Every year, as the Cannes Festival of Creativity draws to a close, we bring together a panel of PR industry leaders to discuss the lessons from this year's event. This year the discussion ranged across the future of purpose, the business strategy contribution PR makes that is never going to find recognition in the South of France, and the new technologies that were in display on the Croisette this year. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Paul Holmes, founder, PRovoke Media: Welcome, everybody, to our traditional Thursday morning CEO Roundtable here at Cannes. Or welcome back, I guess, since it’s been three years since any of us was here in person. So let’s start by asking what’s changed in three years, in terms of the Cannes experience, and what’s the same?

Gail Heimann, CEO of Weber Shandwick: What has completely not changed is the joie de vivre of everyone getting together. What has changed, for me, is a slightly more ‘trade show’ je ne sais quoi to proceedings. Twelve years ago it was new, and public relations was just happy to be here and it was legitimately a festival of creativity, and it was creatives celebrating with other creatives. And now, for very good reasons, ad tech is here and ad tech is important to the creative community and it feels a little bit different.

Barby Siegel, CEO of Zeno Group: I haven’t thus far walked away from anything thinking, I’m going to remember that work. Yesterday I was at the awards and the work is fantastic and purpose is still at the core, but I didn’t leave the Palais thinking that work is going to win a lot.

Brian Melarkey, head of creative strategy at FleishmanHillard: I think the first time I was here was in 2012 and it felt like there was slightly more of a rebellious spirit, slightly more creativity in the “fuck shit up” respect. And I think it’s become a little less of that and a little slicker.

GH: It’s interesting, because you feel the purpose but you don’t feel the agitation.

David Bentley, CEO of Porter Novelli: Every time I have been here it has been part of a high-creative agency, and I agree that this feels more like a media trade show with a tech overlay. I think there’s still an awful lot to learn, and maybe that’s the challenge that there is so much going on that is tech-enabled, data-oriented and the media landscape is so challenging. It reflects the world we’re in, where creativity was front and center yesteryear, but today’s world requires slightly different tools.

PH: Since Cannes was, in the beginning, about the work and the creativity of the work, let’s start there. I remember when everybody knew that ‘Like a Girl’ was going to sweep the awards, or that ‘Fearless Girl’ was what we were going to be talking about on the plane ride home. I haven’t see that breakthrough corporate or brand campaign that transformed how we think about a company the way those two campaigns did. I worry that we are all creating campaigns that come from the same Dove/Always template.

DB: I think we are entering an era in which campaigns don’t matter quite as much as actions, and so if we are talking about campaigns it’s hard to find exciting campaigns that are action-oriented. We are seeing this week demands for change, a lot more activism coming into this environment and asking for real change rather than just campaigns.

GH: We are living in the post-Dove era and with credit to Dove they landed on a critical insight that nobody had been there before, and I looked through entries this year and you see attempts to get there, lovely work, it probably delivers for the brand, but you don’t see that OMG nobody’s ever been there before, you see smaller insights. I am not seeing the kind of work where you think that changes everything.

PH: I look at the campaigns that are winning SABRE and judges are looking for the next Dove or the next Always, work that delivers for the brand but also makes PR people feel good about themselves, that they are contributing something positive.

GH: We’ve talked about he discovery by the creative community about eight years ago of menstruation, something that has existed as long as the human race. If you look at this year’s shortlist, the vagina seems to be having a moment. There was the “cooch” thing and the rocket ship, the vulva-shaped rocket, and that ship was clever…

BM: There were five or six that didn’t make the shortlist as well…

BS: Last night at the awards, staying with the reproductive theme, there was an island off Honduras, where choice is limited, an island where women can go to take the contraceptive pill without fear of prosecution, and I thought that was really really good. Also, I loved McEnroe vs McEnroe. When that came on it took be back to when I was, I don’t know, three.

GH: I do think this year there’s some charming and effective real marketing work on the list.

PH: David, you talked about action rather than campaigns, and Barby and Gail you’re talking about campaigns that are more about entertainment rather than purpose, and we had a roundtable here yesterday with Brian here and Damon Jones from P&G where we touched on this, that maybe it’s time not to abandon purpose but to move away from the “campaign-ization” of purpose, so that it’s just what good companies do on a day-to-day basis, rather than something we seek to build campaigns around. And maybe instead we can let marketing get back to being entertaining, to making people laugh or smile, or even cry.

BM: I think from the creative side what has happened with purpose, is that people know they have to do it, which is why it is still treated with such reverence and why there’s no humor in it, and maybe it will take another year or two for people to get comfortable enough with it that people will start to play with it. There’s a deference to it at the minute that is going to have to change if it’s not going to be same, same, same.

BS: I hope that there is a way to do both, to show that you’re a purposeful brand, that you stand for something, and have fun and laugh. One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot… I was on vacation is Greece and I did a brainstorm with the team for a big pitch, and I was excited to do it, to focus on the work. I spent an hour and when it was done, I was like, I feel great. And you know what, I love the work. I was so energized. And yes, there are terrible things in the world—the war in Ukraine, the shootings—but I hope we can all remember the joy of the work and to give our people the space to enjoy the work. We can help our clients live their values and still have fun.

BM: That’s something Ryan Reynolds was saying yesterday. You don’t forget all the bad stuff that’s happening, but what he wants to do is bring a new slant to it that allows people to have fun despite all that.

DB: I think I take a slightly different approach and point of view. I actually think we’re at a pivotal moment in the world in which companies—brands and corporations—have to rethink the role they want to play in it. We really are seeing a change in the role companies play with all their stakeholders and they’re grappling with that. There’s lots of serious stuff going on and we have a role to play to help our clients to navigate that.

BS: I’m not saying we ignore those issues and just go and have fun. I don’t think it’s mutually exclusive. You can take joy in work that makes a difference.

PH: This is going to sound reductive, but maybe it is time to take purpose away from marketers and into the hands of public relations people, who understand that purpose is an obligation, not an opportunity.

DB: To be honest, I think that’s already happening. We’re starting to see it in client organizations, with CCOs taking on some of those duties from CMOs.

PH: I don’t want to see you use your Twitter account to support women on Mother’s Day for 24 hours, I want to see you say we’re not going to hold corporate retreats or go to events in Texas, go to South by Southwest, because we support women’s rights all year. And there’s never going to be an awards category for taking that kind of a stand.

GH: We where we are going in our profession is that of marketing is only part of what communications brings to a company. We have to look at the board, we have to look at where the investors are, we have to look at the activities, that’s the consultative part of our business, and so we can’t have the veneer of purpose without getting into the guts of the company. That’s the new world order. If companies are doing that well, if the ESG agenda is seamless and true, then yes you can go into the market and sell stuff and have the big purpose-drive ideas, but if you don’t have that right then it really is just a veneer.

BS: While you were talking I jotted down campaign versus commitment. It has to start with a commitment, and we tell our clients that all the time. You can’t buy your way in, you have to earn it.

DB: Intention isn’t enough, so—and this isn’t because I’m an activist, it’s because consumers are activists and employees are activists—we are starting to see a real shift in which companies are being held accountable, and so it’s not even intention, it’s actual action people are looking for.

GH: It’s the financial world as well.

DB: Although not as altruistic as they might like you to think.

GH: Agreed. But there’s a movement….

DB: They’re trying to take out risk.

BS: But clients are not turning to their ad agencies to help them deliver on their purpose in that way, or they shouldn’t be. They are coming to us as communicators, as storytellers, as people who help them earn their reputation…

PH: Normally, we would know the winners of the PR Grand Prix and Golds by now [Cannes changed the night of the PR awards from Wednesday to Thursday this year] and I could ask you about the fact that PR agencies had again been completely shut out and all the awards went to ad agencies. I feel pretty safe making that prediction anyway. But purpose is once again driving the conversation in Cannes, the conversation here is all about earned-first campaigns—all the examples we mentioned earlier—and so it's all about relationships, not about transactions, which is what the advertising business was all about until recently…

BS: Until they took a page out of our book.

DB: Has that really changed?

PH: But this is going to be another year where I come away thinking we’ve won the war of ideas, but we have still lost the commercial war, that clients are still looking to ad agencies for the big creative ideas, even when they want earned ideas.

BM: I’d imagine what you’re saying is going to be true again this year…

[Spoiler: It was]

BM: It comes down to… is it the packaging. Because you know, obviously, the ad agencies have a way of packaging their entries up that is a lot more slick and lot more impressive. But we’re still not always getting up to the front to be the lead agency.

GH: Are we talking about Cannes or life?

PH: Yes, I’m talking about Cannes, because we have all invested in Cannes, the PR industry is here, right? But I’m more interested in life, because there are very few of these campaigns where PR is taking the lead, where somebody working in a PR agency did not come up with Real Women or Like a Girl, that was somebody working in an ad agency. And that’s the real world. It’s not just that they’re getting recognition here, they really were the lead creative in the real world.

GH: I think that’s shifting in the world.

PH: But it’s so glacial, it’s so incremental.

GH: But I think it’s changing. I think it’s a paradigmatic shift, as a result of the last two and a half years, where the CCO, where comms, was a piece of every business strategy. It had to be right, whether you were talking about the pandemic, when you were talking about the murder of George Floyd, when you were talking about Ukraine. The CCO had to be right there with the CEO. Comms is now woven into all that business strategy. And so for us, when you ask who is coming up with the ideas that change everything, I think right now is our time.

BS: No, we have seen that communicators are critical in this environment. The only other thing that I would say is… we should be proud as an industry of the work we are doing. We are helping our clients solve difficult problems, we are right there on the front lines, we are being turned to as real business advisors. We come to the table as real business people, we understand the issues companies face, we understand values and as a result we are doing important work.

PH: There’s never going to be a category here for that.

BS: We all love to win at Cannes, but that can’t be the only measure of the importance of our craft and how it’s changed.

DB: I think we are all in relatively violent agreement. As you were speaking, Paul, I was thinking God, we’re talking about awards, which are ephemeral judgments about was that artifact an amazing artifact. I don’t want to belittle it, because awards are great recognition of fantastic work. But we deal with some very complex topics that transcend the point of an award. I remember when I first joined Porter we were pitching a client and there were case studies and one of them was a campaign and I remember thinking that I did not see how the campaign relates to the client problem. It was a snapshot of work that was actually the culmination of about 20 years of work that had transformed that brand, and when I understood the arc of the work, I realized the real impact it had on the brand as opposed to the snapshot of one particular campaign. So I don’t want to bash campaigns because I think they’re important, but we often work in a very different space.

GH: Which gets to one of the questions you’ve been asking since the beginning, which is why do PR agencies not rise to the top here, and the answer is always we’re newbies, these guys have been doing it longer…

Arun Sudhaman, CEO, PRovoke Media: It’s been 12 years now. I do think at some point you have to say we’ve had time to learn.

PH: I was going to ask a bit of a gotcha question, which is I was going to ask whether each of you could name a great, big creative platform idea, like Real Women of Like a Girl, that was created by a PR firm, but what I think I’m hearing around the table is that a better question is can you think of a really tough business problem that was solved by a PR firm?

DB: I mean we could be here all day…

PH: But that’s a much more important question. But again, there’s never going to be a category for that.

DB: But I think you’re defining creativity as sort of “large C Creativity” as opposed to the day-to-day creativity we bring to the work.

PH: No, no. I agree with you. I think creativity in public relations has always been more about elegant problem solving. If you come to me with a problem, let’s say a high attrition rate among employees or I need to get this piece of legislation defeated, those are the problems that we solve, and it’s about the business outcome, not the kind of creative that gets recognized here.

GH: And it’s not the stuff that our clients want us to enter into awards. They don’t want us to tell those stories, really.

AS: What’s clear here is that we’re talking about is we’re here in Cannes and it’s celebrating those campaigns, but all the work the people around the table are doing is in many ways more meaningful and fundamental.

BS: So much of what we do sits on top of the campaign, it creates the environment for the campaign.

AS: And over the past couple of years, and we’ve tracked this, there’s been a real realization of how integral public relations is to a company’s viability. But there’s still the reality that if you’re a CMO and you have these big budgets, you look at who’s winning in Cannes and that informs your decision on where to spend your budget. They will make the calculation that if they want great work, that’s where they’re going to look, and they’re not necessarily going to say if I want fundamental change I need to spend more with my PR agency.

BS: Well, if I want to preserve and protect and accelerate my reputation, then perhaps they should spend more time with strategic communications agencies, who understand reputation.

DB: I’ve heard a lot since I joined Porter about how the PR industry has a PR problem, and that is one of the challenges. It also has an identity crisis and a confidence crisis. I get the feeling we’re judging ourselves here against a complete different set of people. When you talk about CMO budgets, first we need to have a discussion about the changing role of the CMO and that’s an interesting one, but there’s an argument that this is a messaging and media led awards here, as opposed to what we do which is different.

BS: But you talk to CCO clients, they’re all saying this is our moment, we have an incredibly important seat at the table. We are helping our clients with complex issues and we’re not getting awards for that. The reward is helping them navigate it and protect and preserve their reputation, and knowing you had an impact. I love Cannes, but it’s just one part of what we do. We can’t judge our success by what happens here.

GH: I think this is CMO-land, but our job though is C-suite land: CEOs and CHRO people and CMOs and chief legal officer people, chief financial officer people. We have to run the continuum of the C-suite and that’s where our bread and butter is, and this is just a piece of it.

PH: But don’t we want to be both?

GH: I think we are both. I think we have to be both. We are talking about employee engagement and business strategy and sometimes that’s the province of the CMO and sometimes it’s elsewhere in the organization.

DB: But where we are here is a sliver of what we do. It’s a sliver.

PH: Gail at the beginning of the conversation talked about how this has become a tech expo. It’s become a place for what is going to happen next in research and planning is on display, in data and analytics, in AI and augmented reality and the metaverse is showcased. How valuable is that and how excited have you been by what you’ve seen here?

GH: We have a creative team here and they are spending time with Spotify and TikTok is here with a big presence and they couldn’t be more excited and all of that is going to have a huge influence on how we make campaigns relevant. I spent a lot of time… IBM is here talking about a technology approach to bias mitigation and that’s pretty exciting if you think about the impact the ad tech can have in that space to change everything. I should say that IBM is a client, but I think that’s pretty compelling. The creative groups I talk to, ad tech has never been more important.

DB: Speaking from the creative side, it’s essentially that we get into understanding platforms. It’s a whole new set of toys to play with. And the people that I’ve spoken to, the fear and dread of the metaverse seems to be driving them, they have to get their best people on the metaverse. We don’t know what it, but we have to get in there, because we don’t want to miss out.

PH: This is overly simplistic, obviously, and a little cynical, but when people talk about the metaverse I always think back to the excitement over Second Life and PR agencies opening offices in Second Life. So, confession time. I’m a computer gamer. I’ve played online role-playing games for 30 years. I’ve had multiple avatars, they’ve met up with people from other countries and killed demons in dungeons and that’s fun. But I can’t get excited about creating an avatar to go into a Nike store in the metaverse. Are we excited about the metaverse, are we cynical, are we going to get our lunches handed to us by the ad agencies because it’s all about big budgets?

DB: I think it’s all of the above. Having had the pleasure of working in the digital space for 25 years, I’ve seen many evolutions and so when one comes along and everyone’s talking about it, I genuinely believe it will be interesting, and getting in early is always important to understand how it will evolve and where the opportunities are. That doesn’t mean that I’m not also massively skeptical. For me one of the challenges is what the overarching protocol for the metaverse is. At the moment it seems a slightly amorphous concept, but I think it will start coming into focus and the more you understand where tech changes are coming from and particularly how consumers in particular and stakeholders in general are relating to new technologies, the better brands will be prepared to work within it.

PH: Is the metaverse for brands, or is there a corporate reputation aspect to it?

GH: We’ve experimented in the metaverse, we’ve opened an office in the metaverse that is right now mostly for internal purposes, and people have avatars and are going exploring and understand understand more about Weber Shandwick. But our operation there will be focused on client crisis and issues in the metaverse and that’s our view of bringing some gravitas. There will be some corporate issues.

DB: There was no shortage of corporate issues in Second Life, that’s for sure.

PH: Presumably there’s an opportunity to build communities, and create movements, and advocate for change in the real world….

GH: And recruit. All of those things. I think there’s real opportunity.

BS: There’s a lot of interest from clients, and they are being honest in that they may or may not understand it and we are in an education phase, all of us.

PH: Are avatars a new stakeholder group?

GH: Absolutely.

DB: Yes. It’s always going to be a yes. It might not be the most important stakeholder, but it will be interesting to see how that develops. But this is getting philosophical. It may be a different representation, maybe even a different persona but I don’t know that that’s very different.

GH: I think Instagram is where you’re your best self. I think we could do a whole Jungian analysis of whether it’s your id or your ego.

BM: But I think on Instagram, you still have one foot in the real world but what I’m interested in about the metaverse, if you think about the democratization of creators on TikTok and elsewhere, if that also happens within the metaverse and you have all these creative people, we need to be able to harness that creative energy. And if you’re an activist in the metaverse, does that spill over into the real world? We need to think about how do we as communicators connect what’s happening in the metaverse to what’s happening in the real world to make a difference. That’s where the potential is..