New Delhi: He edited UK film journal Empire before taking charge of men’s magazine FHM, where he more than doubled circulation in the late 1990s. He now spearheads the world’s most glamorous advertising awards show. Philip Thomas, 59, chief executive officer of Cannes Lions, was in India recently to speak at the World Magazine Congress.

Emap Ltd, the UK media group that owns Cannes Lions, sold Empire and FHM to become a full-fledged business-to-business (B2B) multi-media platform.

Brand appeal: Thomas says best brands don’t try to please everybody. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Why did Emap acquire Cannes Lions in 2004?

It had been run by an entrepreneur for 30 years. He was getting old and wanted to retire. He put it on the market. We felt we could build it. We paid him the money he wanted and we also got a good deal because we built the business quite significantly.

What is the revenue?

I can’t share numbers, but it’s a profitable business and growing dramatically. The revenue model is that people pay to enter the awards. This time we had 29,000 entries. People pay to attend the festival itself. We have sponsors too.

Emap also publishes magazines.

Only B2B magazines. Empire and FHM were sold to a German media group. Emap has data websites for fashion, cars, construction industry, and runs events, festivals and trade shows. It is jointly owned by private equity house Apax Partners and The Guardian newspaper in the UK.

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Aren’t the Cannes Lions awards self-congratulatory? Basically advertising is created to sell a product.

It totally is. What’s happened at Cannes in the last five or six years is that the number of clients attending the event has increased dramatically. P&G, Unilever, Coca-Cola... 500 marketing organizations attended Cannes last year. They are coming because they realize that creativity will drive their business forward.

Every year we give Advertiser of the Year award to a client doing the best work. A book, The Case for Creativity, written recently, looks at the share price of winners of the Advertiser of the Year. In every single case, for the last 10 years, the advertiser’s share price has been at the highest when it has been producing its most creative work. So clients and marketers are realizing it is not just fluffy fun, it is actually delivering business results. Creativity is absolutely linked to return on investment (RoI). Clients I speak to don’t want just creativity because that would be art, it’s not commerce.

How does the Cannes Lions growth chart look like?

Client participation has jumped from 200 five years ago to 500 companies now. Hollywood studios, music, design and PR (public relations) companies are coming. It is much broader.

Why Hollywood?

P&G, Coca-Cola, BMW, they are creating content and they need partners. So Hollywood studios come and say we can help. Disney came for the first time last year. It’s all about different ways (of communication), PR, design.

I had a meeting with Coca-Cola last week. They were telling me the redesign of Diet Coke cans in the USA last month has increased their market share by 1.5%. They realized so much needs to be done in terms of how you communicate.

Have you added new award categories?

Last year, we added Creative Effectiveness. Next year we are launching mobile advertising as a separate category. We are also introducing branded entertainment—brands creating television shows, films magazines.

Are there more entries from the emerging markets?

Entries and winners. That is the important thing. India won 24 Lions this year and 25 two years ago. Earlier they were winning three or four. There are winners from Vietnam, Costa Rica, Qatar, Latvia. There is globalization of creativity. It is no longer dominated by the US, the UK and Europe. China this year won its very first Grand Prix.

Isn’t creativity in Indian advertising more an offshoot of Western ads?

A lot of advertising that has won Cannes for India has been very locally cultural. The Happydent ad that won a couple of years ago could not be from anywhere, but India. India has everything it needs to do brilliantly at Cannes: Big population, vibrant economy, very democratic, wonderful independent and network agencies.

Is it true that larger brands are taking risks and getting more creative in their advertising?

Yes, most of our winners at Cannes are now big brands. Top winners at Cannes this year were P&G, Nike, Volkswagen and Google. Google came from nowhere to winning 15 Lions. It’s on fire.

Many years ago, a tattoo parlour in Norway won the Grand Prix. That’s the kind of shift.

Why are these corporations winning?

They know their audience. They can measure them and their RoI. They can do all the research they want and they are smart. McDonald’s did some research. It compared its campaigns that had won Lions at Cannes with those that didn’t, and measured the RoI. For the campaign that had won, the RoI was 54% higher.

You are credited with doubling the circulation of ‘FHM’ as its managing director. What was the strategy then? Can it be replicated now?

I ran it from 1997 to 2000. It grew to become the biggest selling monthly magazine in Europe at one point. Why was it successful? It was perfect for its time. It was a formula that did travel in terms of replication of a global brand value for a young man. It was supposed to be funny, sexy and useful. But it’s a description you could use for the Internet today. Also, we were very clear from the brand perspective. Best brands don’t try to please everybody. FHM was made for a 25-year-old man. You may say that’s very limiting. But if you are a 17-year-old, you want to be 25 because that looks like a lot of fun. If you are 40, you want to be 25 as it looks like a lot of fun. We focused on 25 and many engaged in it. Levi’s also re-invented targeting the 19-year-old. If they only sold to 19 year olds, they would not have a business. Even the 30 year olds wanted to wear Levi’s. FHM exists in several countries, but it has shut down in the US. It is not the power that it was before.

You are interested in cricket. Do you play?

I was a medium-pace bowler and number 10 batsman. I particularly love watching England beat India because it’s so rare. It’s interesting when you see a team playing well together. And that is one of the things about England at the moment—they have got real depth. But I am also into scuba diving and skiing. I went skiing to Bulgaria this year. We go to France, Italy, Sweden, Romania and Sweden to ski.