The key ingredient behind Cannes’ UK winners

What the UK's award-winning work at Cannes this year tells us about the industry.

Following a year in which UK agencies won over 100 awards at Cannes, Wunderman Thompson's UK Chief Creative Officer Steve Aldridge explores the common thread in the UK’s award-winning work... Empathy.

It’s achievement enough to celebrate the fact that we have remained active through lockdown, and hopefully sane.

But, as the second most awarded country - despite our diminutive size - the humanity of much of the UK’s multi-award winning work is indeed a feather in our cap, too. It could even be argued that it’s the empathy on display in much of the award-winning work that has directly led to its success.

With almost 30,000 pieces of work entered, from across 90 countries, the UK picked up award after award.

Empathy at Cannes 2021

There were so many examples of creative work with purpose at its core this year – from one/second/suit for H&M by Uncommon, which set out to support younger people’s job prospects; offering a 24-hour free suit rental for those attending an interview, in order to enable them to make a powerful first impression; to Raising Profiles for The Big Issue and LinkedIn by FCB INFERNO - a digital inclusion project designed to improve vendors’ digital confidence and to empower them to build an online network and a virtual ‘street corner’ on the networking platform.

At a time when communities were rallying together, work like this spoke to culture itself, with advertising transcending to something far more powerful than a flashy fashion parade.


Take Wunderman Thompson’s Innovation Grand Prix for work with Unilever, for instance. This collaboration to produce the world’s first deodorant built with a diverse disability community in mind, with features such as a hook design for one-handed use, was the only Grand Prix in the innovation category.

BT Sport

Yet Cannes Lions this year was full of ideas that play within the triangle of technology, creativity and humanity. Goability for Motability by McCann mapped the many obstacles disabled people face when going about their day-to-day business, in real time; while our work for BT Sport - Unscripted - picked up no less than three awards, including a Gold Lion for brand storytelling, thanks to its unique celebration of football's beautiful unpredictability. By writing the first AI-inspired script of any football season, anywhere, and enabling fans to feel joy and connection during such a challenging time, the brand managed to tap into the zeitgeist effectively – and to great effect.


Others had more pressing issues on their minds than football, of course – not least the additional 70,000 households, in the UK alone, made homeless since the pandemic began. Without a fixed address of their own, homeless people find themselves in a situation in which it’s virtually impossible to open a bank account. They then can’t claim benefits or store their money, which makes it harder to secure a legitimate job. All of this makes it harder to find a home.

Landing two Gold Lions our brief was to help HSBC UK reconnect the homeless back into society. At HSBC branches, people without a fixed address can now open a bank account using a participating charity’s address as their proof of identity.

To raise awareness of the service, we used data to pinpoint locations with the highest levels of homelessness which were also in close proximity to a branch offering the service. This was communicated via powerful out-of-home executions depicting rough sleepers sheltering in bus stops, designed to stop you in your tracks.


Clearly, print is not dead. Ogilvy knows this, and it also knows that we can’t look back on the past year without thinking of our front-line workers. Its winning ‘Courage is Beautiful’ campaign for Dove juxtaposed the beauty of front-line healthcare workers’ courageous acts against images of them at the end of their shifts - redefining beauty as something you do and not how you look, and placing humanity at the heart of the work, whilst scooping the Grand Prix in the Print and Publishing category along the way.

How Cannes entries are changing

That said, while digital has continued to boom, with other Lions also seeing increased engagement - including the Social and Influencer Lions, up 14%, and the Creative eCommerce Lions, which have seen a 12% increase year-on-year – other data pointed to a potentially worrying shift to short-term strategy.

In the face of such unprecedented circumstances, work that delivers on long-term strategy appears to have been hit; with entries into the Creative Strategy Lions seeing a significant 20% drop and the Creative Effectiveness Lions down by a whopping 38%.

So, while amplified sensitivity in much of the work submitted to Cannes this year is something to be celebrated – and it certainly helped the UK to rack up an impressive number of wins – we must remember that with all the hand-wringing, and supportive words or gestures, advertising effectiveness must remain front and centre, too.

Long-term challenges around quantifying success remain an issue for the industry. And while, this year, brands can be forgiven for their focus perhaps shifting, with businesses forced to pivot, and many budgets frozen or slashed, we must remember that creativity is one of our most powerful exports; and one that requires continued investment. That said, there are many reasons to be optimistic. Well done, UK!

IPA member and Accelerator agencies won a combined 115 awards (including joint entries) at Cannes Lions 2021 including 47 Bronze Lions, 39 Silver Lions, 19 Gold Lions and 10 Grand Prix.

The opinions expressed here are those of the contributors and were submitted in accordance with the IPA terms and conditions regarding the uploading and contribution of content to the IPA newsletters, IPA website, or other IPA media, and should not be interpreted as representing the opinion of the IPA.

Last updated 17 April 2024