What the Oscars are to the global film industry, the Cannes Lions are to the global advertising creative. There may be endless debates about the many cultural and social biases in the judging process, about whether the best film, or the best campaign manages to win.
But there's no denying that in terms of the hype around the awards, or the amount of newsprint and television-time these events hog, or glamour-value, they score far ahead of other festivals in their fields.
Over the past few years, especially since 2002 when it struck gold for the first time, the buzz surrounding the event in India, among agencies, clients, the media and its consumers -- the general public -- has been getting increasingly shrill.
"In the end, it is a very successful marketing event," says Santosh Desai, long-time president of McCann Erikson who recently quit to become CEO of Future Brands, "besides being an excuse to have a big party".
But despite all the hoopla, it's been a mixed bag for India at this year's Cannes Lions -- one promo lion, three silver and five bronze, nine in all, to show for the record 931 entries that went in.
While the results are coming in even as we go to print, and the Indian contingent has its hopes fondly pinned on the HappyDent TVC by McCann Erikson India, one of five Indian shortlists in the films category, it can safely be said that this year's performance has not been a patch on last year's exceptional showing -- four gold, three silver, five bronze.
"The results are not as impressive as we could have expected," admits Piyush Pandey, chairman and national creative director, Ogilvy & Mather India, recently appointed vice-chairman of O&M Asia-Pacific and poster boy of Indian creatives. But Pandey would rather take heart from the large number of shortlists -- 62. After all, he says, "shortlists are not a joke."
Joke they may not be, but there's still many a slip between the cup and the lip. As Meera Sharath Chandra, Mudra Marketing Services' national creative director who was on the Clio and One Show Interactive jury earlier this year, points out, "We're getting the shortlists, which is putting us on the map. Now we need that little extra to win."
Indeed, there are categories like outdoor, where India had as many as 14 nominations (of a whopping 252 entries that went in) but not one got the jury's endorsement. Likewise, in media, where we had seven shortlists but not a single gong.
So what gives? Are our creatives not up to the mark? Or is it that the international juries just don't get the point?
On the latter, the verdict is fairly unanimous. Prasoon Joshi, executive chairman, McCann Erikson India who's been a part of the jury at a number of major global fests, feels foreign juries are now far more interested in decoding cultural nuances.
"While a gap still exists, a lot of our work gets acknowledged now." It's a factor of India's gaining significance in the international market, feels Joshi, "that foreign jurors now turn to the Indian in their midst, asking for translations. Then, of course, there is understanding through Bollywood, of the musical genre, which spills over into many of our ads."
The number of Indians who're being included in juries of all the major fests no doubt aids the process.
At Cannes, this year, there're five Indians doing jury duty; at the Clios earlier, there were three and an equal number (bolstered by Piyush Pandey as head of the press jury) at Adfest 2007, the Asia Pacific Advertising Festival; and two more at the prestigious One Show awards.
Look at Grey Worldwide India's (GWI) "henna" campaign for Travel Corporation of India's (TCI) honeymoon packages, which won a silver in the press category.
The campaign -- a bride's beautifully henna'ed hands, with maps of such honeymoon destinations like Australia, Hawaii, Venice offered by TCI etched cleverly into the design -- works around the association of marriage with henna, something that's very Indian.
Interestingly, it was Priya S, associate creative director at GWI's Chennai office, who developed the concept, although it is the Delhi office that has the TCI account. "At GWI we work as a family, pooling resources countrywide," says Priya.
Interestingly, the jury had no trouble decoding the semantics of this commercial. In the absence of an Indian on the jury, it was apparently Monica Moro, the executive creative director of McCann Erikson Spain, who enlightened her fellow members on its relevance and aptness.
"The beauty of the ad lies in the fact that even if you were not aware of the cultural nuances, the visual itself is so arresting that decoding it was not so difficult," feels Prathap Suthan, national creative director, GWI. "Anyway, the West is very familiar with mehendi. Thanks to Madonna, it is symbolic of India."
Craig Davis, chief creative officer, JWT Worldwide, takes a larger view of the issue. "There is a heightened appreciation all over the world," he feels, "of differences of cultures, art forms, expressions. And this is true not just of India."
He's right; look at the number of nominations, and wins from Asia and Latin American -- Brazil, Argentina, Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam.
But on that first question, about the quality of work originating out of India, the verdict is mixed. "The quality of our creatives has definitely improved, the execution, finish, everything is much better now," Prasoon Joshi says, echoing the views of most of his fraternity.
But creativity alone doesn't fetch awards. Ashish Bhasin, director, Integrated Marketing Action Group (IMAG), Lintas India, who was on the direct Lions jury, explicates.
"The emphasis seems to simply be on sending a large number of entries. We have a few things to learn yet about the art of entering. Often, many of the entries weren't registered in the right category, or forms had been hurriedly filled without even reading the rules of the sub-category properly. Compare this with entries from other countries, especially Brazil, which were not only outstanding but also had short audio-visuals explaining the regional flavour."
With juries having to go through hundreds of entries through the day, often working from early morning to late in the evening, the importance of presentation cannot be overstressed.
"It's all about packaging, detailing, scaling up -- dotting your Is and crossing your Ts," concludes Mahesh Chauhan, president, Rediffusion DY&R, which gathered shortlists for its Live Ants campaign for Zydus Cadilla's sugar free sweetener in a number of categories, but didn't make the grade.
Perhaps the more serious issue is that most of the shortlists are in the direct, promos, press and outdoor categories.
"There are a number of categories," says Josy Paul, national creative director, JWT India, "where Indian entries haven't been shortlisted, or if they have, haven't won -- radio, cyber, even television."
Agrees Mudra's Chandra, "Most of us have a mental block about cyber, but that's where the landscape will widen in the years to come."
Given this, the two bronzes in radio -- the Bullzi recruitment spot by Ambience Publicis, Mumbai, and Leo Burnett Mumbai's anti-female foeticide campaign for Cehat -- are a welcome sign.
There was also a nomination in the cyber Lions, Tribal DDB India's anti-AIDS campaign for MTV, Protected Entry, which got this year's Webby People's Voice Award in the interactive category. Sadly, it failed to cut any ice with the Cannes jury.
The other notable fact is that seldom does mainstream work get awards. "The bulk of the entries seem to comprise work that seems to have been made only for awards, or minor work like posters and press ads,"says A G Krishnamurthy, veteran adman.
"There has been some work involving major brands like Asian Paints that have won awards, but these are few and far between. You cannot blame agencies alone because they work within constraints; they can't go all out because clients are often marking boundaries for them. Especially in TV and films, where large budgets are involved. The stakes are not so high in the other categories, which is why you see so many entries here."
Bhasin has a name for this category of ads -- the odd menu for a restautarant, the invitation card for a client somewhere -- "scamlings". "But the jury, many of whom have 20-25 years of experience, are no fools. In the end, it is difficult to get a scam ad through."
So what explains the clamour for awards? Do they cut any ice with clients, or do they add weight when making a pitch? Opinions are divided. "What matters with clients is whether you've won awards for work that everyone has seen and liked. Technical awards have little significance," feels Desai.
"And anyway, Cannes today is not agency specific but country specific, all the focus being on how many India has won." Countering this, Rediff's Chauhan feels awards are definitely significant. "They definitely add to your stature."
On the client side, Sameer Suneja, head marketing, Perfetti Van Melle India, has this to say: "We do not create ads with a purpose of winning any awards. All our communication pieces need to work hard for the brand in terms of salience and volumes."
The Happydent commercial, he goes on to add, "has had a huge positive impact on sales. We have recently augmented production capacities. We plan to invest sufficient monies in airing this commercial, and believe that this could get new users into the category."
The one thing that everyone is agreed upon is the abundance of creative talent in India. Marlene Edmunds, freelance writer, sums up the gung-ho in "Indian and proud of it", in www.lionsdailynews.com, "Driven by an economy that is exploding and a young, educated and savvy talent bank hungry for exposure and success, India is emerging on to the global landscape as a major creative powerhouse."
And these are not isolated voices. Note the number of awards that India has been bagging lately. There's Cannes, of course. The watershed year, here, was 2003. Ever since, it's been a case of up one year, down the next, with last year being another high point. At the New York Festivals International Advertising Awards 2007 in early June, there were 40 Indian finalists, of which 17 went on to bag four gold, seven silver, six bronze.
In April, at the Venice Festival of Media, Madison Media's mobile application for Cadbury was picked by the publishers of Media and Marketing Europe and Cream magazine as one of five outstanding pieces of work from around the world.
At the Clios too this year, India did well. There wasn't a gold, but there were two silver and three bronze, including a bronze for the HappyDent teeth whitening gum radio spot. And then there was Protected Entry's win at the Webby.
There is other evidence of international respect for Indian creative talent. Piyush Pandey has been a member of the Ogilvy World Creative Council for some years now, but early last month Paul and his colleague Agnello Dias, were inducted into a similar forum at JWT.
Prasoon Joshi reports that a lot of the international work on Wall's ice creams happens in India, while much of the development work for the Intel pitch was done here.
Not just that, some of the Mentos ads, the classroom one for example, have been adapted by Perfetti for use in the Asia-Pacific region. Rediff India is one of five agencies internationally where original work is done, much of it for the Asia-Pacific region.
This is a factor of the fast-growing Indian market as much as it is of the cost benefits -- as much as 50 per cent, says one senior ad executive -- that, award or not, is creating advertising the Indian way.
|SO MANY ENTRIES...|
If you're baffled by the slew of entries that make it for advertising awards, blame it on the nine categories and more sub-categories in which entries can be sent.
The nine categories, for instance, include direct (direct marketing, mailers), media (use of media, its relevance to target audience), press (magazine, newspaper and inserts), outdoor (billboard, poster and ambient), promo (offer or sales of a product or service), films (TV and cinema ads), cyber (website and online ads) radio, titanium and integrated.
Each has a number of sub-categories. For example, film has 29 -- savoury foods, sweet foods and snacks, alcoholic drinks, non-alcoholic drinks, household cleaning products, household appliances...and so on. Some even have sub-sub categories, bringing the total number of categories under which Lions can be won to 227.
And in each of these, you have gold, silver, bronze...The arresting factor? Each entry commands a fee ranging between Euro 210 and Euro 1,000.