What advertisers need to know about winning at Cannes Lions: brand building, creative excellence, and rising to global standards

MANILA, PHILIPPINES — For advertisers all around the world, winning a Cannes Lions metal is the highest level of recognition – one that opens new business opportunities for brands, creative boosts for agencies, and inspiration resources for creatives. In the Philippine advertising scene, this is no different. It remains to be a goal among individual creatives and agencies and brands, alike. With this, 4As Philippines initiated an industry-wide conversation last March 08 with the “Getting Your Lions Share” session at the Ayala Museum which was specifically held to explore the unsaid criteria behind winning at the prestigious Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. 

The event, hosted by esteemed broadcaster Rico Hizon, featured presentations from previous Cannes Lions winners such as Kristine Go, Senior Vice President – Wireless Consumer Individual of Smart Communications Inc.; Margot Torres, Managing Director of McDonald’s Philippines; and Raoul Panes, Chief Creative Officer at Publicis Groupe Philippines and Leo Burnett Group Manila. On top of getting insights from past winners, the session also provided key intel from Cannes Lions itself, with Global Director of Awards Marian Brannelly sharing data and insights from the past few years.

So, what does it take to win a Cannes Lion? The panel shared common threads in their presentations: brand building as the primary objective, creative excellence as the strategy, and joining again and again to find that sweet spot. 


Brand love first, and the rest will follow

Before Kristine Go joined the world of telco with Smart Communications, she was with Unilever for over a decade, winning accolades for her work with brands such as Knorr, Selecta, and more. But for this Cannes Lions-focused panel, she centered her presentation on Lifebuoy, as its “Help A Child Reach 5 – Gondappa” campaign raked incredible reactions from audiences and jurors for its moving story, and earned the brand its first-ever Cannes win.

The main driving insights behind this work underline three distinct facts: first, one child under five years old dies every 25 seconds; second, Lifebuoy is the oldest soap brand in the world with over 100 years to its name; and lastly, the brand was sure that its mission was to save lives. 

So when long-form advertising grew in 2011, Kristine recalled a question from her boss that started everything: “Why can’t we inspire brand love to the 95% of those who buy our brand?”

Lifebuoy’s agency, MullenLowe, took up the challenge and presented them with the Gondappa film that, at first, the brand said “no” to. “We thought people would say it was unrealistic,” Kristine recalled. But after the agency pushed to produce the film with its own funds added to Lifebuoy’s small budget, the film started making rounds online and received surprising responses from the world.

The campaign pushed the United Nations to include “hand washing with soap” in its Sustainable Development Goals (Goal 6.2); the film, which initially was not backed by any regional office as a global production, ranked in the top 10 most viewed ads on YouTube globally; and celebrities, politicians and most importantly, the parents who made up Lifebuoy’s customer demographic, showered the campaign with support and amplification.

“It was never planned. We believed that there was a story that we could tell, but we didn’t make this film to win awards. We just wanted to inspire brand love and for the people who buy our products to understand our mission,” Kristine emphasized, citing the value of pursuing brand love and brand-building above all else in marketing. 

Interestingly enough, McDonald’s Philippines’ Margot Torres mirrored this sentiment with her own presentation. “I believe that as a marketer, if you build the brand, the business will follow,” she stressed. This is in light of the brand’s recent Cannes Lions run with “Unbranded Menu” by Leo Burnett Manila, which shone bright with a Silver and Bronze in the show’s inaugural Gaming categories. “Our award-winning work is also our brand-building work,” Margot underlined.

However, Margot believes that in McDonald’s Philippines’ case, brand-building work cannot be pursued in truth without consistently excellent creatives. 

Onwards with creative excellence

“Unbranded Menu” is testament to the brand’s commitment to trying new things and exploring different creative circles. The campaign had a remarkable awards season in 2023, with accolades across international shows beyond Cannes Lions. It was an initiative that successfully got the gaming community — a market that’s famously anti-ads — engaged and having fun while strengthening McDonald’s brand love online and offline.

Reflecting Kristine’s earlier statements, Margot highlighted how the campaign, beyond tapping a seemingly impenetrable audience and utilizing a new platform, is primarily an effort to identify other areas of the brand that can be further built on. In an exclusive interview with the team behind the campaign, Leo Burnett’s Raoul Panes shared that the project came from an open brief to “identify and address certain aspects of the business that the agency can work on.” The agency then honed in on gaming. Once the idea was set, both the agency and brand worked hard to push ahead with customer engagement and creative ideas, fueled by the team’s gamers. 

“We understand that gamers are not exotic beings that only come out at night. Gamers are everywhere,” Raoul mused, noting the amount of gamers on the agency and in the world in general, and how that inspired many ideas out of “Unbranded Menu.” He furthered, “It’s always important that we create a space where people are free to be creative and to experiment, to make mistakes, to fail, bounce back, be rewarded, I think it’s very important that it becomes a part of their natural instinct.”

Creating this culture of creativity that constantly pursues excellence is key to McDonald’s Philippines and Leo Burnett Manila’s strong client-agency relationship, and is also integral to the type of work that comes out of this partnership. “Our goal was to build a brand. And our strategy was creative excellence,” Margot expressed. Raoul quipped, “Cannes was a goal. But it was never the end goal.” 

Margot furthered, “[But] what does creative excellence mean? What is a world-class creative? It is only when I went to the Cannes in 2010 did I witness world-class creative and creative excellence. This actually helped me calibrate our own work and make sure that we really build the brand, with creative excellence, and aspire for world-class excellence.” 

World class creativity

The presentation that wrapped up the insights and conversations around winning a Cannes Lions was thanks to Global Director of Awards Marian Brannelly, who gave all the marketers and advertisers in the room hard data on what it means and what it takes. 

“We (Cannes) exist to drive progress through creativity,” Marian stressed, noting the organization’s commitment to elevating creative works and inspiration across the globe. “The Lions exist to help you to tell that story and drive that impact,” she added. 

Marian shared some numbers and insights that got everyone in the room snapping photos of the screen, and conversing amongst themselves. First, she noted that it typically takes three years for an entrant to win a Cannes Lions metal: They enter in Year 1, learn from the winners and adjust in Year 2, and fueled with the trials and errors of their first attempts, push for creative excellence in Year 3. 

Moreover, she highlighted that in 2023, 26,992 works were submitted. Among those, only 2,791 were shortlisted, and 876 came out as victors. 

“Winning a Lion is an opportunity of learning, benchmarking, and learning what you can do to really push creativity. Creativity lifts the ceiling and [industry] standards, but it also raises the floor,” she stated. By raising the floor, she meant that winning a Lion through excellence not only shows creatives what can be done, but also what should be the minimum. 

Lastly, as a tip for entering agencies and brands, Marian noted that the usual reason why entries don’t make it to the shortlist falls on crafting the entry: “With award entries, your audience is the jury who are CMOs of brands, or ECDs of agencies. They don’t know your brand like your audience, and they don’t know your culture. Make it easy for your jury to select your work.” 

How to get your Lions share

Kristine Go wrapped up the core message of the panel on an inspiring note. She said, “Creativity is not as important as the results that it actually shows; it always has to be both. I love a good creative, I get it. But I also believe that you must have substance and substance delivers results behind them. And that for me is really the magic formula, don’t do something because you want to win an award.”

With that, advertisers are reminded that it all goes back to the brand — what it stands for, who it serves, and why it was created in the first place. The magic of creative excellence will naturally flow while working in service of that, and, if fortunate enough, might also land a recognition on the Cannes Lions stage. 

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