A trip to the Cannes Lions Festival provides a great opportunity to sit back and mull over the changes in the world of brand communications over the last decade. So, glass of rosé in hand, I can give you a (not rosé-tinted I promise) perspective on the direct category.
On the face of it, despite the burgeoning number of Direct entries at Cannes, all is not well. Direct is being squeezed between two mindsets. For some it conjures up an image of a tired heap of direct mail thumping onto your doormat with the unwelcoming promise of poorly targeted credit card offers, unappetising local pizza services and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to win never-in-a-lifetime prizes. It is stuck in the past. For others it is all about the sexy but scary use of the inevitable 'big' data; it's a futuristic world of algorithms and the exploitation of precious personal data that will bring Minority Report rapidly into the real world. A pernicious future.
Direct is neither of these things and Cannes is not helping here. It offers no clarity around the direct category. Indeed we saw a bunch of shortlisted campaigns and winners who don't seem to be direct at all. A Vittel water lid that reminds you to drink every hour. Some ugly fruit and vegetables which were celebrated in Intermarché. One a nice piece of packing design, the other a fun and well-orchestrated PR campaign. But direct?! Even the Direct Grand Prix winner, British Airway's creatively superb 'Magic of Flying', isn't a direct campaign in my view.
The Cannes criteria talks about work that needs to 'generate a response or specific action'. None of these campaigns, or many others, was created with that purpose in mind. BA and Ogilvy One used data very creatively for certain, but this was an innovative use of outdoor media to build brand presence and a reputation for innovation, not work that was there to directly put bums on airline seats, build personal customer relationships or drive an immediate response. It is starting to feel like anything with a hashtag on it qualifies as a direct campaign.
Why is this? Agencies enter a lot of their work in a lot of categories at Cannes. That certainly suits Cannes with more than 38,000 award entries which has probably created over €20m in fees for its 61st year. It also suits those trying to maximise their chance of some metal. Less cynically, in this age of media neutral big ideas that can be advertised (as opposed to advertising ideas), this scattering across categories seems a natural route to success and a consequence of better integrated, broader output.
However that does not mean each skill should not be focused on and celebrated in its own right, rather than as part of some broader sense of great work. To add to this desire for breadth, agency leaders are terrified of being narrow in their skillset and capability. 'We can do that' is a pretty standard answer to any marketing director who might enquire if your agency is well placed to help with something social, a PR thought, a bit of design work, some data analysis. But 'we can do that' is the enemy of specialism and the road to a lack of respect for craft skill and deep expertise.
This also impacts juries. As a consequence they are not judging the direct category against direct criteria at Cannes. Indeed one direct juror said to me he had voted for one of the big winners because it had 'universal appeal'. To me that is the complete antithesis of a category which is surely about personal appeal.
So what of Direct? Will it be squashed between the past and the future, undermined by those who do not take enough care when awarding it's supposedly best work? I don't think so. There are a few things which direct can nail like nothing else. And these are things high up the wish list of marketing directors around the globe who want to build more personal customer relationships which bring their brands closer to each individual. They also want to prove their return on marketing investment without ambiguity.
You should ask four questions to get to the direct work that will really make a difference. Does it make your brand promise personal for me as an individual? Does it make me feel something? Does it make me do something? Can you measure the outcome?
If only the Cannes jurors asked the same questions we might see some genuinely direct work winning Direct. A rosé future indeed.