Every year PRovoke Media convenes some of the PR agency CEOs in attendance at the Cannes Festival of Creativity to discuss what the event has meant for the PR profession, and to examine some of the important trends in the kind of work that is winning these coveted awards.

This year’s CEO Roundtable came the morning after Golin won the PR Grand Prix for its “The Misheard Version” campaign for Specsavers, and Ogilvy PR took home the Grand Prix in Influencer Marketing for “Michael CeraVe” (but before Weber Shandwick’s “First Edible Mascot” won its Grand Prix in the brand activation category and Edelman scored the PR industry’s first Titanium Lion for a sustainability initiative for DP World).

So the mood was more ebullient that usual for this year’s discussion. The following report has been edited for length and clarity.

Paul Holmes, founder, PRovoke Media: I feel like my usual narrative of Cannes has been completely disrupted this year. This session for the last 10 years has been me complaining about how unsuccessful the PR industry has been here and how we're being completely dominated by the ad agencies. And this feels like the year when we finally, 10 or 12 years after being invited, finally arrived. PR agencies have won Grand Prix in three categories so far. So as difficult as it is for me, I have to start this conversation on an optimistic note, and maybe start with Matt and say, well done.

Gail Heimann, CEO, Weber Shandwick: How did it feel up there, Matt?

Matt Neale, CEO of Golin: We had strangers coming up to us throughout the night, competitors, people from different countries, saying what it meant to the industry for a public relations agency to win. I think there was a sense of, well, if you can do this, then we can do this as well. But for our two creatives who came up with the work, just for hours people were stopping them in the streets and saying this means an awful lot to us.

PH: How do we as a group feel about that. Is this is a win for our team, as it were, or a win for one of our competitors?

Diana Littman, CEO of MSL US: Oh no, absolutely. Of course when you watch the work you feel a twinge of jealousy because that's amazing work, I wish I was involved in that. But watching you all go up there twice [Golin also won a Grand Prix in the Audio category] is exciting for all of us. It's what this place is about, the best idea, the most creative, the most beautiful, the most meaningful work wins. To me, this was an exciting moment for all of us, and a decade in the making.

GH: I do think though, from a contrarian point of view, it’s a great moment but we've spent a decade feeling like subjugated people here, and I don't think that's right. One ultimately has to take the mindset that we are on an equal footing with everyone here. And yeah, the numbers have worked against us, because there's lots more of them than us and they have lots more production studios than our industry has traditionally had. But I think the last 10 years of hand-wringing over subjugation has been a part of the problem.

PH: As subjugator-in-chief, I apologize…

GH: You led some of the subjugation, Paul. I think that's been probably a little bit too much hand-wringing for a world in which we do have to come to the table as equals and we have to do integrated work.

Corey duBrowa, CEO of Burson: It's useful to remember that there are people outside this circle who are not privy to the handwringing. After 15 years as the client, this was not anything that registered for me ever. I think this tends to be a pretty agency-specific conversation, even though it's the clients' work that we're celebrating.

Mike Doyle, CEO of Ketchum: Back to your question about is it a team moment or is it a moment of competition? I love that I woke up to so many emails from people loving what you did, celebrating you and saying that needs to be us. I love the sort of fire it has created. I had two separate client dinners last night and it was a mix of marketing and communications leaders, very senior, and they each talked about it almost feeling like last night made it possible, made it like all of a sudden, actually we can do this.

PH: Coming back to the handwringing, though, it’s not just us. I was at a discussion earlier this week and there were people talking about PR agencies and creative agencies as if they were two separate things, like the term “creative agency” referred to ad agencies and excluded all of us. This is proof, the wins for Golin and Ogilvy prove that we are creative agencies too. That’s a real thing…

Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman: But why do we want to be like them? Look at JWT, Gray, Wundermann, Y&R. They’re failing…

PH: I don’t want us to be like them. I want us to be more than them.

GH: But we are more than that. The term creative agency is used to label the agency that’s sitting in a large company that owns has a data-related firm and also has a media- related firm and also has a digital-related firm, and then there's the creative guys, right? We are infinitely more than those descriptors and that's what complicates it here, I think.

RE: But look at all those dead ad agencies. We don't want to be that. We are the next phase after that.

CDB: We are also problem solvers. The fact is that all of us around this table solve problems for clients every day in new and creative ways. Again, I'm new to this side of the table. I spent 15 years on the other side of the table and what we valued the most were ideas. It's really important for us to think of creativity in more than just sort of a studio-driven visual manifestation.

PH: But a lot of people who sat where you sat, looked first for ideas to their ad rather than PR agencies, which is why in the past ad agencies got all the credit for idea creation here, for “Like a Girl” and “Fearless Girl” and more.

CDB: I wouldn't say that was true. That was actually not my experience.

Jillian Janaczek, CEO of Porter Novelli: For me, we have always had some good work here. I think I'm probably the most proud of the work that we did with the [Welcome to the Group] campaign, the work we did in Costa Rica, and it was a simple idea, using regular people, regular women, to put real faces on the issue and it was like a $50,000 campaign and three days later, the legislation changed. I mean, that is so incredible and it's something that I feel very proud of.

PH: Let's remember that we also, we collectively as an industry, won the influencer category yesterday. I think the CeraVe campaign is a game-changer, because it is the exact opposite of what I've seen for 10 years. It's an ad in the service of PR. It's a paid ad produced by a PR agency. It is a massive budget that went entirely to a PR agency to build a brand. And that feels different from the work that I've seen here in previous years. How did people around the table react to that CeraVe campaign?

RE: I think it's a great marketing idea. But I think it's not substantive in the least. And I think you're going down a path which is what the ad agencies have done. So that's one of the axes. But the axis where we should dominate is the one where it's overlapped with reputation, where it has a serious purpose, where it has an issue to deal with.

CDB: There were two markers here. One is humor, and I think that particularly given the period we've just come through with COVID, it's been a pretty serious period. And so one thing that I noticed is humor. I think that Michael Cera did a pretty good job of making us laugh, mostly at his own expense, which is maybe the best kind of laughter. The second thing is commercial impact. And so, you know, when I hear Jillian talk about impact, it makes me proud too. To see something that had a real policy impact or a real commercial impact. We can drive impact at the cash register too.

MD: I have to believe that was one of the most important pieces of the discussion in the jury room: a big sales increase. There should be more of an emphasis placed on that because we have the tools now to be able to do it. But we can all think about one or two clients in our portfolio that they're still banging on number of impressions and so we need to be able to bring our clients along to talk about impact.

GH: I would never argue against commercial impact. But this festival is about the primacy of the idea. That's what it's about. You have the SABREs and you have the Effies on effectiveness. But this is about the idea. The highest purpose of this is to take all the new things in our world, be it geopolitical issues, be it technologies, bring them together and shape all those things into an idea that feels like it's new and that pushes the industry forward. So I don't know what this jury said, but usually when someone in the jury room talks about effectiveness, they get pushed back on, because this is not the effectiveness place.

PH: I think you're absolutely correct about that's what Cannes is. But I mean, I would argue, that if it doesn't work, it wasn't creative, right? It might've been big and it might have been eye-catching but if it didn't work it wasn't creative. Because if creativity is about problem-solving and you don’t solve the problem…

MN: I don't want to get confused with like creativity equals impact. It's not necessarily true.

CDB: I think you can have creativity without impact and I think you can have an impact without being creative. I don’t want to get confused with creativity equals impact. That’s not necessarily true. I think that’s reductive, I don’t know that I buy that.

JJ: Back to the point about humor, like just switching gears a second, I think right now there's such an intense focus on AI and the humor piece is about emotional intelligence, and people are craving it. I love the humor in these winning campaigns, because I think it got people away from all that intensity and reminded us that human connection is still really important.

PH: At Edelman’s panel on the Debussy stage two days ago, Bozoma Saint John made the point, in the context of talking about political and social issues, that the job of marketers and creative people, to find joy and find happiness even in serious issues so that they can connect with people and make people feel more positive. I'm paraphrasing something she expressed much more elegantly. But that seems to me very much of our time with all the anxiety out there right now.

CDB: I was at a dinner last night that Axios held about women's sports. You really got a sense that the purpose of getting more women to come into sports, to continue playing sports and actually have a professional income in their chosen sport. That's joy. There's great purpose to that but I think we get caught up in the idea that like joy and purpose can't be the same thing and that’s wrong. That was a tent full of joy, to be talking about like women's professional basketball, to be talking about the Women's World Cup. That literally was the dream and now it's manifest.

MD: Isn't it possible that we're limiting ourselves if we're just talking about joy and optimism? Because yes, I buy all of that, and we need that desperately. But isn't our job to either reflect the human condition. Yes, right now in this moment it's joy, it's optimism. But a year from now, we'll still be talking about the human condition, but we might be talking about recovery, we might be talking about self-care. I don't want to limit us to just be about joy.

PH: No, no, I think this year’s humor, this year’s joy, is very much of this moment.

MN: It's a mirror to what the audience is looking for. That's right.

DL: One thing we should talk about, and I don't want to rain on the parade, is how do we make sure this isn't a blip and that this is actually the direction of travel? I was having that conversation with the team last night because, for me, the chase is so much more exciting and seductive… And, you know, no one wants to come back next year and for this not to be one of us. I think there is a bit of a code you have to crack when it comes to winning here, and now we’ve cracked the code…

MN: It's interesting. There were 11 edits to that final film that we made and our chief creative officer refused to send it to me until edit seven. Edits one through nine or ten the results were the same but it would not have won a gold line or a Grand Prix. There's a quote by Jerry Seinfeld, who can make any room laugh but says he is always looking to get that 99.8 percentile worth of laughter. When you are creating these campaign films, it's that 0.2, the pause here, the change of a word there. If you can break that code there's no reason why we should not win.

PH: I say this with the greatest respect, but the Rick Astley work was entered in SABRE and so I saw it six months ago and it won in its category. It was not a contender for Best in Show. Does that tell you something about the randomness of award juries? Or does it tell you something about your process and how you refined it?

MN: What we shared with you was later fine-tuned with two or three senior people over a period of months to get ready for Cannes. There's a piece of work that we did for McDonald's which was entered into another media group's awards, and it didn't win. And I was unhappy with the final kind of third and we changed it for SABRE and you saw what happened. The work is the same. It’s the craft of getting it from 97 to 98 to 99, because otherwise it will not win. And the advertising agencies have been finessing that for much longer than we have.

DL: I think right now, everybody can go back to their best clients, even maybe some of their toughest clients, and say, let's go win at Cannes. Let's take some of your business problems and take bigger creative risks.

PH: What else did we find interesting this year?

CDB: The subject of AI is interesting. I don't know what the tenor of the conversation was before but I suspect that we were in a position where it was a novelty item and now we're in the experimentation phase. I did see a campaign that used AI to imagine what a football team would have been back in the Pele era, if women had been allowed to play. That, to me, qualifies as creativity. Mark Read said this week that AI could be sort of a race to conformity unless creativity is applied to it and I'm really interested to see where we get to with that.

MN: Were we surprised at how little AI featured in most of the work? There were a couple of standout campaigns, but it really wasn't there. AI can get us to good in seconds and save hundreds of hours, but it cannot create any kind of change that matters. Perhaps GPT-5 will get us there. But basically at the moment its application outside of some clever production techniques has been really minimal here.

GH: Last year there were a few, this year I think more. I think next year I think it's gonna be more.

CDB: It's because ChatGPT became the first object that people could kind of you know latch on to as an AI object and we're fixated on is this idea of generative AI. And so I do think we've all rushed to the most visual manifestation.

PH: We've spent a year talking about the least interesting part of AI.

CDB: That's exactly right. I think that when clients have first party data, employee data, survey data, things that are bespoke to us, and they ingest that into your bespoke LLM, then we're going to cross the transom in a spectacular way.

PH: But how is that going to show up in the work at Cannes?

CDB: I think you’ll see the creativity linked to insight. At Nike the question was always what is the consumer insight that gives us the creative idea to then go out and express? AI can help us get to that.

GH: I think there's another piece to it too, which is that we're all using AI to enhance brand safety. The more you do that, the bigger you can go with creative. The stuff we see can be infinitely more courageous. What has won this year, in my view, has not been spectacularly courageous.

CDB: We're in the first inning of a extra inning ballgame. I mean we don't even know what's possible. Frank Shaw from Microsoft has a great thing that he says all the time and I totally buy it, which is that we've defaulted to the idea of how AI can make hard things easy, when we should be focused on is how to make the impossible actually possible

PH: Any other big trends this year?

DL: Both of the big campaigns from PR agencies that won involved celebrities. It's not revelatory per se, but it's a fact.

PH: I always joke in SABRE juries that we dock 10 points the moment a celebrity shows up. But that’s not universally true. From this year's SABRE I think about the Ben Affleck campaign for Dunkin’, which added 10 points because it was organic and authentic and all those words that we use when we like something and don't really know why we like it. In the same way, Rick Astley and and Michael Cera were both just brilliant choices right?

JJ: They were authentic.

MN: Rick Astley is recording music in the studio right now and he cannot hear like he once could. It’s an issue a lot of people do not want to talk about it because it is Act Three, exit stage left kind of thing. This was just something that he believed in because it was personal. And it wouldn't have worked if we had chosen somebody else, another misheard lyric, because with Rick there was a truth to it.

GH: And there was a humility to it, which isn't the case in your average celebrity appearance.

CDB: And there’s the issue of reputation. For a long time, when the reputation doctors came strolling into your building, they were there in service of a crisis. What your campaign did so brilliantly is building reputation in a way that has a lot of layers to it. Think about if you're an employee of the client, the pride you would feel. Because you understand not just that it's clever, not just that it's creative, but there are elements to it where you understand there is a purpose beneath all of this. We're just not performatively flashing it in front of your face that it's purpose, right?

DL: I spend a lot of time talking to our clients about their influence in the world and how they can do more influential things for the communities that they serve. And I think that the work that excited me the most is work where the brand became just an influential part of a discussion. Where you did something, with the work that you won for, that was truly influential in your marketplace, that changed a marketplace. That is about reputation,

Arun Sudhaman, CEO of PRovoke Media: Just one question and that is whether from a PR perspective, maybe from other agencies, but I think particularly from a PR agency perspective, Cannes is dominated now by the holding groups. You see that not just in terms of presence but in terms of the winners as well. When you talk about crafting an entry, that's a significant investment of resources, right? Does it matter?

MN: I think in some ways it’s time more than money. But it is a shame, I think. And Cannes can do a better job of helping those independent agencies to show them how to win.

PH: There is, to Arun's point, there is an exclusivity at Cannes that is not exclusivity on the grounds of creativity, it's exclusivity on the grounds of resources.

MD: Just look at the price of a flight. You're absolutely right.

DL: This is a hard place to get to.

CDB: Let's make sure we continue to keep our finger on the pulse of that because when you get to the point where celebrating the work and celebrating the people means that there's an exclusive club that's able to participate, we're lost.