Axel Eckstein's Insights from the Cannes Jury: Judging in the Age of Algorithms

Axel Eckstein, ECD at Leo Burnett Switzerland, was part of the Cannes Lions jury this year. He describes his impressions in an experience report for Werbewoche.

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Being a member of a Cannes Lions Festival jury provides one thing in particular: a sharp rise in the personal learning curve. I had the honour this year, the festival is still running and now is the right moment for an experience report.

There were 42 other jurors on my Promo & Activation jury. We were divided into seven sub-groups and together with five other creatives I had to evaluate 374 works, a good tenth of the 3429 cases that make Promo & Activation the most extensive of all categories at Cannes. The work I was asked to evaluate online was uploaded to the intranet in tranches over a six-week period. You don't watch over 12 hours of case videos in a day either. And the occasional chat with jury colleagues helped to stay awake.

But first, our jury president Stéphane Xiberras gave his interpretation of the judging criteria in a conference call. We shouldn't think too much about the subcategories and also not about whether a work is a PhD at all. He put more emphasis on the question of whether the work has actually been activated and follows a real insight or is just tech-namedropping.

Following the Prejudging, a much smaller jury panel began sifting through the computer-generated shortlist and turning the best of the 321 works into 102 Lions. That was the end of the judging work for me and most of the other jurors, but we were free to also travel to Cannes a week later at the invitation of the award management to participate in jury petitessen.

So go. At least for two days. To the press conference last Monday, where there was the opportunity to meet Stéphane and a few scattered jury members. We stuck to each other for some time and the conversations were more interesting than the media releases lying around. There was criticism from the juries affected by the new evaluation regime. Too little human interaction and too little transparency. Algorithms could make submitted works disappear from the intranet at any time and without further information if they were flagged as "ineligible". And the jury president would only be allowed to question a single work on the predefined shortlist.

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Indeed, algorithms are seen as a thoroughly practical thing at Cannes. They are also the reason why it is pointless to ask a juror to "take favourable note" of a certain work. Because any reviews for work from your own network or country are automatically eliminated by the system. I received a dozen such requests from all over the world. And for a second reason they were pointless - the works were good to very good and ended up further up the list anyway.

"I got a dozen corresponding requests from all over the world."

For the first time, algorithms also calculate the relationship between works submitted and lions won at country level, thus providing results for a practice that had been self-evident long before the invention of artificial intelligence: the major award nations also provide most of the jurors.

Which brings us to Switzerland. No, the festival is not doing without Swiss jurors. And no jury positions were eliminated in the categories in which Switzerland is traditionally represented preferentially. Promo & Activation, Media and Direct have as many jurors as before and still even the most of all 23 juries, namely an average of 40 each. And in these juries there were again two people from Switzerland this year. The 92 seats that were eliminated reduced the size of seven other juries, each of which now has about 12 jurors instead of 25. This brings them in line with the 13 other juries, which already had an average of 12 people last year.

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It is true that for the majority of the jurors in Promo & Activation, Media and Direct there are no longer any discussions in the jury room, which is undoubtedly regrettable. However, this circumstance in no way diminishes the opportunities for Swiss agencies to influence and win at the Cannes Lions Festival. The once again handsome performance of works from Switzerland shows that it is not those who are small who are discriminated against, but only those who are not good enough.

Perhaps the influence of a juror in a category with prejudging has even increased. When a group of only five or six people evaluate cases, each individual opinion carries a lot of weight. 90 percent of the work I rated "certainly shortlisted" actually made the shortlist. To reassure all those who now fear the total erosion of representativeness: The works I found to be good were also mostly voted up in other subgroups, if submitted there. So it seems that there really is such a thing as objective quality for creative jurors.

Finally, a look at the most important thing: the ideas. Only about a third of the winning entries can be considered promotion in the classic sense. Namely, with the aim of supporting the sale of an offer. Another third pursue pure image goals, often via PR mechanisms. And a growing number of works leave the direct reference to the actual business field of the sender completely behind.

The knitting pattern: 1. find a topic that is already established as a problem in the public (i.e. in social media) and that reliably triggers sympathy or outrage. Popular this year: women earn less than men, refugees' skills go untapped, old people are lonely, and all the taboos surrounding the female breast. 2. Invent a product (preferably an app) that drills into the problem mountain at the most original point. 3. bridge the gap to the brand, even if only with words. An example: Many accidents occur on hairpin bends, where drivers enter at too high a speed. A column is now placed in front of each of these bends, which registers cars entering and which activates a horn sound in the counterpart at the other end of the bend, warning the cars entering there. The sender is a motor oil with the claim "So that everything runs smoothly". When this recipe is applied perfectly, even people like me nod. The case got shortlisted three times.

"Shortlisted at Cannes, it's like gold in national awards."

Shortlisted in Cannes, that's like gold in national awards. For those wondering why their own work didn't make the cut, it probably wasn't even bad. Some very, very good ideas didn't even make the shortlist. When over 40,000 works go into battle, good ideas have many enemies: the better ideas.

Axel Eckstein is Executive Creative Director at Leo Burnet Switzerland and judged in the Promo & Activation category at Cannes Lions 2017.

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