I have now seen Cannes from the inside, as a judge in the PR categories, and I will soon be going home with a head full of ideas for how we can reinvent our business—plus a suitcase full of dirty clothes, a permanent rosé hangover, information overload and some minor disgust about the naked man who crept into a La Redoute shoot and stole our sanity.

The planet is imploding, but a naked man sneaking onto a catalog shoot kept bubbling up onto everyone’s list (seriously, either the agency wasn’t competent enough to Photoshop him out, or he was actually a random “plant” to create an award-winning crisis with a bit of a giggle and a smirk). Among my jury peers was a self-identified feminist, brilliant and sassy, who couldn’t stop arguing against the naked man campaign or a boy-focused campaign that plays off all the meanings of the word “nuts.” The peak moment of comedic relief (for me; keep in mind our long, cooped-up days) had to be when she mumbled that she wouldn’t mind a naked man, but not as an award winner. Unbelievably, though, Naked Man reached the short list, then second, then medal winner, and finally he took away a Gold for crisis.

Then there was Snoop Dog with a newsmaker role in multiple campaigns—for rolling paper, a conference call for creativity, and maybe even one more, but he irked me less than the aforementioned naked man. A detergent that went to Japan to wash clothes after the earthquake actually merited serious contemplation, too (I am the Queen of Cause, a believer that every good work should be awarded, but it smelled like corporate hijacking of the crisis to me, sitting in the south of France). What is the world coming to? Could the nearly two dozen professionals at the top of their game really be reviewing work that was meant to be game-changing but actually ended up sparking debates over appropriateness, sexuality and the like?

We had a big cultural discussion over a Japanese submission for a kids candy that took a great bow for media placement, including the cover of Playboy for the composite icon (aka teenage girl) it created as a spokesmodel. At that very moment, it was clear to me: We ain’t one world on gender or moral sensibilities or the appropriateness of the corporate hijacking of natural disasters. Even I, with real experience with Japanese marketers, was left wondering, Is Playboy different in Japan, or has this client and brand just managed to offend 20 jurors from around the globe as our one Japanese representative smiled and nodded? (He was actively supporting this campaign, which we Westerners felt was kiddie porn to sell fruit ices. Major ethical clash.)

National stereotypes, regional clusters (Latin, British and Northern European) and thinking styles all bubbled up over several days of intensely ironic judging despite having a truly excellent president of the jury in Gail Heimann, vice chair of Weber Shandwick. Most of the best entries (in my opinion) seemed to be client-free—scratch that, budget-free—so that the winning agencies could work without the normal guidelines; it does appear that corporate clients negatively affected good work, because fear is the enemy of great. The limited great work mostly came in cause and in the nonprofit categories, perhaps because the greatest risks get taken when the client (and the agency) have nothing to lose.

Several diseases and disasters and disabilities came to the fore among the shortlist (memo to self: Don’t spend time on autism, Alzheimer’s, Down syndrome or tsunamis if the goal is collecting medals, because truly great agencies in markets from Italy to Romania have already cracked those areas), and a few countries showed the best overall creativity, at least on my scorecard, such as these hands-down winners: Australia, Sweden, The Netherlands and Romania. And the Grand Prix winner came from Puerto Rico, America’s 51st state. JWT and Banco Popular took Puerto Rico’s No. 1 band, its equivalent of the Rolling Stones, and turned the lyrics of a song about laziness into an anthem for getting jobs and for changing public opinion of the country (and yes, the bank). Somehow it worked; all of us on the jury agreed on something.

I also loved two other campaigns: “Steal Banksy,” a Melbourne promotion that urged hotel guests to steal precious art, and a HEMA campaign from The Netherlands that put men in new pushup bras, proving that the company could create gorgeous cleavage out of nothing at all.

So what did I really get (besides a Cannes T-shirt) from six days in lengthy discussions?
- Lots of respect for all my fellow jurors and an understanding that Gail could be the Henry Kissinger of the PR world
- An awareness that cause carries the day and that there is no business like the do-good business
- A newfound belief that we must develop insights tools to ensure that our ideas go beyond the tactic to be the big, bold ideas that change the landscape and move the needle
- A respect for the Israeli agency Baumann Ber Rivnay Saatchi & Saatchi (admittedly an ad agency) that developed a serious winner by proving that blood is blood whether its donor is Jewish or Palestinian
- A big question about whether the future of PR isn’t just the future of the trialogue
- A realization that whichever agency cracks real-time conversations that extend big ideas and that has really Big Ideas will be hauling home next year’s Lions

PS On Monday afternoon a blogger asked me what I really took away. The answer is humility. The U.S. work couldn’t hold a candle to all those creative countries, further proving my latest trend: Small is stealth, and stealth is savvy.  

Marian Salzman is CEO of Euro RSCG PR North America