Days 4 and 5 at Cannes Lions: the murky origin story of performance marketing… and a brighter, inclusive future

The final days at Cannes Lions look at how brands can turn trends into storylines, why performance and PR are merging and why breaking down silos will drive the marketing industry forward.

On the final two days at Cannes Lions 2023, PMW Editor Robin Langford explores Meta Beach, unearths guilty ad pleasures in a brand-heavy roundtable discussion and considers how and why the communication industry is starting to think like performance marketers.

The beauty of branded performance 

It took until Thursday for PMW to finally step onto Meta Beach, one of the focal points along the Croisette. With a staggering 200 billion Reels watched everyday, we hear from Heather White, Retail Sales Manager at Ulta Beauty on how the US beauty brand used Instagram to harness the ‘Get Ready with Me’ trend on social media.

The hashtag trend involves creators posting a video or series of photos showing the process of getting ready for an event or activity.  #GRWM videos and posts were proving popular on platforms like Instagram, showcasing their skills and techniques for their audience.

White spoke of ‘Branded Performance’ that can turn trends into ‘storylines’. Using a combination of branded experiences and ‘Lo-Fi’ authentic user-generated content, brands can augment the path to purchase, driving users down the funnel with ‘click to buy’ buttons. 

"Calm Down Dear": guilty pleasures and bad ads

Moving on from Meta Beach, it was now PMW’s turn to host a roundtable at Gray D’Albion Hotel. In partnership with BrightBid and Seen Connects, our task was to explore how creativity can only ever get an advertiser so far – and how performance channels can even help the worst ads (creatively speaking) outperform Grand Prix winners in terms of ROI. 

With major brands represented, including Merlin Entertainment, EY, Which,, Entain and TikTok, Kate Cox, CMO at Brightbid and Sedge Beswick, MD and Founder at Seen Connects led the discussion which spanned the creative and performance worlds.

The conversation began with people selecting their ‘guilty pleasure’ ads, from Esure's notorious 'Calm Down Dear' spot and Go Compare’s Opera Singer featuring the fictional Gio Compario, to Budweiser‘s infamous “WASSUP” commercials. 

It was when the subject moved on to how each brand measured the success of their marketing investments that the conversation took on a life of its own. What followed was a fascinating debate about how each brand is balancing the ‘unmeasurable’ branding effect with real-time dashboard data, and the dangers of becoming over-reliant on either. But I won’t issue a spoiler alert…read how the full conversation plays out on PMW later this week.

‘Performance marketing’ – a Google PR exercise? 

One key takeaway was CMO at Samuel Day’s explanation of how the phrase 'performance marketing’ was originally coined by Google. 

As Day tells it, the phrase helped Google imply that only its channels – search, display, video, email, social, mobile, gaming - delivered ‘performance’; and everything else outside of its remit such as TV, radio, print and outdoor were ‘non -performance’. 

But what was initially a canny branding exercise to promote Google ad inventory may have backfired somewhat, given the power of branding to amplify performance channels, driving down costs and driving up leads. clicks and sales. Unsurprisingly, Google now occupies more of the middle ground when selling its ad products.

Surprisingly, PMW finished its last days at Cannes speaking to senior players in another essential part of the marketing and communications world: public relations. But the conversations echoed the recurrent theme in Cannes Lions: more is being measured than ever before, even the traditionally rather opaque ‘coverage metrics’ used in the world of PR. 

“I want to make PR people performance marketers” 

PMW is enjoying an early breakfast on Stagwell Beach with Aaron Kwittken, Founder and CEO of PRophet and CEO, Stagwell Comms Tech Cloud. 

Kwittken tells me how he has worked with FMCG giant P&G to develop next-gen PR comms tools, pitching the right stories to the right journalists based on their actual writing rather than their job title, along with many other features. 

“We developed this exclusively with P&G but since then we’ve brought on other brands who are interested in optimising their PR investments,” Kwittken tells me. “P&G has actually been ok with that – having other brands involved validates what we are doing with this tool.”

Our final stop is with Tiffany Guarnaccia, CEO and Founder at Kite Hill PR, a tech-enabled PR firm with its own tech stack, including media monitoring and measurement solutions as well as project management tools. 

With the final Grand Prix winners being announced at the Palais, Guarnaccia notes that while the PR Lions finalists had an earned-first approach, the top awarded campaigns also had smart strategies for earned media amplification. The worlds of PR and PM are indeed merging. 

“As the PR tech stack continues to evolve and expand, there are more opportunities to measure and track the performance of integrated communications campaigns,” Guarnaccia tells me. 

An inclusive ending

PMW finishes its last evening in Cannes at Google Beach, which transformed into Pride Beach for the evening to mark a month of LGBTQIA+ celebrations. Big acts including Years and Years graced the stage, but this party was a rare Cannes Lion beach concert without a guest list – any ticket holder could attend. It was inclusive, and all the better and more relaxed for it. 

As the sun set on another Cannes Lions Festival, it occurred to me that this was the overall theme of the festival. From creativity to performance, from branding to PR, siloes are breaking down and integration is becoming a transformational driver for the industry.  

The fruits of this new relationship are starting to show in some of this year's Grand Prix victors – but next year’s winners will likely be revolutionary.