Cannes Lions – Australian advertising is in crisis

As a nation, Australia has often “punched above its weight” when it comes to the output of advertising work. Since 2015, Australia has consistently ranked in the top 10 for its award hall, averaging the 6th most awarded country globally. But, while position remains consistent, actual award numbers are in a downward spiral. At the end of the 2021 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity Australia had won a total of 25 Lions. In comparison, Australia collected 36 Lions in 2019, 56 Lions in 2018, and 113 Lions in 2017.

Now, many would agree that awards are not the “be-all-and-end-all” when it comes to recognising great work. But, the glaringly concerning element in this trend is the proven power of creativity as a business growth engine – one of the eight key themes of the festival this year. Numerous studies have consistently found strong creative and award-winning work is linked to better business outcomes for clients. Creativity is the most important driver in advertising effectiveness.

What does this mean?

It may seem far-fetched, but it is not.

The Australian advertising industry is becoming less effective at driving business outcomes. The industry is losing its seat in the boardroom, unable to shake its perception as a cost centre, and being relegated to solving communication challenges.

This. Is. A. Crisis.

Why is it becoming harder to produce creatively effective work?

There are factors that sit more closely with client teams, than agencies. Overinvestment in short-term performance thinking being the primary one. While Peter Binet and Les Field have given clients the evidence they need to convince senior leaders of the importance of brand building, market leaders increasingly short-term targets and corresponding tenure do make long-term brand thinking and investment a challenging proposition.

As an industry though, there have been a few “own goals”.

1. Digital first planning

As audiences flocked to digital channels and tangible measurement of media investment became easier (and more profitable), agencies pushed for digital to have a greater share of campaign splits. This unfortunately has been proven to be counterintuitive to producing effective creative work as the WARC Effectiveness study shows other traditional channels are more effective as channel leads and a higher number of channels in a campaign is better than digital only ones.

2. Siloed advertising

Creativity remains tethered to a traditional creative process and specialist agencies continue to battle over territory and billings. Neither is conducive to creating creatively effective work as how an idea comes to life in channels, media, tech and places is equally important as the creative idea itself. The integration across paid, owned and earned media and resulting cross-channel effectiveness is paramount to effective creative work as fragmented consumption continues.

3. Extinction of traditional strategy principles

In the pursuit of improving speed to market, capitalising on cultural trends and being relevant with new tech, fundamental business planning and strategy has taken a back seat. The industry is spending 90% of its time solving the problem and only 10% on defining what the problem is. Advertising does change, but the fundamental principles of it and how to influence or change consumer behaviour hasn’t.

4. Prioritising the customer over the brand

Customer experience has punctured the industry with CX agencies and specialists becoming mainstream stayers in strategy departments. With a focus on satisfying what the customer wants now, optimisations and ideas born out of a customer focus are inherently un-ownable. Any brand in the category can deliver them. Brand experience has now started to become infused in these moments, but a customer first focus remains. The voice of the customer commands an unfair share of time compared to the brand and how it can come to life.

With all this in mind, what do we need to do as an industry?

Value the discipline of advertising and what creativity can really achieve for brands. Focus back on the quality of work and outcomes it can achieve, rather than simply deliver the outputs a client has specified or thinks they may want. Prioritise the core principles of advertising, rather than the new tech helps deliver it. In short, the below.

1. Place real time and value in the strategic process

Build advertising that helps drive business growth, not ads that solve communication challenges. Advertising has a job, make sure it delivers on it.

2. Democratise creativity and integrate ideas

Break down organisational silos, integrate diversity in thought and ensure different specialists input not only how an idea comes to life, but the idea itself.

3. Collaboratively create fair outcome-based remuneration structures

Retainers give agencies confidence, not clients. Put skin in the game and believe in the output of work by embracing some forms of result-based remuneration. If we as an industry can’t commit to what we will achieve, how can we expect clients?

In summary, this may all seem simple.

But, in a world that continues to get more complex, maybe there is something inherently appealing about stripping advertising back to basics and simplifying its approach to solving real problems through sound strategic commercial creativity.

If this can be done, recognition of great work can’t be too far behind!

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