The Science Of Awards: Your Data-Driven Guide To Winning At Cannes

It may not be possible to break the art of award-winning creativity down to sheer math, but Columbia University’s Sudhir Venkatesh and students undertake a data-centric analysis of who wins at Cannes and what patterns and lessons are available for those looking to take home hardware.

In 2012, The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity took in nearly $20 million in submission fees from companies seeking to win the advertising industry’s most coveted award. For entrants (agencies and marketers), it begs the question: What are you investing in? And what is the potential return on that investment?

For agencies, one could argue that achievement helps recruit talent and clients. But for their clients, the benefit of peer recognition is more of an open question. Logic dictates that if great ads sell products, and Cannes Lions recognizes great ads, then Cannes recognizes ads that sell products (meaning, not just creatively noteworthy ads). In other words, the winner’s circle at Cannes should be filled with high-performing companies, grateful for the creative accomplishments of their agencies.

For the most part, Cannes’ own archival data suggest that the companies consistently recognized at the Festival are familiar corporate titans. Since 2000, Volkswagen has been recognized with nearly 740 shortlists and medals. Nike has 516 and Procter & Gamble is close behind with 450. But, there are notable exceptions—and some surprises. The Economist fares well at 118 wins and The Zimbabwean newspaper has won 5 coveted Grand Prix medals, which puts it among the elite. A few household names are underperformers: Apple has 50 wins but no Grand Prix; Exxon-Mobil has only 1 shortlist in its entire history, and JPMorgan Chase has no awards.

It’s fair to ask whether clients should be concerned with their lack of recognition—after all, it is their money that is helping to bankroll submission fees. With the festival just around the corner and agency blood pressure on the rise, let’s look more closely at patterns of winning. We start with the clients. (We will turn to agencies and creative in another post.) All our data are from Cannes Lions’ own archive.

The festival bestows awards in categories, based primarily on the medium—outdoor, radio, cyber, press, and so on, although the "innovation," "creative effectiveness," and "titanium" categories acknowledge commercial success and organizational design. Until 2002, there were only six awards, but to keep pace with changes in media and to develop new revenue streams, organizers expanded the list to 16 categories for the 2013 Festival. It is always difficult to predict winners, although for several decades Leo Burnett has marketed a "prediction" reel that attempts to do just that. The festival also includes a separate distinction—"advertiser of the year"—to honor the clients that have won the most medals in that year. Recent winners include Ikea, P&G, and Volkswagen (2013's winner will be Coca-Cola).

The titans (and their agencies) are easy to notice at Cannes. They are the ones featured prominently in submissions. Since 2000, there have been 1,252 submissions of Ikea ads (roughly 100 per year), 4,435 of Volkswagen (350+ per year), and 4,349 P&G ads (350+ per year). In contrast, The Economist has been featured in only 359 submissions, The Zimbabwean in 48.

Submitting to Cannes isn’t cheap. This year’s entry fees run from $500 to $1,600 per ad, depending on the category. A client would be justifiably concerned about their rate of success. P&G and VW ads flood the submission process—for each, that’s over $2 million (in today’s dollars) in entry fees since 2000. But the packaged goods company has only a 10 percent winning percentage, while VW comes in just a bit higher at 16 percent. Neither of these surpass the 20% threshold, which is the threshold that should satisfy any agency or client. Again, for contrast, The Economist has a 33% rate—which is quite admirable— while The Zimbabwean (which won big with one campaign one year at Cannes, versus other marketers that have a more enduring presence) has a 35% success rate. Nike and Google both win slightly under 20% of the time, though Google has a low number of total submissions since 2000—only 443, reflecting its relatively new status as an "advertiser."

But, winning does not mean the same thing for a client and for an agency. The classic studies of artists and scientists suggest that peer recognition can end creativity. But, just as universities tout their famous faculty long after the authors and scientists stop producing, brands take credit for their agency’s creative excellence well into the future. (Think of the famous 1984 Macintosh ad: Some people know the creative team behind the work, but most just attribute it to Apple.)

We know that smart, creative communication can catalyze long-term customer engagement. Companies that take creatives seriously by supporting their vision and pushing them to win may end up with a great investment. For the mega-clients, winning is still cost effective, given their overall marketing budget. But, even for the smaller companies, pursuing a Cannes Lions medal may be one of the cheapest sustainable forms of marketing available.

With that in mind, we have a few lessons for CEOs who want to bring home victory at the festival.

Lesson #1: Make the commitment to invest in Cannes, but make it sustained.
A few clients, like Volkswagen and Procter & Gamble win across categories, but that is not commonplace. (Stating the obvious, they are also large enough to produce ads across all categories.) Nike sits atop cyber and film, but does not have a very strong presence in PR, press, or radio. The clothing company Diesel looms large in press, but has no presence in either design or PR. Clients with hundreds of submissions each year are likely to win something, but you would expect that, given the economics. Cannes is a lot like professional sports, where high payrolls give you a seat in the playoffs each year.

This does not mean Cannes is rigged or biased. Quite the opposite: There are many rules in place to protect the integrity of judging. But, at the end of the day, Cannes judging is peer based. Any recognition game in which peers judge themselves is open to key influencers. And Cannes is no different.

The moral of the story is to create a sustained presence at Cannes. Winning in a category means your company becomes the familiar, known commodity. Incumbents always have an advantage when high submission fees dissuade people from entering the contest—and they do at Cannes.

Lesson #2: An argument could be made for aspiring clients to focus on a few categories. Pushing their agency to concentrate submissions in one or two types of media could increase their odds of winning. In practice, a CMO might hire the firm that is consistently producing awards in the medium of interest. Go for the specialist creatives. Support them intensively and build them up—and perhaps pay for their submission fees!

Of course, if money is no obstacle, then by all means flood all categories with submissions! Check out Volkswagen. Over the years, its winning percentage has remained relatively flat at 16%, while the number of entries has skyrocketed almost four times the amount from 2000 to 2013. Is this irrational? Perhaps. But if the client is judged by the number of wins, sending in more ads may be the cost of remaining on the hunt year after year.

Cannes Lions categories tend to be dominated by clients from a particular industry. Food and drink, and cars own Outdoor Lions, where cosmetics and footwear clients face an uphill battle. Footwear fares well in cyber. Film Lions typically recognize alcohol, cars, new media, leisure, and cosmetics—toiletries should proceed cautiously. Maybe particular categories are the natural home for certain products; people who drive are listening to the radio and are likely to be receptive to car advertisements. Or as likely, a few companies flood the submissions process to become the standard in that category. Their competition is drawn in from a competitive urge, but not so for clients in other industries.

Lesson #3: A CMO would be wise to look for the Cinderella agencies that consistently put forth great creative work, but win inconsistently. In these agencies, the best talent may not be spread as thinly. We’re thinking of Johannes Leonardo, with 1 Grand Prix and 11 shortlists at Cannes 2008. Or Pereira & O’Dell, with 1 Gold and 11 shortlisted campaigns at Cannes since 2009.

You don’t need a star creative to win at Cannes. Unless your company is a consistent winner, star power may not help you reach the summit. You may do better to go after the young buck, the striver, the no-name agency, the Cinderella story. These days, alas, charismatic creatives usually are so busy managing clients and watching the profit-and-loss line that they have little time to make great work. If you want creative success, Ms. CMO, you’ll need to take a risk as well.

Stay tuned: Next time, the agencies and the creatives who have the secret sauce at Cannes.


Sudhir Venkatesh is William B Ransford Professor at Columbia University (Twitter: Avsudhir). Nicholas Occhiuto is a masters student in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University.

Note about methodology: According to the authors, data was pulled from Cannes’ archive from 2000 through 2012; submissions and wins are from all award categories.

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4 Comments

  • Eric Pomert

    I think the "networking" effect is huge.  Anyone with excellent work should submit, but any connections should be exploited, preferably by extroverts who enjoy playing the game.  I don't know of any creative awards that run on pure meritocracy.

  • MAW2013

    I fear the good professors have made a fundamental miscalculation. They suggest that a success rate of 16% for VW or 10% for P&G is low. And that their sights should be set on achieving a 20% success rate. However, last year there were 30,000+ entries to Cannes with just over 1,000 winners. So the average success rate is a mere 3% (although this does vary slightly by category). In fact only 9% of entries were even shortlisted, so a 16% or 10% winning rate is actually pretty good?

  • monicagalindo

    The 3% average success rate you speak of, is per piece entered. Obviously the more pieces you enter, the more your odds increase, especially if you enter a ton of pieces in one category. Just like if you buy 100 tickets to a raffle instead of just one. It's simple math.

  • Jawny Smythe

    I feel like this article is suggesting that companies like VW and P&G often invest in Cannes themselves. I work at an agency and have never known of a client to pay for an award submission. Most clients I have worked with are passively interested in awards, but couldn't tell you the names of most the best shows. The awards industry is purely driven by agencies. If anything, I have worked with more clients who feel that agencies are too obsessed with awards.