Creative Excellence

The Great British Creativity

The UK put in a strong performance at Cannes Lions 2021 - 135 awards, and 11 Grands Prix. What is driving this British creative excellence? We talk to the winners

By Ian Darby

After some tough times for the UK’s creative industries, an exuberant spirit is once again emerging in adland following a strong showing from UK agencies at the Cannes Lions festival. Shops from these shores won an impressive 135 awards, and 11 Grands Prix - 11 more than at the most recent Cannes Lions in 2019, and four more than in 2018.

The celebratory mood has fostered a partnership between the UK government and the ad industry with the launch of UK House, an online hub featuring networking and lead generation events for six months from July 8 that are based on the best work from the UK as seen in Cannes.

Alex Grieve, chief creative officer at AMV BBDO, the agency which was the most-awarded at Cannes and named Agency of the Festival, thanks to its ‘#Wombstories’ work for Essity (four Grands Prix), Central Office of Public Interest, Bombay Sapphire and Macmillan Cancer Support, wasn’t too surprised by the strong UK showing: “I’ve always felt the UK has held an advantage when it comes to advertising because, deep down, we don’t like being sold to. In order to cut through that means we have to work harder. We have to properly respect the audience’s time and intelligence. We have to be more creative. That’s why the UK normally does well at Cannes.”

Grieve, also a judge in the Titanium category at this year’s Cannes Lions, adds: “We punch above our weight. And this year we were Mike Tyson. Eleven Grands Prix is an extraordinary return and goes to prove that despite all our moans and grumbles and self-flagellation, advertising is one of the last remaining industries in which the UK remains world-class. I wish we would celebrate this more.”

Johnny Parker, the executive creative director at VCCP, whose VCCP Health arm won a Gold Lion for Teva Pharmaceutical, agrees that there are strong reasons to celebrate UK success: “It shows the world that this little island’s still got it, especially at a time when ever harsher and more restrictive advertising codes are imposed upon us. Rules that the rest of the world doesn’t need to abide by.”

Lucas Peon is chief creative officer at The Gate London, which won five awards (including a Gold Lion) at Cannes for its Childline ‘Nobody is Normal’ work. The South American brings perspective having worked previously in markets including Argentina and the US. He says: “It’s hard not to feel proud to be part of this group of UK professionals cranking out amazing work that puts the UK at the top of every list, helping preserve its reputation. It’s like Brazil in football, when the UK doesn’t do well it’s odd.”

Ogilvy UK was also a big winner in Cannes, capturing two Grands Prix for the Dove ‘Courage is Beauty’ campaign. The agency’s chief creative officer Andre “Dedé” Laurentino, a Brazilian-born British citizen living in London, says: “It’s incredible to see the creative output of the tough times we’ve all been going through. In the past horrendous couple of years, the UK has reaped more rewards than in days when we had fewer challenges and less disruption to our daily lives.”

He adds: “Something must be said about creativity in times of hardship. Not that it’s in any way desirable to have misery be the fuel of brilliance, of course. But perhaps the creative door is the only one left when we can’t cope with much else.”

In terms of work highlights from the UK, each of the creative leaders cites ‘#Wombstories’, alongside the Dove campaign, the Childline work, McCann London’s ‘Birth of Gaming Tourism’ for Xbox, Uncommon’s idea for H&M (‘One/Second/Suit’), and TBWA\London’s ‘Steal our Staff’ for Beco.

As The Gate’s Lucas Peon says of ‘#Wombstories’: “Talk about craft and attention to detail. Those pieces of work help us all. It’s a huge step forward for the industry. It helps us when talking to clients and taking risks. Showcasing that it’s not just what you say, but the way you say it. Sometimes you have a good idea, but you have to execute it too. You have to layer the campaign with layers and layers of detail, just to get people to look at and pay attention to it.”

But can this creative excellence from the UK be sustained to build greater impetus for agencies, and does UK advertising creativity have specific strengths to help keep it at the top?

VCCP’s Johnny Parker says: “I think, and this is just a hunch, that UK agencies create and enter many types of brilliant work; clever work, funny work, sometimes really really funny work. Work that will change the world work. All of which is crafted to an inch of its life. But the work that wins at Cannes? It’s brutal and, at the end of the day, it’s always the best work.”

Grieve however adds that perhaps UK doesn't have have a distinct style, as most agencies work on global brands that operate in a global economy. "The very best work now has to speak to all. We also, of course, like slapstick and fart gags and get overly sentimental about puppies but these tend not to play well to an international jury. On a serious note, humour is also another thing the UK excels at. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we applied our two superpowers - comedy and creativity - to lift the work to even greater heights?”

Peon argues that attention to detail is a trait that will stand UK creativity in good stead: “UK agencies are like Formula One teams – the car is already fast, so it’s all about the details that take things to a greater level. People are after a little bit better insight than there’s been in the past 50 years, a little bit better craft than what has ever come before. It’s just pushing and pushing those finer details.

"That’s why the UK ends up so high in the awards charts. Because that refinement on everything we do means that it’s never just a few pieces of work that’s good in the UK, a lot of the work you see is award-worthy.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we applied our two superpowers - comedy and creativity - to lift the work to even greater heights?

Alex Grieve, chief creative officer at AMV BBDO

For Ogilvy’s Dedé, UK work stands out for its focus on “purity of an idea”. He concludes: “The secret ingredient to me is that the UK loves to be quirky and different: the stem cells of creativity.

"This country relishes in the friction between tradition and rebellion. It produces pomp and grit, Dickens and Woolf. It’s where Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen and Savile Row coexist creatively. Every creative company in the UK feeds off of this. It’s pure creative energy, and it’s alive in the young generations too, in all far-flung postcodes of the country. People like me, who come from other shores, came for a reason. And we feel at home in a heartbeat.”


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