The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity brings together professionals working in the creative space. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/FRANCOIS G DURAND
The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity brings together professionals working in the creative space. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/FRANCOIS G DURAND

It seems that on the world stage SA advertising is like our sports teams: we take part but at times aren’t as good as we used to be. The Proteas have crashed out of the Cricket World Cup and the local ad industry, apparently, couldn’t wait to leave the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity and start afresh.

In 2018, nine SA agencies shared 21 wins, including a Grand Prix in the radio category. This year, SA scored just eight wins by five agencies, including a single gold statue in the radio category for the TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris agency and its client City Lodge.

So does the industry have a problem and are we losing our creative edge?

"Not just yet," says one senior creative director. "The problem is we’re all too slow to move to pure digital thinking and agencies and clients need to make major mind-shift changes in terms of strategy, budget priority and the type of people being recruited.

"Some of our most exciting and innovative work right now is coming from start-ups and specialist boutique shops where the propensity to take risk isn’t that great. Big agencies here have heft and brilliance but they need to look over their shoulders."

This year, at what is acknowledged as the Oscars of the ad industry, two big trends took centre stage. Gone are the days when advertising had to show a perfect reflection of life in consumer-land. Many winning campaigns this year showcased problems and differences, such as racism, disease and disability. A notable example was Swedish furniture manufacturer Ikea’s "ThisAbles" campaign that showed how some of its products were easier to use for disabled people. In previous years brands have flirted with activism, now it is mainstream.

One talking point was Nike’s "Dream Crazy" campaign and making courageous US gridiron quarterback Colin Kaepernick the face of the work. The brand sent shockwaves around the world late last year with its 30th anniversary ad campaign. During the 2016/2017 season, Kaepernick used his public platform to make a statement against racial injustice and police brutality, by kneeling as the anthem played before each game, despite outrage from powerful quarters and the risk to his career.

Cannes jury president Steve Stoute said: "It’s the benchmark of the risk we want creatives to take. In our industry a lot of people do anything not to get fired — but sometimes if people take great risks they will receive greater rewards."

In another campaign that had risk written all over it, Johnson & Johnson (J&J) celebrated a group of San Francisco General Hospital nurses who, in the 1980s, developed a ward for Aids patients at a time when the disease was misunderstood. J&J commissioned a documentary to tell the story of those nurses and how their bravery helped spark understanding of Aids and acceptance of individuals with the disease.

There was much talk this year about a real return to radio and TV. Bobby Ghoshal, co-founder of teeth-straightening company Candid, which sells dental aligners online, said at a seminar that Facebook ads were fine for lower-end products but did little in terms of upselling to premium products. He said the company spent more than 80% of its marketing budget on Facebook in 2018 but had hit a "bump" in the road with these ads. He is pushing the company towards more traditional media such as radio and TV, because "that’s where all the trust is built".