This year’s PR Lions jury broke from tradition in more ways than one.

Yes, there was the fact that for the first time, a public relations agency was credited with “idea creation” on the Grand Prix winner—an honor that has traditionally gone to ad agencies, much to the industry’s chagrin (or my chagrin, at least). And PR agencies received idea creation credits on two additional Gold winners, which means that this will doubtless be remembered by those who care as the year that the PR industry finally broke through at Cannes.

But there were a couple of other ways in which this year’s winners were different. The first is that there was less overtly purpose-driven work: only one Gold winner was a campaign for a non-profit, and only three could really be described as corporate purpose campaigns. Instead there was a focus on business rather than societal impacts, campaigns that not only drove sales but strengthened brands.

The second notable change was a shift in tone, with more emphasis on playfulness and humor than in previous years, an indication perhaps that marketers needed to produce something joyful to counterbalance the anxiety and despair resulting from tough economic times and political polarization.

Having said all that, the campaign I picked as my number one this year may seem out of step with the trends I identified above. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

9. Sweethearts Situationships—Tombras Knoxville for Sweethearts

In looking for ways to describe this entry I can’t get past the word “cute,” which feels like damning it with faint praise. It’s undeniably clever, I guess, taking a much talked about flaw with a niche (and somewhat dated product) and turning it into a feature. But in all honesty, this seemed like a pretty minor effort compared to this year’s other winners.

America’s younger generation apparently doesn’t have much interest in Sweethearts, a once-iconic candy brand that is printed with twee romantic messages. One problem (according to the entry) is that sometimes quality control issues mean that the words on the candy are blurred. So the company decided to take the not-quite-up-to-par candies and market them as ideal for “situationships,” the equally blurry relationships that are commonplace among Gen Z.

There were billions of earned impressions ($67 million in earned media coverage!) and an increase in social media following, but also some real results, such as a 224% increase in brand interest, and the “Situationships” drops sold out. But there were a lot of Silver and Bronze recipients better than this Gold winner.

8, VW 70 Years Campaign—AlmapBBDO Sao Paulo for Volkswagen

Volkswagen was the first automaker in Brazil, where it is seen as quintessentially Brazilian despite its German origins, but it had been losing touch with consumers as its innovation slowed and it risked being shut out of the EV and hybrid markets. This campaign took a Brazilian anthem, “Just Like Our Parents,” brought together Maria Rita and her late mother Elis Regina, both iconic to their respective generations, to create a viral sensation that combined nostalgia and innovative technology.

The result was a viral sensation: 50 million organic views, 2 billion impressions (the entry also included AVE, but the less said about that the better). It did move the needle on perceptions of VW as an innovator, and as a Brazilian brand, and the company was the sales leader in Brazil for the first time in a decade.

Strong results, for sure, and it may be that I missed the cultural significance and emotional impact on the celebrities involved, but this one left me cold.

7. In Transit—Area 23 (an IPG Health Network company) for Callen-Lorde, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project

I want to applaud this project but I can’t say that I was particularly impressed by it, either in terms of its creativity or its effectiveness. I suspect the judges loved it more for its message than for its merits as a PR camoaign.

Bernie Wagenblast has one of the most famous voices in New York City as an announcer of the MTA subway system. After she recently came out as a transgender woman, this campaign used her new female voice on the transit system for the first time, accompanied by social media outreach and a press conference, all helping trans people feel “seen.”

Given the horrendous backlash against Bud Light for daring to acknowledge the existence of trans people, and the threats of violence against stores supporting Pride Month, it was undeniably important for those involved to carry out this campaign. The coverage was good and the MTA’s social channels received positive feedback. But specific benefits to Callen-Lorde (a leading provider of transgender health services) or the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project were unclear.

6. Heinz Ketchup Fraud—Rethink Toronto for Heinz Ketchup

There’s nothing particularly new about the idea of “Ketchup Fraud.” Restaurants have been refilling Heinz bottles with generic ketchup probably for as long as the brand has been the market leader. Campaigns have called on consumers to tip an extra $1 for the use of genuine Heinz, for example. But economic conditions are apparently exacerbating the problem, with more and more restaurants moving to cheaper alternatives, and so this campaign was developed by Canadian creative shop Rethink.

Instead of a business-to-business strategy targeting the restaurants themselves, the agency enlisted Heinz fans, asking them to identify restaurants where they suspected ketchup fraud was being committed, and launching a website where restaurants could anonymously admit to it themselves, in exchange for a supply of the real stuff. Social engagement was strong, 33 new vendor accounts were signed, and Heinz sales and market share increased.

The brand did a great job of engaging its fans on this issue, and it clearly had an impact in the marketplace, but I can’t say that I found the idea particularly original or the creative especially compelling.

5. Women’s Football—Marcel Paris for Orange

This is one of the few campaigns in the PR category to use artificial intelligence in a creative and interesting way: the ad tapped into the French love of football and the excitement over the upcoming women’s World Cup by showing clips of male football stars dribbling past opponents and scoring exquisite goals—only to then reveal that the skillful play was actually from the women’s national team, with male faces and bodies transposed onto the original footage by AI.

The footage subverted expectations and made its point brilliantly, and it appears to have had an impact on attitudes toward the women’s game in France, with a 17 point increase in those who planned to watch the women’s tournament. Otherwise the results focused on impressions (with the Orange brand identified in most of them) and social media views.

A slight quibble is that this was strikingly similar to an AI-generated women’s football ad created by the Brazilian bank Itau Unibanco.

4. Bar Experience—Edelman London for Heineken

More and more companies are turning to marketing and public relations for support with recruitment, and we have seen a lot of creative work in that space over the past few years, but this stood out because Heineken wasn’t recruiting for itself but for an entire sector. With bars in the Netherlands struggling to find workers post-pandemic, the company sought to position bar work as providing employees with valuable skills for continued employment.

Using its own employees and managers as influencers, people working bar jobs would receive the “Bar Experience” official skill on Linkedin, a badge that worked as a diploma and was recognized by 25 other partner companies (Coca Cola, Starbucks, Pepsico,  McDonalds, and more) for corporate jobs. The platform generated 5,000 applications for bar jobs in two weeks, and inspired the Dutch government to create a fund supporting the hospitality sector.

While the scope and scale of the campaign was limited compared to some others in this category, it both helped the sector and led to an increase in Heineken’s net promoter score.

3. Translators—Weber Shandwick New York for US Bank

Purpose-driven work has dominated the PR category (and Cannes generally) in recent years, but there was a noticeable decline this year but this effort stood out for its authenticity and effectiveness at a time when many American companies are shying away from DEI-related work/

US Bank—a relative newcomer to the California market— found that in families where English is not the primary language, the burden of translating often falls on the shoulders of children, some as young as six, and so it created a documentary film, which made the rounds at film festivals and sparked a conversation that generated mainstream media coverage and led to a double-digit increase in brand awareness and consideration.

This campaign won in the Community Relations category of the North American SABRE Awards earlier this year and it was one of my favorite campaigns in that competition, narrowly missing out when we put together the shortlist for Best in Show. It’s a great example of using PR to build a stronger relationship with a specific stakeholder group/

2. The Misheard Version—Golin London for Specsavers

To spark a conversation about hearing loss and drive more hearing test bookings at Specsavers, Golin London worked with 80s pop star Rick Astley, whose biggest hit is one of the most misheard lyrics of all time. The hook was a re-release of “The Misheard Version,” which had British consumers questioning their ears in what the agency characterized as a “mass hearing test.”

Without any paid support, TikTok views of Astley’s teaser hit 20 million views in eight hours. He appeared on numerous news and magazine shows to discuss his own hearing loss and how it affected him as a musician, and achieved a 66% increase in hearing test appointments for Specsavers—as well as a 13% rise in perception of the retailer as an expert in hearing health.

This Cannes Grand Prix winner had earlier achieved Gold in our EMEA SABRE competition but didn’t feature in the Best in Show conversation. This version of the entry was further refined, more compelling, and a terrific combination of immediate sales impact and long-term brand-building and positioning, worthy of top honors.

1. Without Consent: A Message From Ella—Adam&Eve Berlin for Deutsche Telekom

It’s easy to imagine this campaign being one of the most polarizing in the jury room and beyond. It’s easy to see how it might make some viewers uncomfortable and queasy (the video comes with a “discretion is advised warning” and for good reason). But it was the bravest thing I saw in this year’s competition and Deutsche Telekom deserves massive credit for taking the risk it did.

The “Message From Ella” doesn’t make AI the star in the way “Women’s Football” does but rather uses it in the interests of its story, ageing a 9-year-old girl who then speaks to her parents about all the terrible things people can do with the images of children posted to social media as part of the “sharenting” trend, warning them of a series of escalating horrors designed to make them think twice about the photos they share—often with followers they have never met and don’t know.

For those who are made uncomfortable, I can only point to the results. First, the fact that almost two-thirds of the 51 million views watched the video all the way through; second, its use in real-world policing efforts and online safety efforts; and third in the fact that 62% of parents said they would consider Deutsche Telekom as a telecommunications provider in the future.

I loved the Rick Astley work, and the fact that a PR firm finally won the Grand Prix, but for me this was the most powerful campaign in this year’s competition.