misheard songs — Rick Astley's 'Never Gonna Give You Up' — into a successful nationwide hearing test launch, breaking new ground for Specsavers, a brand that had hitherto dominated the optical category in the UK – the jury were full of praise.

Thomas said: “Who would put humour and healthcare together? It captured the attention in the room – hearing aids are not sexy, and the hearing loss category is not known for creative bravery, yet the agency found a smart way to bring storytelling to life in a way that disarms the stigma associated with hearing loss and is hyper-relevant for the 50+ category in the UK. It was a tricky brief for a brand famous for optical not hearing, and a creative ideas that was tonally on point and 100% authentic for the Specsavers brand personality.”

Tagami added: “It was also an idea that could travel the whole world, with a common insight that 50+ consumers everywhere could share.”

Grey said she was “elated” about the Grand Prix: “It was pure earned winner delivered by a PR agency, and this was not only a historic moment but symbolic of the feeling we all had as a team – PR is significant and brings critical value to brands and business.”

Ho Nikolovski echoed that elation: “It’s really made such an impact on PR folk – I’ve heard so much talk about this since the announcement. I think it’s just as important that PR agencies are also winning Grand Prix in other categories, like Audio and Brand Experience. It shows the power and effect of earned in bringing impact value for brands and companies today.”

As well as Golin’s historic win, this year saw the PR industry's best ever performance at the Cannes Lions, which included Edelman winning Titanium for its ‘The Move to Minus 15’ for DP World and a Gold for its 'Bar Experience' campaign for Heineken and a, Weber Shandwick becoming the first agency to win the Brand Experience & Activation Lion for its ‘First Edible Mascot campaign for Kellanova Pop Tarts and also winning a Gold for its ‘Translators' initiative for US Bank, and Ogilvy PR taking home the Grand Prix in the Social/Influencer Lions for its 'Michael CeraVe' campaign for CeraVe.

The jury said they hoped this success would encourage more PR agencies to enter Cannes Lions, and not just in the PR category. Grey said: “We have to have the confidence to enter and tell the story of our work – there are still big gaps in representation from the PR industry.”

Grey highlighted the new PR Lions category for Excellence in PR Craft – which can only be submitted and paid for by independent PR agencies or companies owned by a PR network, unlike all the other categories– as being “disappointingly bare” in entries. “If there’s one call to action, this is it.”

Al Naib added that there was also no winner in the Excellence in Media Relations category: “Maybe brands and agencies are discouraged from entering because they see Cannes as being hyper creative and all about a beautiful film. I’m hoping there will be more space for clients and agencies to say there is a role for me in Cannes Lions in work that pushes the boundaries in bread-and-butter media relations.”

Stępak said the huge competition from ad agencies for PR prizes meant PR agencies needed to be especially careful about the categories they chose to enter, both within the PR Lions and other tracks: “For media relations there was a lack of good work, but we could have easily found work that should have been in that category.”

Other jurors also spoke up about the considerable cost of entering the PR Lions – with each entry costing a minimum of €820 for early bird submissions up to €1,245 for the final deadline – and the resources needed to produce the mandatory two-minute film.

Tagami said: “We had one juror from Singapore and two from South Africa, and their countries do not have the resources to create a beautiful film or the budget for Cannes, so it’s difficult to encourage clients and local agencies to submit. How can we support and encourage agencies and brands in those markets?”

Stępak said agencies also needed to be mindful about how they presented their work: “What I will bring back to my team is all the stop signs we found in our discussions. The whole thing you present in two minutes has to be flawless. We saw a lot of great campaigns but as soon as we started to ask questions…  We have to be extremely careful when describing our work.”

Al Naib said another area for PR agencies to pay attention to proving results from PR in integrated work: “I’m not demonising integrated campaigns, but what was the distinct role of PR in the campaign, and the direct result we can attribute to PR?”

She added: “If we have a message, it’s that we in PR take earned for granted every day, but we need to show the ingenuity and smartness of what we do behind the scenes to get results. Don’t just copy paste your entry from something submitted by an ad agency in another categories. Really sing about our craft.”

On her takeaway from her experience leading the jury, Thomas said: “It’s so inspiring to see such great work, it refuels your tank creatively. In the day-to-day it’s so hard to deliver world-class, stand-out creative work and it was so refreshing and reinvigorating to step out of that. I leave with a creative fire in my belly to push further.”

Finally, Grey reflected: “This year’s tagline for Cannes Lions was make history – and that was running through our veins. We had a responsibility after 15 years of the PR Lions, and we took that opportunity.”