Time for French to polish up ads

Following the host nation’s poor performance at Cannes, the knives have been out for the jurors. Yet French agencies have no one to blame but themselves.

For most advertising agencies the controversy surrounding this year’s Cannes International Advertising Festival will be a distant memory. Some will be gratified by their awards while others may be consoling themselves with the thought that awards don’t matter anyway.

In the host nation, however, the performance of French agencies continues to provoke vigorous debate.

In contrast to UK and US agencies, which between them secured 89 Lions, the French industry managed only 11. This has led to a hysterical reaction from some French commentators, ranging from personal attacks on jurors and their chairman to calls for

a new awards system to be introduced.

But one of the most interesting reactions so far comes from Maurice Levy, the chairman and ceo of Publicis-FCB Communication. For him, what happened at Cannes is “an extremely dangerous development in society” and one that has led him to question the ability of the French ad industry to build successful international campaigns in a universal language.

Explaining his concerns recently in the French advertising press, Levy recalls a golden era when Cannes juries were sensitive to the “finesse, sophistication, eroticism or humour” of French advertising.

He suggests France’s agencies have since failed to impose their own cultural values on the world and as a result today’s dominant cultural model is Anglo-Saxon.

Although the Cannes Festival is now over, I feel Levy’s views are of sufficient importance to warrant further comment, for they provide a profound insight into the dangers of regarding advertising in terms of nationality and cultural supremacy.

Levy says: “We have to ask ourselves whether French advertising people these days know how to create communications in a universal language – that of the emotions – or whether, after years of turning in on themselves and not fighting sufficiently to impose their own cultural references, they have fallen out of the frame.”

He appears to feel that French agencies have failed because they have been insufficiently aggressive in making other cultures recognise and respond to the values of a supposedly distinctive French style of advertising.

It has always been my belief that successful international advertising must be based on understanding and appeal to those fundamental, universal human values and emotions which we all share.

The best and most relevant ideas will transcend national boundaries wherever they are conceived and there is no reason why the French should be any less able to do so than any other nation. But if agencies allow

cultural imperialism to take precedence over seeking and understanding universal consumer values, they can not reasonably hope to achieve success at an international level.

John Shannon is president of Grey International.

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