Gail Heimann Is on the Lookout for “Jaw-Droppingly Brilliant Subversion” During Cannes Lions

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The CEO of Weber Shandwick and jury president of the PR Lions tells LBB’s Addison Capper about the manifesto she has created to help the jury evaluate the work

“The work over the past 18 months appears to be a reflection of our always-shifting reality and zeitgeist.”

Gail Heimann, CEO of Weber Shandwick, is reflecting on the work that she and her jury have seen so far in the Cannes Lions PR Lions, which she is presiding over as jury president. To guide the jury in their task, Gail has created a manifesto that serves as a set of criteria for them in evaluating work. In this interview with LBB’s Addison Capper, she reveals the key points in the manifesto, alludes the sheer amount of beer work that’s been entered, and ponders the responsibility in recognising truly worthwhile work.

LBB> After a year and a half of Covid-19, why does the business and creative world need award shows?

Gail> I am the first one to say “it’s not about the awards; it’s about making award-worthy work.” And I stand by that – even while recognising that trophies make us all feel good and they, at times, make careers. 

This year is both no different and very different. Now more than ever we need to make award-worthy work to make a difference for business and the world. Same as always. But now more than ever we need to recognise the thousands of people who dealt with the losses, tensions, anxieties and myriad complexities of the past months and still made extraordinary work that delivered hope, joy, change and positive impact. The Cannes Lions gives us a chance to collectively bask in their virtual glow. And that’s important. 

LBB> You’ll be awarding 2020 and 2021 Lions – I know the years are being judged separately but it must be super illuminating to see the comparison between pre-Covid and Covid work. I know it’s still in the pre-judging phase, but have you noticed any trends or has it given you any new perspective on how the industry has changed?

Gail> It’s early in the game but we are seeing differences. 

We have seen lovely 2020 work honouring the heroism of healthcare and other essential workers; we have seen creative workarounds for pandemic and lockdown-related issues; we have seen brilliant initiatives designed to bring back lost jobs and we have seen lots of beer work. Lots and lots of beer work.

2021 work determinedly builds brands and addresses major societal issues with a heavy focus on climate change. 

The work over the past 18 months appears to be a reflection of our always-shifting reality and zeitgeist. And that’s a good thing. 

And the past 18 months has further proven what we knew: the ad/marketing world plays a critical role in business resilience and in driving societal progress. Public relations, especially, was a force of reason, wisdom and good, playing a critical role supporting business, organisations, institutions and governments at the epicentre of the events that defined this period of our lives. 

LBB> You’re heading up the PR Lions – what does great, award-worthy PR mean for you? And how will you be relaying that definition to your jury?

Gail> We created a manifesto that serves as a set of criteria for us in evaluating work. 

Key elements:

  1. Award-winning work must have a narrative strong enough to forge connections in a fragmented world 
  2. It must have values at the core and add value
  3. And it must be built around a central idea that has the muscle to earn attention. And the luster to shine across platforms and channels. 

LBB> This has been a year that has seen the industry chuck out all of the rule books, so in some ways, this year’s Cannes Lions is a launchpad for the future – how does that frame how you’ll be looking at the work? Does it give the juries an extra responsibility?

Gail> I believe we have a huge responsibility this year to select a body of work that demonstrates that our industry stands for humanity, deepens inclusion and propels meaningful change as it drives impact that furthers economic growth. 

And as the first post-pandemic juries we must send the message that ideas – simple, elegant, bold, bombastic, haunting, feel-good, heart-wrenching, provocative or memorably off-putting – are what move us forward. There is no progress in business or society without ideas. 

LBB> What advice will you be giving the jury?

Gail> We have had lots of conversations about how to delve into the work. The most important comment from one juror – after we debated all the many ways to assess work and aligned on our ‘manifesto’ – was ‘judge with your heart’. And we are doing that. 

LBB> The Tampon Book: A Book Against Tax Discrimination won the PR Grand Prix in 2019. In your eyes, what was so good about the campaign and what about it do you hope to see in 2020 and 2021’s entries?

Gail> The Tampon Book was brilliant subversion. Tampons were taxed. And books not. So let’s make a book of tampons to draw attention to yet another piece of legislative discrimination. And change it. 

Jaw-droppingly brilliant subversion is what I hope to see in the 2020 and 2021 entries. I have already. 

LBB> Cannes is also a time of celebration. What will you be celebrating this year?

Gail> Our jury will be celebrating the power and primacy of public relations – the discipline that has been and will continue to be the soul of the marketing services industry. My humble opinion, of course. 

And we will celebrate the people who make the work that makes a difference to millions of people around the world. 

LBB> What do you hope to see at Cannes 2022? 

Gail> I hope to see other people in the flesh – not in a dimly lit square on my laptop screen. 

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