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Cannes ad prize asks novel question: Did it work?

Ads that are clever and actually help sell the product? What a novel idea.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ads that are clever and actually help sell the product? What a novel idea.

This weekend at the Oscars of advertising, a festival in Cannes, France, judges for the first time will give an award for effectiveness — evaluating ads for whether they sell more computers or deodorant, not just whether they make people laugh, cry or cringe.

The award, to be handed out Saturday at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, signals a shift toward accountability, and comes at a time when advertising agencies are fighting for every dollar they can get.

Corporate marketing budgets were slashed by 8 percent during the Great Recession, and that spending still hasn't come back, according to Zenith Optimedia, a research division of communications giant Publicis Groupe.

"You have to prove you got someone to pay attention and act, particularly in this economy," said Chris Kempczinski, Kraft Foods' senior vice president of marketing, who helped judge the category.

Cannes told agencies making submissions that to win in the effectiveness category, an ad had to show a proven impact on "consumer behavior, brand equity, sales, and where identifiable, profit." Judges combed through more than 150 nomination forms audited by PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

The 10 finalists, announced Friday, include four campaigns from the United States and three from the United Kingdom.

Some were obvious picks, like Apple's Mac-versus-PC campaign, in which two men, one uptight and the other hip, role-play as the equipment. Others had subtler impact, such as one for Hasbro's online game "Monopoly City Streets," where players built virtual properties on Google Maps, then collected rent.

Industry insiders say the front-runner is a campaign for Old Spice men's body wash called "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like." The commercials, made by the Portland office of agency Wieden+Kennedy, feature a muscular man — shirtless more often than not — who repeatedly tells female viewers to look over at her man — then at him.

"Sadly, he isn't me," he says in the spot, "but if he stopped using lady-scented body wash and switched to Old Spice, he could smell like he's me."

The ad created buzz for Procter & Gamble, which makes Old Spice. The first commercial in this campaign got 40 million YouTube views in a week. The spot was parodied dozens of times, including by Grover on "Sesame Street." The star, Isaiah Mustafa, made the talk show rounds and appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and "Ellen."

A response campaign consisting of more than 180 YouTube videos in which Mustafa addresses viewers' comments directly got 5.9 million YouTube views in its first 24 hours, more than President Barack Obama got for his election-night victory speech, Wieden+Kennedy says.

"It was a magic moment kind of thing," says Mark Fitzloff, an executive creative director at the Portland agency.

But that won't be enough by itself to convince the Cannes judges, who are more concerned with business results. The Old Spice spot will have to be deemed more effective than ads for Snickers and Axe shower gel, among others.

"Who cares about brand buzz?" says judge Tim Broadbent, Global Effectiveness Director at Ogilvy & Mather. "We wanted to know, could you prove to a skeptical finance director that it worked?"

Marc Pritchard, who oversees P&G's $8.6 billion marketing budget, says yes. Before the campaign, the brand was facing huge challenges, he says. Old Spice was seen as, well, old. And most men were perfectly content to clean themselves with soap.

But that's changed. Old Spice body wash sales grew 27 percent in the six months after the campaign launched, making it the top seller in the category.

The weeklong festival honors the most creative work from around the world in film, radio, print and outdoor advertising. Twelve of the 13 main categories will still be about presentation — how funny, shocking or quirky the ads are.

In years past, when that was all the judges had to worry about, winners included Bud Light's 2004 "Real Men of Genius" campaign, mocking men who commit faux pas like wearing too much cologne.

For traditional ad firms facing challenges from scrappy digital upstarts, it's important to be able to demonstrate to clients like P&G that a full-fledged multimedia campaign featuring highly produced television commercials is a better investment than a viral video shot on a handheld camera.

After all, it can cost $2 million to produce a 30-second television commercial and an additional $10 million to buy the ad time for a national campaign in the U.S., Kraft's Kempczinski says. Companies expect to get their money's worth, especially because budgets are still tight.

"I think the idea that creatives should be shielded from commercial reality is insane," Broadbent says. "Cannes is growing up."