Cannes flashback: the urge to do good

As a generation questions the relevance of advertising, clients and their agencies are keen to make a contribution to society.

von Philippe Paget , Maydream


Now the dust has settled and the Fall season has begun, perhaps it’s a good time to look back at Cannes and consider what it told us about the state of the industry. Among the trends on show at the festival, the one that struck us as the most significant was the growing need of agencies to “do good”.

There were many examples of this, not least “Fearless Girl” and the way she empowers women. But McCann also scooped a prize with its “Immunity Charm”, a bracelet that encourages mothers to immunize their children. When we asked McCann Worldgroup Global Creative Chairman Rob Reilly about it, he told us straight: “I am a firm believer in purpose-led marketing. To me, it is real marketing. Brands can play a meaningful role in people’s lives. And it doesn’t have to be at the expense of making a profit. I hope we see more brands jumping in to help fix the issues we are currently facing. It’s good for the world and good for business when we get it right.”

He was by no means alone in this view. One of our other key interviews was with Brent Choi, Chief Creative Officer for J. Walter Thompson’s New York and Toronto offices. Brent mentioned that the work he was most proud of at Cannes was the Northwell Fin, an amphibious prosthetic leg actually co-created by the agency. He told us: “We’ve gone beyond doing ads. They’re actually using our creative minds to solve real human problems…That’s when you’re really doing something special.” See the full take-out here

Another agency that regularly reaches beyond traditional advertising is J. Walter Thompson Amsterdam. Its stand-out project at this year’s Cannes was the School For Justice in India, which aims to educate girls rescued from child prostitution and transform them into lawyers and public prosecutors.


Commenting on the desire of agencies to contribute to society, Executive Creative Director Bas Korsten said: “I don’t think it’s agencies per se, I think it’s brands in general. They should have a clear role in society, and with governments stepping back, brands should step in.”

One might cynically assume that with all the distractions consumers face, combined with a rather disinterested view of advertising among younger audiences, all this do-gooding is a way of regaining their attention and finding some kind of redemption. But that’s a rather simplistic way of looking at it. As the work featured in the annual ACT Responsible exhibition shows, charities need agencies’ advanced communications skills to spread their messages more effectively.

As if to underline that argument, the United Nations was present in Cannes in the form of Maher Nasser, Acting Under-Secretary for Global Communications. He actually called on agencies to help. “We recognise that whether it’s storytellers from the film and TV industries or creatives from advertising agencies, they are definitely much better at telling stories than we are. Sometimes what we produce is written in a sort of UN-ese. So it’s good to interpret that in language that everyone understands.”

He also pointed to one of the challenges facing the industry, and a driver of its current soul-searching. “Are you encouraging people to consume in a way that is just about creating profit, without thinking of the consequences to the planet?”

Advertising has always been about changing peoples’ minds. But the industry itself is changing – and perhaps for the better.