You might think, for a content professional, that judging the Cannes branded content categories was a gig made in heaven. And it is, says Will Barnett, creative director at video and digital content agency Adjust Your Set, “exhilarating and inspiring,” he says, “like an MBA crash course in global content.”
But it’s also hard, serious, work. No long lunches or the stroll along the Croisette from one party to the next. “You feel a responsibility for showing the industry the direction of travel.”
Along with his other dozen judges, Barnett was locked into the jury bunker for six days, starting at 8.30 and finishing at 8pm – apart from one day when they finished at 2.30am. And all that’s after an exhaustive pre-judging process in which Barnett looked at 300 pieces of work before he even got the jury bunker.
So, out of the 1,100 entries, what makes a Cannes winner? It’s all about creativity, says Barnett, and effectiveness, engagement or reach stats are disregarded. The key is the idea and how it is brought to life. Is it original? Is brand storytelling in its DNA? Does it deliver on brand messaging? And does it have that “I wish I’d done that” factor?
In addition, notes Barnett, two other trends emerged in the judging process this year. One, does the content stand on its own merits as something consumers will give their time to? “Increasingly,” he says, “consumers are their own editors, and today’s platforms allow you to curate and share that content. It’s got to have an entertainment or utility value in its own right – which means the consumer must not feel as though they are being sold to. So you judge a piece of content like that – is it as good as something Hollywood would make or a prime-time TV show?”
The second trend the judges looked for was purpose – which you can define as making a contribution to society or adding something above and beyond the commercial message.
This explains, on the one hand, the high concentration of charity/good cause winners – such as Sweetie, a virtual girl who traps sexual predators, or the East Los High, that used Beverly Hills 90210 style storytelling to engage its Latino teenage audience with a message about the issues of teenage pregnancy.
But it also explains the success of the Chipotle scarecrow film, a promotion for a US fast-food chain that also warns of the dangers of industrialised farming, and a Honda US initiative to save drive-in film theatres.
“If you look at Chipotle,” says Barnett, “it succeeded at Cannes because it stands up against anything Pixar might produce, but it also told an important story that was relevant to the brand.
“Honda was a very sharp piece of work,” he says. “Strategically, you have a Japanese car brand targeting middle America, doing good by helping save drive-in movie theatres that are incredibly important in small-town America. And they used social media to create a genuine popular movement that helped something the target audience cared about.”
So what then, in the work setting the standards for content, are the key trends?
And some Cannes content clichés…
With 1,100 entries, it was inevitable that there were some repetitive tropes, notes Barnett. “Too many entries made a play of the fact that they put no money, aside from production costs, behind the push. It used to be that content was thought of as ‘free’ marketing, but that isn’t the case anymore. If you make content, you have to maximise its availability, and that means using paid-for media to promote it.”
Some entries also claimed extraordinary – and hypothetical – reach figures, says Barnett. We had one that said it had a potential reach of 14bn people. I think that’s more than the population of the planet…so we treated that accordingly.”
And, somewhat bizarrely, smiles Barnett, 15 entries featured blind people. Except where it was relevant, the judges were unimpressed. Gratuitous use of disability doesn’t cut the mustard.