This was my first Cannes Lions. I have avoided it for years as I always had a perception it was just a place of excess where advertising and marketing people live it up.
In the past I’ve chosen coding over La Croisette, opting to go to the more digital SXSW and be a touch more studious. But this year an invite came to be on a panel with the UN about when brands should take a stand on diversity – an important topic close to Merlin’s future strategy and my own heart. I hopped on a plane hoping to hear from the best on the big important issues of our times and contribute a little. Cannes and La Croisette did not disappoint.
Throughout the discussions and panels two big challenges were set to us all – use our influence to drive political and social change on injustice, and embrace more diverse thinking and talent. And then the news landed on Friday about Roe v Wade being overturned, emboldening our ambition and making it an even more pertinent call to arms. The rosés were set down and the work began.
In the US, Roe v Wade has shown us we can take nothing of the past’s progress for granted.
At the Creative Equals stage Tracey Stallard, AB InBev global vice-president and CEO of in-house agency DraftLine, talked about how the Carling Black Label ‘No Excuse’ campaign had taken a stance on a tough issue. It started in South Africa targeting the poorest township areas and aimed to mobilise men to protect women from domestic violence through driving awareness of the problem and providing tools to ask for help.
It was a campaign that was hard to get off the ground with many rejectors internally. But thank goodness they pushed through as it’s had a lasting impact in impoverished communities. The campaign’s success led to a four-year platform being created that rolled out in five more countries. It also drove measurable results in brand preference, but that was the secondary measure.
Later in the week it was no surprise for me to hear that AB InBev won Creative Marketer of the Year. The overwhelming focus on work that serves customers, business and society together came through in the company’s 50 strong haul of awards. Global CMO Marcel Marcondes said: “It’s creativity at the service of addressing consumer problems and then business so that everybody wins.”
Speaking of everybody winning, executive director at UN Women UK, Claire Barnett, presented an excellent example of brands and agencies coming together across the industry to change things in everything they do. UN Women’s Unstereotype Alliance is at a basic level a series of tools to help audit your marketing communications and provide training for your team on how to position communities.
However, it is also a network where brands meet monthly to share learnings and the latest case studies, leading to an annual conference at the UN in New York chaired by former Unilever CMO Keith Weed. Building a marketing community where everyone learns from each other in this way is gold. We aren’t in competition and instead, for us to change society, we need to come together.
The need for allyship
Dino Myers-Lamptey, founder of the Barber Shop, gave a brilliant talk on inclusion and keeping diverse teams within companies.
He explained how there are communities who face acute marginalisation, specifically black women who are the most under-mentored and under-paid community, and face the double whammy of discrimination to deal with. Myers-Lamptey is a supporter of Maria McDowell’s Lollipop organisation, which offers mentoring for black women in advertising and marketing.
The need for allyship and helping marginalised communities when they join our businesses is only really now starting to be understood properly. I learnt that the LGBTQI+ community is three times overrepresented in advertising and marketing, and this community has received better support then others as a result. However the need for allyship, mentoring and ensuring the community is represented accurately remains. Businesses still get it wrong.
Throughout all of the panels and conversations it was clear everyone in marketing has strong intent to diversify their teams, but is finding it really hard to do so. On my panel I was asked whether I think quotas and targets are wrong.
What I learnt on this trip is that if you let the right people and communities into that network you can change society.
At Merlin we have learnt what gets measured gets done. We do have objectives for ourselves and for our agencies to ensure our teams are reflective of Census data. We can’t do this without commitment to work with communities who may have never considered marketing as a career, as they haven’t had the role models and so don’t apply for our roles.
There are good things happening here. One agency we appointed is Creature, which over the last few years has made a conscious and tangible effort to improve its diversity. The agency now has a relationship with the XLP partnership, an organisation seeking to create positive futures for young people in inner-city London. Everyone in the agency spends at least three hours a month working with the organisation, through mentoring, volunteering, or other means of support.
Creature also takes an intersectional approach to inclusion and diversity, working extensively with the Social Mobility Foundation and Living Wage Foundation. On a micro scale, the agency won’t work with any headhunter who doesn’t provide a genuinely balanced shortlist. As a result of all this hard work, Creature over-represents marginalised communities within the team working on our business.
My own team do great work with the Brixton Finishing School and dedicate proper time to the relationship. There are many brilliant organisations emerging to help businesses access underrepresented talent. Two new ones I met are DigiRise, set up by Digilearning founder Lisa Goodchild, and PlusPlusOne in the Netherlands.
If you aren’t getting the applications, think carefully about where you are spending your time mentoring and ensure your teams are KPI-ed and resourced to do this. This stuff is really time intensive, but you get out what you put in.
Where change starts
Speaking to just that, at Merlin we have decided that the biggest win isn’t being an activist for diversity on particular issues alone, but ongoing integration into all aspects of our marketing and product development.
One example of this is the Madame Tussauds figure selection. We have in the past often reflected the Hollywood studios. Now we have an active mission to champion a range of diverse talent. In 2022 our most diverse ever figure line up at Madame Tussauds London continues to be announced with recent additions including Stormzy, John Boyega, Little Mix, Ranveer Singh and many more coming.
We also use the talent already in the attractions to champion communities. For Pride month, QR codes have been put alongside figures who have been allies or part of the LGBTQI+ community. We have an amazing figure of Princess Diana and the QR code links to her story of support for the community, which was transformational at that time.
It struck me that Cannes isn’t really a reflection of the best people in marketing and advertising, but instead the best connected. And there’s so much that can be achieved with that.
At Merlin we believe social change starts with zero tolerance of abuse. Yet after reverse mentoring our staff we discovered this was something they faced within our attractions and they often hadn’t told us. Every attraction now runs proactive messaging about our ‘Zero Tolerance, 100% Fun’ stance, letting guests know they will be ejected if behaving like this. This was greater proof that creating a more inclusive culture and driving change begins with listening and learning what more we can do. Something Cannes provided in the ice bucket-load.
Cannes was full of people grappling with the big issues of our times. This came through in the winning work that was discussed time and time again. One winner close to my heart was the Mayor of London’s ‘Have a Word’ campaign. Merlin’s Wavemaker media team is the same team that run the Mayor’s campaigns. Their ongoing behaviour change work, which helps make London a safer place for women and tackles misogyny and bullying of all kinds, is both important and impactful.
On a more global scale the ‘Hope Reef’ campaign from Sheba cat food won the Industry Craft Grand Prix. I initially questioned how authentic it was for a cat food brand to take an environmental stand in this way, but having seen the work it made me realise there are ways brands should be championing big issues we haven’t spotted yet.
Of course there was still a fair amount of excess; yachts, pop stars, limitless rosé, drunken agency CEOs and all stuff you’d expect on the Côte. It struck me that Cannes isn’t really a reflection of the best people in marketing and advertising, but instead the best connected. And there’s so much that can be gained and achieved with that.
What I learnt on this trip is that if you let the right people and communities into that network you can change society – through fresh thinking, pressure testing old ways of working and dropping a hand back to those who are less fortunate than us. To have lasting impact we need to come together as marketers and agencies to do this now and with urgency.
In the US, Roe v Wade has shown us we can take nothing of the past’s progress for granted. Together we can take huge strides towards not just a more diverse and inclusive industry, but society as a whole.
Sara Holt is UK and Ireland marketing and sales director at Merlin Entertainments.