A couple of years ago, a highly respected creative head and juror at Cannes, said this while addressing a group of journalists at the festival, after-hours, "...am not saying the winner didn't deserve it, but if I'd wrangled just a little while longer, the Grand Prix in my category would've gone to a different campaign!"
He may have had one too many at Gutter Bar, the agency folks' midnight watering hole at Cannes, but his words did provide an insight into what the annual weeklong mega-event looks like through the eyes of a juror. It's like looking at something familiar but from an all-new vantage point.
What really happens behind the scenes in that jury room? How do the Indian jurors (there are 13 this year, of the 319) view Cannes and the difficult art of judging award-winning work?
The jury for each award category is split into groups depending on the total number of entries, which could run into thousands in a category. Each batch is then required to sift through (electronically) their share of the entries and decide what's 'in' and what's 'out'. The batches then congregate to examine the entries voted 'in'. At this stage, 20-30 per cent of the 'in' entries are weeded out and a shortlist is arrived at.
The judging criteria are different for categories. For example, in print, radio and TV, the basic idea, consumer insight, strategy and originality are given more weightage. In categories like direct, promo and activation it is about engagement levels, effectiveness or campaign results and scale. For media lions, media execution is given importance.
Spotting the lion-worthy ads hidden in the shortlist is a matter of subjective opinion. This is the stage when creative directors bare their teeth and stringency levels rise. After endless debates, profane arguments, personal fights and Bollywood-style melodrama, the Bronze, Silver, Gold and God of Golds - the Grand Prix Lions in that category are decided upon.
This year there are 16 categories, each with jurors ranging from 10 (Film Craft Lions) to 41 (Media Lions). The jury presidents have the power to control the flow of the discussion, resolve brawls and veto any decision within their respective award category.
Recalling one such spat, Bhupal Ramnathkar, chairman and founder, Umbrella Design, Outdoor juror in 2006, and Design juror this time, says, "After a heated discussion that went on for four long hours, Fallon London was awarded the Grand Prix for its campaign for Britain's Tate Museum. It was touch-and-go for the other contender in consideration - a highly creative execution called 'Be the Ball' by WHYBINTBWA New Zealand, for Adidas. It won a Gold Lion eventually." Fallon won by just a vote or two, because someone on the jury felt it had the unique quality of changing consumers' thought process, and argued this point till the end.
It is no secret that representatives from Latin America tend to be the most aggressive ones at the table. "Moreover," shares a seasoned juror, "they tend to support work from each others' countries and gang up against the rest. You never see this kind of unity among Asians." That could be because they share a common language - Spanish and Portuguese are spoken widely in Latin America. In Asia, there are many different languages to contend with.
"While it is heartening to see people defend work that's not their own, the final decision often boils down to how forcefully a juror or set of jurors fight for their choices," he adds. Jurors from non-English speaking countries like China and Korea don't have a loud voice at the table. For them, the discussion round is more of a 'listening and nodding' round.
Of late, however, even the quiet oriental jurors have started finding their voices, especially when a specific cultural nuance from their region needs to be explained. This holds true for India as well. Else, the beauty in advertising copy such as 'Kitna Deti Hai?' (Maruti's mileage-related insight) or the cultural symbolism in 'Shubharambh' (Cadbury's 'auspicious beginnings' insight) would be lost on a group of Westerners.
This cultural barrier has often put countries like India, China, Korea or Japan at a disadvantage in Cannes though they have fared relatively better at festivals like Spikes Asia that are closer to home. Most Westerners have, however, become more sensitive to the local sensibilities of these regions. Testament to this is Mumbai Mirror's city-centric 'I am Mumbai' campaign that won a Film Craft Gold Lion last year. That it appealed to Westerners because it reinforced their idea of Indian poverty is another issue altogether.
Sometimes, the explanation for a particular campaign doesn't necessarily come from a juror representing that nation because exposure to different cultures is becoming more global. Piyush Pandey, part of this year's Titanium and Integrated jury, recalls a time he decoded a campaign from Thailand for his co-jurors at Cannes.
"The person whose campaign it was, was on that jury so he couldn't talk about it. Given the 'oriental overlap' between India and Thailand, I could understand the sensibilities in the ad and considered it my duty to share it with the rest. I'm sure if there's a piece of work from Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh this time, chances are I will be able to throw some light on it," says Pandey, executive chairman and creative director, South Asia, Ogilvy & Mather.
There are certain things jurors should be cautious about. A juror from Agency X Mumbai cannot vote for a campaign produced by Agency X's Mumbai office, but can vote for work produced by its Delhi branch or an overseas branch. If this juror holds a global position, though (for example, global creative director of Agency X), he then cannot vote for any work done by that agency, regardless of branch or country.
Not all jurors follow these rules. There are those who silently leave the room if work done by their agency's overseas office is up for discussion, even if they don't hold a global position. There are others who try to subtly influence the vote in favour of their own team's campaigns.
Another deviation that occurs is the tendency to push hard in favour of work from one's own country - even if it is by a rival agency! This is termed 'The Patriotic Bias', about which, Russell Barrett, managing partner, BBH India and Film juror this year, has this to say: "The organisers have indicated that they discourage 'patriotic judging'. It's our collective responsibility to ensure that each piece is judged as fairly as possible."
Creative directors admit that often there's pressure on them to lobby for work produced by their agency network's offices, both local and global. This happens at the level of parent networks too, as was evident by the public spat between WWP's Sir Martin Sorrell and Omnicom's Amir Kassaei, who accused one another of influencing votes against each other's agencies last year. Globally, some call this 'block voting'.
Mandate aside, several jurors have started installing their own mental checklists in an effort to judge fairly. For Carlton D'Silva, chief creative officer, Hungama Digital Services and Cyber juror, it is important to judge the quality of the work without getting swayed by how well it may be presented.
Each campaign is accompanied by a brief video or case study. An agency with a great case presentation has already one foot in the door, as a fantastically made video can help get a boring piece of work into the consideration zone for a Lion. "Indians falter on the presentation front because we feel the work will speak for itself. Agencies don't take efforts to polish it up for competitions like these," says D'Silva.
This problem is glaring in categories like Direct Lions, as agencies have to also present the results of the campaign to demonstrate effectiveness. Says Juju Basu, senior vice president and executive creative director, Contract Advertising and this year's Direct Lions juror, "Watch if it is the campaign idea that is good or whether the campaign results are presented in a good way."
Then there's the issue of disparity of ad spends among different campaigns. More spends get better results and jurors ought to be careful enough to keep this in mind and give the entries a level playing field. Adds Basu, "As a Direct Lions juror you have to be aware that spends can affect the results of a campaign."
For Abhinay Deo, director, Ramesh Deo Production and this year's Film Craft juror, one 'internal censor' each juror needs is the ability to see through digital tweaks. "Today," he explains, "craft is 'camouflage-able' as many brands can afford special effects. I want to spot pure, simple storytelling via craft, without all the digital razzmatazz that makes a bad film look good."
Another issue jurors need to be mindful of is the buzz around a campaign that follows it to the judging room. Some jurors tend to shortlist work because it's familiar. "PR drives your award standing, to an extent," says D'Silva. Then comes the issue of scam ads.
Interestingly, Indian jurors deny having fine-tuned their antenna as far as scam-spotting goes. The onus, they claim, is on the authorities, not jurors. Are the first-timers (10 of the 13 Indians are making their debut) doing anything at all by way of preparation? Not really. They have other concerns.
"You can see the balanced, multi-cultural mix of the jury. I'm representing India, but if an Oriya or Bangla entry comes along, I'm going to get jacked," laughs Prathap Suthan, chief creative officer and managing partner, Bang in the Middle. He will judge Outdoor entries.
The view from the other side of the table is fascinating. Now, when the rest of us get down to sit as the audience at Cannes this year, the gaze, as the winners are announced, could probably be more searching than before.
A Note From the Editor
There is such solemnity about the very word. Jury. At least some of that may be because the first two letters are the same as those in the word 'judge'.
For all the aura of impartiality around them, juries are made up of human beings - and human beings are fallible. It is about decision-making in a group of people where the dynamics between them can make all the difference to the outcome.
To begin with, the chairman of the jury plays a key role in determining the tone of the process. An assertive, fair-minded chief can ensure that everybody gets a say, even those who are relatively quiet or shy. A more hands-off approach can see a handful of jurors hijack the group.
It is not just a question of aggressiveness. Some people are slow to decide. Since the volume of entries is vast, many of this lot tend to go along with the majority because they haven't had the time to make up their minds on the work they would vote for. Then again, first-time jurors are more apt to be swayed because they don't quite know the language of judging.
Or the matter could be as simple as language. In Cannes, with jurors from across the world, English speakers have an advantage. Spanish or French speakers could form a group but weep for the juror who is not fluent in any of the major languages.
Jurors are also torn apart by conflicting emotions. On the one hand they want to do the right thing and be fair; on the other they feel either emotionally obliged when it comes to country or professionally pressured to be kind to their own agency network.
Last year, the WPP boss, Sir Martin Sorrell, alleged 'block voting' by the Omnicom group reps in the Media Lions. This provoked a top executive in DDB, part of network under attack, to allege that WPP jurors had been instructed to be harsh to Omnicom entries.
The point of all this is to underline that jurors are human and subjective. Where one jury might dismiss a piece of work, another might shower it with the highest reward.
So, if you come back empty handed from Cannes, it isn't a reflection on your work. You just got the wrong jury.