Small ideas at the Cannes Lions

Small ideas at the Cannes Lions

I was part of a group called RA*W advertisers, an organisation that stimulates the next generation of ad people. Having never been to Cannes before, I heard a lot of stories about the place. The biggest names in the industry will be there. The biggest brands will talk about current developments. The biggest mansions will open their doors to host the most outrageous parties.

WeTransfer session in Cannes. Credits: Marty Marn Photography
WeTransfer session in Cannes. Credits: Marty Marn Photography

Indeed, the week that followed was crammed with new insights and overwhelming experiences. And once back, I tried to make sense of it all. Was there a theme or a common thread that integrated all these nuggets of knowledge into a larger picture?

I couldn’t find it. But I found a smaller thing instead.

The power of the small idea

On the third day of the festival, I found my way into a very intriguing masterclass by BBDO India’s Josey Paul. In a very humble and honest talk, he explained his approach to advertising. According to him, successful campaigns are all about small ideas. Small ideas that are linked to a small action, and connect to what’s currently happening in society. They go beyond the vagueness of words as they represent a commitment. He illustrated his point with a case from last year.

In India, it is common for households to have a jar of pickles to eat from. There is also a widespread belief that women on their period will spoil the pickles if they touch this jar. Therefore, it is forbidden for a menstruating woman to touch it. Together with a women’s hygiene brand, BBDO attacked this belief by encouraging women to ‘touch the pickle’. The accompanying message was that women should not be limited in their activities during their menstruation, and especially not by ancient social taboos. At the end of the campaign, 2.9 million women pledged to "touch the pickle jar," sparking a huge conversation around the issue. Consequently, the brand was admired for giving Indian women a voice to challenge period taboos.

I loved it. It seemed that a traditional approach would be to blast this message onto the consumer (“With Brand X, women feel empowered to do whatever they want”), hoping that it will catch on and lead to action. Paul, however, works the other way around: he starts with the action, lets it roam free until it is eventually being associated with the message of the brand. "When people connect with the idea, you don't need to go out and promote it. People will come and connect with you.”

As I went on, I noticed that Cannes has a thing for ‘big ideas’.

A painting made by a supercomputer.
A virtual reality schooltrip to Mars.
Petroleum made out of beer.

Although these widely praised cases were all very progressive and creative, they wouldn’t be able to exist without enormous budgets, months of R&D and close collaboration between hundreds of people. Not quite the stuff that a junior at a small boutique agency could pull off. To me, the festival felt like a haute couture fashion show: big, flamboyant ideas that I could never make or sell, but show just how far the industry has pushed itself.

So I went to look for more attainable ideas. Small ideas. The ones that I found, had a certain elegance to them. Perhaps it’s because they tap into existing structures- stuff that is already there. One case I especially liked was the Pink Ribbon campaign for breast cancer awareness. Using the existing censorship systems of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, Pink Ribbon’s message spread like wildfire. Photos of prominent women, breasts exposed, were posted to these platforms on Women’s day, encouraging followers to “check them before they are removed”. People checked. And shared. And copied. By the millions.

Example of removed social media post. Credits: Pink Ribbon
Example of removed social media post. Credits: Pink Ribbon

Ideas like these are there for the taking, even for small agencies. And they can be frustratingly simple. There was an adult-sized stroller that let parents test drive it. There was a ’single drop’ bottle of soap that shows just how much you need for one batch of dishes. There was a phone number that connects you to a random Swede so you can talk about their country.

Naturally, Cannes was a hurricane of inspiration with big names, big ad campaigns and big bottles of rosé. But I left home with only one idea: a small one.

Words are vague, actions are not. ~ Josy Paul, BBDO India

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