Cannes Lions Gets to Grips with Digitisation in Major Outdoor Overhaul

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By Dan Dawson, first published on ExchangeWire on 27th Feb 2018

Some great news to report following my annual rant about the state of the Cannes Lions Outdoor Awards and, more specifically, their ‘Digital Outdoor’ category. It turns out that this time the festival organisers were listening. Days later I was asked to discuss my views directly with their team and shortly after this I was invited to join their Outdoor Lions taskforce with the aim of helping to reform the category.

Having provided creative services for digital OOH for over 15 years, I was passionate to see the world’s biggest advertising festival get up to speed on this fast-growth medium and its burgeoning creative potential, something that was not captured or truly reflected by their current awards programme. One major bone of contention for me was the prevailing structure of Outdoor Cannes Lions and the overriding preference given to traditional Outdoor formats.

Considering that digital is revolutionising the OOH marketplace, and is set to top 50% of total outdoor media spend in the UK this year, with many more markets closely following suit, it struck me as odd that the medium remained in the shadows of traditional outdoor at an event which prized itself in recognising latest trends, originality, and creative innovation. Despite the prevailing trend towards digitisation, digital outdoor remained a subcategory to the main event, which was traditional outdoor.

But I am happy to say that the taskforce proved to be hugely progressive. Open, honest, and insightful discussions were had, and changes were implemented. Advertisers and media agencies don’t see Digital Outdoor as a separate entity to Outdoor – it’s all on the same Media Plan. Plus, to the millennials working in creative agencies the world over, it’s just all Outdoor, and of course it’s digital, connected, dynamic, and tactical.

So, it is great to see that the finalised categories for the 2018 Outdoor awards do a much better job of representing the overall medium, and digital as being a big part of that. Now you can enter EITHER traditional or digital versions of your campaign across most of the Outdoor categories. A huge result.

Other game changers have been refinements made to the category criteria and definitions for Out of Home spaces and formats, which are now more representative of the medium today. Meanwhile, what was once known as ‘Digital Outdoor’ is now ‘Digital Screens’ – with subcategories that are clearly defined between linear, dynamic, and interactive campaigns – again, far more in tune with the medium today. These changes will help to reflect Digital Outdoor’s true power as a connected, responsive, and scalable medium.

The other big change (which we hope to see come through in the judging), is that ‘Outdoor Innovation’ which replaces ‘Use of Outdoor’, will be the new official home for those one-off specials, PR stunts, and out-of-the-ordinary campaigns that have swamped the regular categories in past years. This has been a bug bear for me, the blatant over representation of special builds and PR launches that have dominated the league tables. Of course, OOH PR stunts have their place, but this is not the ‘bread and butter’ work for a medium that offers up dynamic, tactical, and contextual campaigns with huge reach.

The last remaining challenge, as I see it, is down to the organisers, judges, and jury presidents. It is vital that these changes are upheld by the rigorous policing of submissions to ensure that category criteria are met, and rules are enforced. I can’t stress this point enough. We’ve seen it time and again, since Digital Outdoor was first introduced to the programme back in 2009, campaigns that were shortlisted, and even awarded, were not digital or outdoor in the way that we know it. Organisers will need to tighten up on category rules and ensure that judges are on board with agreed definitions of what Digital Outdoor is.

Whether this new rigour can be carried through the judging process is yet to be seen. But the changes to Outdoor coming into effect this year, along with the Six Lion limit, and the separation of judging charity against brand work, means we could be in for a very different June in the South of France.

So, all things said, 2018 is shaping up to be a good one for digital OOH creativity. Digital OOH, as a whole, is in rude health. The technology stack that media owners, agencies, and specialists have invested so heavily in is amazing. Brands and their agencies are thinking more strategically about the medium than ever before, and now we have a renewed vigour coming from the world’s biggest festival of creativity which will hopefully see this new body of work coming through. 2018 is going to be one hell of a ride. Who knows, maybe next year the Cannes Lions Officialdom will rename the programme ‘OOH Lions’ then my work here will be done!