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The Business Case For Creativity: Why Coke Thinks Winning At Cannes Matters

Coca-Cola had its best year ever at this year’s Cannes Lions, winning 30 awards including two Grand Prix. In the wake of the event, Coke’s Jonathan Mildenhall summed up the company’s creative performance for Coke staffers and drew a line between awards glory and business success. Here, a version of that article.

The global significance of the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity gathers momentum each and every year. This year both official attendance figures and advertiser entries increased in excess of 20%. This is quite remarkable when you consider the broader economic challenges that nearly every business and geography is facing.

So why does the Cannes Lions’ momentum keep growing? From my vantage point I see two main drivers of interest.


Firstly, no other award festival covers so many critical categories for advertisers. Cannes Lions now boast 18 award categories, including: Design, Film Craft, Outdoor, Branded Content, the Grand Prix for Good, Media, Mobile, and arguably the most important, Creative Effectiveness. The breadth is staggering and it will only continue to grow as more and more genres of creativity are embraced to drive business growth.

Coke’s "Hands" won the Grand Prix in the Outdoor category

Not only are the categories increasingly broad but so are the nationalities that Cannes Lions represents. The festival attracts award entries and delegates from as many markets as The Coca-Cola Company does business in. While this increasingly global presence at Cannes is impressive, it is even more beautiful to watch the distribution of recognition grow to these new regions. This year countries as diverse as Finland, Peru, Guatemala, Denmark, China, Costa Rica, South Africa, Kenya, India, Dubai and Turkey all picked up major awards. Long may this distribution of recognition continue. It certainly makes the global soup of creativity more interesting for the palette.

But an awards festival that focuses solely on breadth could be destined for a dull and uninspired future. Cannes is not about volume. It is absolutely, steadfastly and utterly, committed to quality. And to me, few things are more important. Cannes Lions simply curates the world’s finest strategies, ideas, executions and craft. To be recognized at Cannes is to be recognized by the world’s finest creative minds. Minds that are not only brilliant, but brutal in their critique of the work. Winning a Cannes Lion builds careers. Permanently.


I have long been an absolute believer in the correlation between outstanding creative success and outstanding commercial success. In this year’s marketing (campaign) for Cannes Lions I am quoted as saying "If Cannes has taught me one thing, it is that creativity drives effectiveness. You can not have one without the other. That knowledge has been instrumental to my career." I have been going to Cannes for nearly 20 years and can’t help but notice that the the client organizations recognized as Advertiser of the Year often enjoy periods of historic financial success at the same time. Let’s take a brief look at a few of them.

Volkswagen: Recognized as Advertiser of the Year in 2008, the same year that its share price grew 89% to 283 Euros. This most prolific period of stock market growth coincides precisely with its most prolific period of creativity.

P&G: Recognized as Advertiser of the Year in 2007 when its share price hit an all time high of $74.67, beating the S&P 500 by a country mile.

Honda: In 2006 Honda was awarded Advertiser of the Year for brilliant work like "Cog" and "Grrr." During this time, its share price was as high as $38.50 and its U.K. sales were up 28%. Wow.

Playstation: Was awarded Advertiser of the Year in 2005. Now, Playstation is a sub-division of Sony so we cannot isolate its share price. However, what we can do is isolate its sales. During that year it became the worlds biggest selling gaming console selling a record 100 million units.

BMW: Took the mantle of Advertiser of the Year in 2004. So rightly deserved when you consider the lasting legacy of BMW films (still held up by most as the breakthrough work taking advertising into long form content). As a result of this work, which ultimately landed them the award, BMW saw a sales increase of 12% and a stock price rise of 16%. This is huge, especially when you consider the turbulent, post 9/11 period.

Nike: In 2003, the same year that Nike was awarded Advertiser of the Year, Phil Knight, CEO and Founder, wrote ‘’We decided to cross the threshold of 9/11. Eight months later we delivered a 14% increase in earnings and beat the S&P 500 by 45 points. Advertiser of the year was a defining moment. A Nike moment."

Swatch: From 1999 – 2001 the S&P 500 did not grow a cent but Swatch reported its steepest growth period on record.

Clearly, the correlation between winning at Cannes and winning in the marketplace is compelling. That’s one of many reasons why The Coca-Cola Company places a premium on creative excellence. It is simply makes sound business sense. The creative industries and client organizations are in a co-dependent relationship—we need each other. As Phil Thomas, CEO of the Cannes Lions, puts it: ‘‘The Advertiser of the Year award is presented to advertisers who have distinguished themselves for the inspiring, innovative marketing of their brands and who embrace and encourage the creative bravery of the creative work produced by their agencies.’’

If you still doubt the correlation between creative and business success, please check out the wonderful book The Case for Creativity, by author James Hurman. We met in Cannes this year. Credit to James, he actually spent years analyzing the data. His book is a compelling read but I have also included a link to his presentation summary (See the presentation here).

Coke’s "Polar Bowl" won four Lions

I firmly believe that winning at Cannes Lions is important for The Coca-Cola Company. Good, vibrant, creatively dynamic brands make for good, vibrant, creatively dynamic companies. And in his beautiful words of wisdom and insight James concludes his book:

In every case, the companies that have been the most tenacious in their pursuit of great creativity in their advertising have been the ones outperforming the stock market and enjoying historic periods of financial prosperity. And in every case the leaders of those companies had created a culture of innovation that advertising was just symptomatic of, but which extended well beyond advertising and into culture, the products, and the day to day activities of those companies. A creative day to day that produced the most extraordinary results in the history of the world’s most illustrious companies.

As I look forward with the above beliefs held firmly in place I am incredibly excited about the future of The Coca-Cola Company. This year we took home an all-time high of 30 Cannes Lions. This number is nearly twice our previous record and included 2 Grand Prix and awards from 3 Asia Pacific, Latin America, North America and the Global team. We won for Coke, Coke Zero and Sprite. We won across 9 categories and most of our awards demonstrated a fusion of storytelling, technology, social and executional excellence. (See all of Coke’s Cannes Lions-winning work here).

As for Advertiser of the Year, well that recognition still eludes us. That said, Cannes Lions makes the call for next year’s advertiser early in January and this year’s performance leaves me confident that we will give the industry’s best a run for their money.

Jonathan Mildenhall is vp of global advertising strategy and creative excellence at Coca-Cola.

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  • FredTho

    I agree with the general point but I wonder: did Coke Hands drive commercial success? Did anyone even see this ad? An example, in my opinion, if a winner at Cannes that failed to reach the consumer

  • Lyle Shemer

    Kudos, Jonathan, for pointing out the correlation between creative excellence and sales' results/stock price.

    But as correlations are rather weak at indicating causality, I wonder if your argument couldn't be flipped the other way around:

    To wit, success in the marketplace, owing to a variety of variables that affect and influence business, encourages bravery in the marketing suites of big companies.

    Based on my 10+ years' experience in advertising, I've seen economic downturns—and their corollary threat of downsizing and redundancies—create fear amongst marketeers, making them more conservative and risk averse, from a creative point-of-view.

    Conversely, during boom times, clients seem less scared, under less pressure, and more open to innovation and bravery.

    Guess it's really the age old chicken-or-the-egg question dressed in different clothes.

  • James hurman

    I get that question a lot Lyle – and
    there’s a fairly simple answer. When you look at this study that Jonathan’s
    discussing in the context of all the other research from the last couple of
    decades it’s clear creativity does in fact cause effectiveness rather than
    simply correlating it.


    In particular there are numerous academic
    studies by university researchers that compare the persuasive effects of more
    and less creative advertising in a ‘lab’ situation – so taking out the real
    world effects of brands simply doing better when they’re ‘on a roll’. Some of
    these use imaginary ads and brands to take out all of the contextual effects
    like a brand’s size, momentum, cool factor etc.


    If it were those contextual effects of a
    company’s success driving the effectiveness then you’d see that come out in the
    wash when you removed those variables.


    But these lab studies all show that
    consumers notice, remember and intend to act on advertising more, the more
    creative it gets. And the findings of those ‘in-vitro’ studies line up exactly
    with the empirical studies using the real world case histories.


    But you’re certainly right that success
    begets success and so there’s a virtuous circle in creativity creating success,
    in turn creating a greater appetite for creativity, in turn creating more

  • RichardLipscombe

    the digital economy is great because those who innovate is clear from this article that Coke is being innovative with its marketing...winning the outdoor ads competition is important if and only if the messages in them work with the Coke Tribes who sustain the brand...the image of sharing a Coke with a friend is the perfect message for Tribes...there are two other categories where messaging is important...the notion of having a Coke as of contemporary life has to embedded into the Clans - these are the folk who want to explore new experience over the whole of their lives... these are the people who drink the product sometimes but not always...these consumers have to be reminded that 'things do go better with Coke'....finally the message has to be conveyed, as you are doing here, to the Coke Clusters that the drink is truly cool at major global events like Cannes...the clusters form to celebrate the innovative messaging of Coke but the product should be shown to the world as an integral part of that event...those who attend and do not usually drink Coke should have a wonderful experience at this Coke Cluster and thus become advocates of of the drink with their real and virtual friends... the digital economy is brutal but much less so for those who innovate and those who take up the challenge of presenting their consumers with a superior experience... just ask Apple about that.... cheers, richard.