How purpose took over the 2019 Cannes Lion Festival

This year’s winners show that marketers are finding new strategies to use brands’ power to help instigate conversations about social issues.

How purpose took over the 2019 Cannes Lion Festival
[Photo: Valery Sharifulin/TASS/Getty Images]

The Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity is many things: provocative, innovative, bold, inspiring, and of course, creative. This year, the Festival added one more descriptor: meaningful.


That’s important, because as more business leaders realize the power of social purpose to support long-term business success, the marketing and advertising industry needs to keep up. Even as companies embed purpose throughout their organization, there can be a disconnect between what’s done and how it’s marketed. Too often, companies with significant purpose initiatives still produce marketing and advertising work that is slick, vacuous, or unrealistic.

That approach lacks meaning. And at a time when most people would not care if 74% of brands disappeared (let that sink it), mattering to people has never been more important. When 78% of consumers believe companies should address issues important to society, marketing and advertising can be a powerful force for driving meaningful change.

This year’s Cannes Lions winners proved that marketing with meaning works. Here’s why:

They celebrated being different

Advertising used to be about perfection—creative focused on models, beautiful homes, fast cars, and dream vacations. Consumers are tired of that approach. They’re demanding authenticity, and more marketers and brands are delivering—highlighting the challenges and realities of life for individuals facing disease, disability, racism, etc.

IKEA’s “ThisAbles” campaign highlighted a suite of free adapters that make the Swedish company’s products easier to use for disabled people (and was devised in part by McCann Tel Aviv’s Eldar, a 32-year-old man with cerebral palsy). Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller also notched a win for individuals with disabilities, allowing almost anyone to experience the joy and challenge of video games. Black & Abroad, an organization specializing in travel for black people, developed a data-driven platform that responds to racially charged social media posts with photos of Africa. The campaign aimed to educate social media users about the beauty of Africa and its people, while promoting equality, respect, and diversity.


The commonality between these award-winning campaigns? All created tangible solutions to address problems that people face in their daily lives. Then they used exceptional storytelling to educate and empower the public.

They became activists

Activism has gone corporate. The past year alone saw several Fortune 500 brands produce creative with a provocative point of view, from Gillette’s take on toxic masculinity to Nike’s “Dream Crazy” campaign. The latter earned the votes of several juries for Nike’s “risk” in making Colin Kaepernick the face of the campaign. Jury President Steve Stout said of the campaign: ” . . . It’s the benchmark of the risk we want creatives to take going forward. In our industry a lot of people do anything not to get fired—but sometimes if people take great risker [sic], they will receive greater rewards.”

Speaking of risk, Johnson & Johnson celebrated a group of San Francisco General Hospital nurses who, in 1980, developed a ward for AIDS patients at a time when the disease was misunderstood and, frankly, scary. J&J commissioned a documentary to tell the story of those nurses and how their bravery helped spark conversation and understanding of AIDS, and acceptance of individuals with the disease.

It’s worth noting that both Entertainment for Music Grand Prix winners (Childish Gambino’s “This is America” and Baco Exo do Blues’s “Bluesman”) focused on racism, violence, and diversity. The Entertainment for Music jury president Paulette Long noted that her jury “leaned heavily toward purpose and value-driven music projects,” according to AdAge.

They rooted creativity in authenticity

While it’s often the TV spot, print advertisement, or campaign results that catch eyes at Cannes, some of the most successful campaigns are those with robust purpose or CSR programs behind them. Take My Special Aflac Duck, which was conceptualized by my agency Carol Cone ON PURPOSE; brought to life by R&D firm Sproutel; and supported by Aflac’s focused, long-term, and authentic commitment to the childhood cancer cause. (The company took a significant risk in leveraging its $20 billion brand asset—the iconic Aflac duck mascot—for good.)


A social robot designed to bring comfort and joy to children with cancer, My Special Aflac Duck is a technological marvel: created through 18-months of child-centered design to meet the needs of children enduring an average 1,000 days of cancer treatment. It’s grounded in the Aflac Childhood Cancer Campaign, developed to evolve Aflac’s 23-year, $131 million commitment to the childhood cancer cause. The physical duck and accompanying creative are compelling, but it was the depth and authenticity of the initiative that earned My Special Aflac Duck two Silver Lions.

This is critical because it’s very easy to get purpose wrong. A lack of authenticity makes your work “just another feel-good campaign,” instead of an initiative that moves the needle for positive impact on society and the bottom line. We call this “purpose washing,” and more global leaders are cautioning practitioners about the perils of meaningless purpose work, including Unilever CEO Alan Jope.

They blended capabilities

Golin this year took home a Gold PR Lion as the “idea creation” agency, the first time a public relations company has done so. Of the achievement, PR jury chair Michelle Hutton noted that “PR is not a channel,” but a “craft,” and one that “matters more today to businesses and brands and society.”

This marks the increasing shift toward “hybrid agencies”—shops that merge capabilities to develop work that goes beyond just a PR activation or a digital marketing campaign. This trend is not specific to the advertising industry: last May, Accenture completed its acquisition of Droga5, an award-winning global creative agency. This kind of consolidation could change the face of Cannes, as creatives develop work that doesn’t quite fit into one track, Lion, or category.

This is especially true for purpose-driven campaigns that bring a level of depth and meaning to creative work that traditional TV spots just don’t have. It’s this integrated approach that enables agencies and brands to infuse their work with greater authenticity.


They debated purpose

As a rapidly evolving field, social purpose should be debated. Browse the websites of purpose agencies and you’ll find more definitions of purpose than you can count on one hand. (We conducted a recent analysis and found 20 in just an hour of research.) A lack of “common language” around purpose makes it difficult to make the case to clients and business thought leaders. That’s why I was glad that several discussions around purpose were more debate than celebration. In a discussion led by the Economist Group journalists, Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland spoke with the CMOs of Pepsi, Microsoft, and EcoAge about what purpose is.

The consensus: “Purpose is beyond profit.” My read? Purpose must be embedded in the organization to act as a “north star” and lens for decision making. It’s not a marketing campaign, advertisement, or PR tactic. Todd Kaplan, VP of marketing at PepsiCo, said: “You need to be consistent about purpose, it needs to be built into the profit and it needs to be a fundamental belief.” Sutherland added (to the dismay of marketers) that “purpose doesn’t necessarily have to be something that is communicated in marketing,” and that “brands should do good by stealth.” I couldn’t agree more. Purpose is a value, not a tagline. Without living purpose at every level of the business, external communications will be inauthentic, and frankly, meaningless. Core to this is engaging employees—arguably the most authentic and powerful storytellers your organization can tap. I was surprised by the lack of work at Cannes that focused on celebrating or engaging employees. As an organization’s most important stakeholders, employees should be at the center of purpose initiatives.

All in all, 16 of the 21 Grand Prix winners had some aspect of purpose, proving that work with authenticity and meaning doesn’t just inspire, but performs. This is in large part because judges are prioritizing meaningful work: Judges from the Outdoor, Entertainment, Design, Press, and PR juries all spoke about the importance of work that has a positive effect on the world.

While I wish all 21 winners had purpose at the center, it’s a huge leap from the results coming out of Cannes just five years ago. My hope is that more marketers aim to be different; stand up for what matters; focus on authenticity; and debate and advance the practice of purpose. Creativity and innovation have the power to change the world—and marketers, wouldn’t it be incredible to be part of that?

Carol Cone, CEO of Carol Cone ON PURPOSE, pioneered the field of social purpose in the 1980s, and today is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost social impact experts. Her work has ignited organizational growth, won hundreds of awards, and raised billions of dollars for a variety of outstanding issues. Learn more at