I remember when Indians were a minority at Cannes Lions: KV Sridhar reflects

K V Sridhar reflects on the evolution of Indian advertising and its journey to global recognition at Cannes Lions. He shares how Indian creatives initially struggled with packaging their work for international awards but gradually proved their talent, leading to significant wins that transformed global perceptions.

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K V Sridhar

The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity has always held a special place in the heart of the global advertising community. Despite the prestigious allure of other awards like D&AD, Cannes Lions remains the most popular advertising accolade worldwide. For over three decades, it has been a pinnacle of achievement, gaining momentum, particularly from the late 90s. Since then, India’s participation has grown significantly, marking our presence on the global stage.

Reflecting on my first entry into Cannes, which was around 1997, I recall the sheer excitement and anticipation. Before Cannes, the New York Festivals and One Show were the benchmarks. In 1996, we celebrated winning a Grand Prix at the New York Festivals. This win boosted our confidence, particularly for us at Chaitra, which was transitioning to Chaitra Leo Burnett India. The influx of global agencies into India brought about a transformation from 1995 onwards, aligning us more with international standards.



The evolution of Indian advertising

The entry of global agencies into India in the mid-90s brought about a significant shift. At first, there was a sense of skepticism towards these agencies coming in to "teach" us. We weren’t integrated into the global arena and often felt uncertain. Our journey through the late 80s and early 90s was a period of learning and growing confidence. By the mid-90s, we were eager to prove that we could match, if not exceed, our global counterparts. The drive to excel was not merely about individual or agency pride but a national aspiration to showcase India's creative prowess.

Indian awards were highly esteemed domestically. However, the arrival of global agencies in India spurred a need to prove ourselves on the international front. This was the impetus for our increased participation in global awards like Cannes Lions. We aimed to demonstrate that our creativity and advertising acumen were on par with the best in the world.

The initial wins at Cannes were significant milestones. I remember the early triumphs fondly, such as the first film award in the mid-90s and subsequent accolades. These victories, while celebrated, were just the beginning. Winning at Cannes was about more than just a trophy; it was about challenging perceptions and showcasing India's creative spirit. The SSC&B's magazine ad for a mosquito repellent, which cleverly depicted palms crushing a mosquito when the magazine was closed, was an early example of our ingenuity.


The early victories paved the way for more substantial wins, such as Prasoon Pandey's iconic silver for Ericsson. 


These achievements began to alter global perceptions of Indian advertising. Our ideas, though initially seen through a regional lens, began to be recognized for their broader impact.

From humble beginnings to global recognition

In the early years, our participation at Cannes was modest. Submitting entries in the early days was fraught with challenges. Restrictions on dollar transactions made it difficult to fund entries from India. We often relied on our global offices to facilitate submissions and payments. Deciding which entries to send and managing the logistics was a complex task, compounded by the limited funds allocated for such purposes. Despite these hurdles, the desire to gain international recognition drove us.

Our generation at that time, whether at Ogilvy or Leo Burnett, both Piyush Pandey and I, were fighting for recognition globally.



What we knew and were convincing everyone of was that we are not only good enough within our global organizations but also capable of beating anyone. Slowly and steadily, we began proving that we could produce great work and that India is a country rich in creativity and talent.

The only thing we initially didn’t know and learned through trial and error was how to package our work for these award shows.

I remember when we used to go to Cannes, there were only 5-6 people from India, at most 10. We were a minority everywhere. So, we would always stick together because only a few of us attended Cannes in those days.



Each win was celebrated with quiet pride. It’s like athletes or sportsmen representing their country; when you wear a flag. Seeing other countries, including Argentina and Brazil, winning and carrying their flags onto the stage was a powerful sight. 

When India won the Grand Prix, we celebrated in the middle of the street with Indian flags. Someone started singing the national anthem, and it brought everything to a halt. The entire traffic came to a standstill, and everyone stood watching the flag flying high. We all felt very patriotic when we were at Cannes.

Campaigns like the Times of India’s ‘Teach India’ highlighted how big ideas could drive change and influence global perspectives on Indian creativity. Over time, the Indian media began to pay attention, and our achievements started to gain the recognition they deserved.


The transformation

Today, the landscape has transformed dramatically. Indian agencies are no longer questioned for their capabilities. We have established our reputation in marketing, branding, design, and filmmaking. Awards have become an integral part of our business, with global rankings and creative awards serving as benchmarks for agency performance. This shift has commercialized the pursuit of awards, but it has also fostered a culture of excellence.As we evolved, the focus expanded from merely winning awards to making a significant impact. 

Reflecting on our journey, I am filled with pride at how far we’ve come. From our early days of striving for recognition to becoming respected players on the global stage, the journey has been transformative. Our creative spirit, once underestimated, now stands as a testament to India’s ingenuity and resilience. Each victory at Cannes has been a step towards proving that we are not just participants but leaders in the global creative community.

Lifelong lessons from Cannes

The core lesson from Cannes is that ideas transcend borders. Universal human insights form the foundation of powerful campaigns, resonating with audiences regardless of geography. The real challenge lies in execution, which must respect cultural nuances and contexts.

Exposure to global work at Cannes offers invaluable lessons about creativity, socio-economic conditions, and cultural sensitivities. This melting pot of ideas and perspectives fosters maturity and a deeper understanding of the world. Engaging with diverse speakers and their work enriches your knowledge base and sharpens your ideologies and opinions.

Cannes provides a unique platform for immersive learning. With thousands of pieces of work and hours of content, it offers a concentrated dose of global creative excellence. However, the true value lies in your approach. Whether you choose to absorb the knowledge or let it pass by. Personally, documenting each day’s events for a live column in Mint forced me to engage deeply with every detail, enhancing my learning experience.

Ultimately, learning at Cannes is driven by your appetite for knowledge. A thirst for understanding and growth will maximize your experience, shaping you into a more informed and mature professional.

Mantra for success

For those aiming to succeed at Cannes Lions, the key is not to chase the awards but to elevate your craft and ideas. Success at Cannes is a byproduct of delivering exceptional work, not the primary goal. Concentrate on developing insights and executing them beautifully. The passion and love invested in your craft are what catch the judges’ eyes, not a mere desire for recognition.

Innovative ideas come from intellectual rigor, while execution excellence comes from honing your skills. The fusion of brilliant ideas and impeccable execution is essential for winning at Cannes. Neither element can succeed in isolation; a poor execution can ruin a great idea, and a lackluster idea can’t be saved by stellar execution.

Don’t focus on the finish line; immerse yourself in the process. The journey of refining ideas and perfecting execution is what leads to victory. Success at Cannes comes from pursuing creativity with relentless passion, not from a narrow focus on winning.

Every opportunity, big or small, is a chance to showcase your passion and craft. Strive to present meaningful, impactful, and unique ideas that solve real problems. Collaborate with skilled professionals to elevate your work and set new benchmarks in the industry.

Cannes Lions is more than a festival; it’s a platform for creative evolution. It’s where networking, learning, and showcasing brilliance converge. Winning at Cannes is about the journey of consistent improvement, embracing global perspectives, and letting your work speak for itself.

The article is penned by K V Sridhar (Pops), Founder & CCO of Hypercollective.

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