Following a week of livestreamed talks from Lions Live, a digital-content platform run by Cannes Lions, Stephen Whiteside, WARC’s Reports Editor, looks at the biggest takeaways from five days of inspiring thought leadership.

Lions Live may not have been able to provide the usual mix of sand, sea and free-flowing rosé on the French Riviera, but its slate of online keynotes, debates and cutting-edge research matched a typical trip to Cannes for insights that can help marketers adapt to changing realities.

Below are five of the main takeaways from these Lions Live sessions, which were curated by Cannes Lions, a sister company of WARC (full videos of all the sessions are available to watch here):

1) Marketers must step up to tackle systemic racism

The global wave of protests which followed the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month has brought fresh urgency for marketers to resolve their own industry’s failings with regards to diversity and inclusion, and ensure their communications are making a tangible difference from the production studio right through to the TV screen.

Steve Stoute, founder/CEO, Translation

Steve Stoute, the founder/CEO of creative agency Translation and artist-services firm UnitedMasters, offered a telling critique about how some corporations have reacted to heightened efforts at tackling racial injustice. 

There are, he noted, many “companies who act surprised at what you’re seeing right now, the topic of race coming up … They act surprised as if they’d never seen it or didn’t hear about it.

“I think that’s the part of it that upsets me the most. Because I can’t allow being in this industry for 20 years and seeing what I’ve seen.”

Among the brands getting their response right, Stoute asserted, was Levi Strauss & Co. The apparel manufacturer has openly admitted to its shortcomings, published a rigorous breakdown of representation within its four walls, and formulated a plan to make necessary changes across its organization.

Bozoma Saint John, chief marketing officer at Endeavor, a holding company for events, talent and media companies, provided invaluable insight into how individuals can drive progress, too, by outlining details of the #ShareTheMicNow campaign.

This initiative saw numerous well-known white women (such as actors Hillary Swank and Julia Roberts, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and soccer star Alex Morgan) hand control of their Instagram accounts to well-known Black women (such as Tarana Burke, the acclaimed activist, Julee Wilson, beauty director of Cosmopolitan magazine, Luvvie Ajayi Jones, the bestselling author, and Saint John herself).

“It allowed Black women to get onto the platforms of whiteness. Black women on social media were able to land their messages in audiences they probably have not been able to disrupt before,” Saint John explained.

Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer of Procter & Gamble, also discussed how brands can disrupt their internal processes for the better in his keynote session. The manufacturer of Pampers diapers, the Pantene haircare range and Gillette razors is seeking to achieve a level of representation that “fully reflects the world in which we live” throughout its marketing operations, he said.

That involves making sure P&G’s creative supply chain, media investment and portrayal of people in advertising, as well as the content that its ads appear next to or within, are reaching the necessary standard where representation is concerned. “Where we determine our standards are not met, we will take action, up to and including stopping spending, just like we’ve done before,” said Pritchard.

2) The Creative Effectiveness Ladder demonstrates how to boost marketing impact

Any marketer wanting to break through with their messaging will benefit from understanding the Creative Effectiveness Ladder, a new six-stage framework that was developed based on the analysis of thousands of case studies from Cannes Lions, WARC and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.

James Hurman, founding partner at New Zealand-based innovation consultancy Previously Unavailable, and Peter Field, a marketing consultant, gave a detailed breakdown of the Creative Effectiveness Ladder in a paper entitled “The Effectiveness Code”, which can be downloaded for free here.

The Creative Effectiveness Ladder is intended to lead marketers to continuous improvement by benchmarking their work, both internally and against the entire industry. In doing so, it has delivered a much-needed common language for creative effectiveness, and enabled brand custodians to move their focus towards sustained success, rather than short-term impacts.

And that mirrors a further objective of the Ladder: that is, challenging negative perceptions about marketing which have emerged at the C-suite level in certain enterprises. Over the last decade, for instance, marketing budgets have faced substantial pressure, marketing projects have got smaller, and instant results were often preferred to long-term attempts at building brands.

“We went looking for the answer to why that was, and how we could help to turn that around,” Hurman said – a task that has assumed even greater importance with a recession looming in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

3) E-commerce is now a critical battleground for brands

A session from WARC drilled down into another major trend that took root alongside widespread COVID-19 lockdowns: the acceleration of e-commerce penetration among consumers. Based on analysis of the online retail landscape and interviews with leading executives, it highlighted three main considerations:

  • Going back to basics: Returning to the fundamentals is a priority, as consumer habits vary on e-commerce sites when measured against brick-and-mortar stores. Digital shoppers, for instance, often choose larger, less-profitable pack sizes when buying online, and record a lower number of impulse purchases.

    The fact that online shoppers cannot feel or touch a product means the wider customer experience is a vital factor at play for brands – and especially for big-ticket acquisitions. And that requirement extends from initially browsing a website or app to the final delivery of a product in a package or box.

    Patrick Miller, the co-founder of Flywheel Digital, a sister company of WARC that assists brands in optimizing their presence on such sites as Amazon, Instacart and, characterized the delivery process as another “moment of truth” for brands.

    “Unboxing moments are no longer just for Apple products,” he said. “Today, it’s even for toilet paper. How does the product arrive and what’s it like to open up the product and then put it away in a pantry at home?” he asked.

  • E-commerce sites are becoming advertising venues: Another outcome from the shift towards e-commerce is that digital-retail sites – be it or the online properties run by omnichannel retailers like Walmart and Target – are becoming important media destinations in their own right.

    The Hershey Co., the candy manufacturer, is adapting to such processes by breaking down former silos that separated off its e-commerce marketing efforts. “It’s been an interesting, and very quick, journey to bring all of those budgets together, and to plan them together so that we aren’t overlapping each other or shingling, as we call it, one offer on top of another,” Jill Baskin, the CMO at Hershey, said.

  • Performance marketing is transformed: As e-commerce sites can illustrate a direct link from an ad to a purchase, it becomes tempting for brands to give too much weight to performance marketing, which favours immediate numbers over long-term indicators.

    Jerry Daykin, EMEA media director at healthcare company GSK, warned that the real-time data yielded by performance marketing can rapidly optimise campaigns, it cannot establish the overall impact of media.

    “I always encourage marketers to also take a step back to what’s sometimes seen as slightly more old-fashioned forms of measurement: brand lift studies and econometrics and slightly slower-moving pieces that ultimately will really help you understand the performance of your media,” he said.

From left to right: Jill Baskin (The Hershey Co.), Patrick Miller (Flywheel), Jerry Daykin (GSK)

4) Life-enriching ads can break the COVID-19 malaise

Many brands rushed to make ads that referenced the COVID-19 pandemic – but these messages had mixed results among consumers, depending on the creative approach.

Orlando Wood, chief innovation officer at research firm System1, pointed to analysis conducted by the company of TV spots that aired during the pandemic. And he revealed that the most impactful commercials generally demonstrated how a brand was “enabling life to continue – and enriching life.”

Messages that obtained this goal are “connecting very well. You see it particularly in food retailers. You see it also in telecommunications companies,” said Wood. An example comes from 3, the telecoms brand, in an ad from Ireland that featured a grandfather soothing his grandson’s fears about a monster over a video call – showing that social distancing can be overcome to achieve human connection.

An example of the material that was less effective involved ads that were centered on empty cityscapes, and feel like they are instructing people to behave in a particular way:

“The sort of work that isn’t performing well normally shows empty streets. It tells people what to do, what to think, what not to do … It sort of feels like it’s preventing life in some way,” Wood added.

5) Portfolio management is taking on new significance

Given all the challenges marketers are now dealing with, careful stewardship of a brand portfolio is more important than ever – be it because of the necessity of adroitly managing supply chains, meeting evolving customer requirements, or ensuring that resources are directed to programs that are serving wider social needs.

One example comes from GlaxoSmithKline, the healthcare company, which is not only at the forefront of addressing the impacts of COVID-19, but is aiming to make sure that consumer remedies and well-being staples remain in stock across different retail channels.

Tamara Rogers, chief marketing officer/consumer healthcare at GSK, broke down how the company is managing its portfolio in the current environment:

  • Premium and Discretionary (brands such as ChapStick lip balm and Zovirax core-sore treatment): “We want to make sure we maintain those kinds of brands,” she said.

  • Treatment Mainstays (brands such as Advil or Panadol painkillers): “They have a really important role to play [during COVID-19], whether that's an Advil or a Panadol. Those are brands which really do help with some of the symptoms and issues that people are facing,” Rogers said.

    “We need to make sure that we continue to drive those and make sure that they’re available. We had to cut considerably the number of SKUs [stock-keeping units] on Panadol to make sure we could really meet the demand, and make sure people could find them and they were visible in store.”

  • Prevention (vitamins, supplement brands, etc): “People are really thinking about their health. It’s become front and centre in the times that we’re suffering now. They’re thinking about prevention or vitamins, minerals and supplements. Again, we needed to make sure that we were driving availability, presence and awareness of those brands,” Rogers said.

  • Everyday Essentials (brands like Sensodyne toothpaste): The goal here is “making sure that in lockdown people are looking after their oral health, their oral hygiene and brushing twice a day, [and] again, really making sure that people have access to those everyday essentials,” said Rogers.

In outlining how GSK approached this task, Rogers explained that it started with the customer, and then worked backwards. “We took a look through the lens of the consumer, and shifted our strategies – whether they were media or whether they were content – to really make sure that we are showing up when and where we need to be,” she said.

All the sessions from Lions Live – as well as new content that will be added on a regular basis – can be viewed in full here.