Thoughts on Cannes

Thoughts on Cannes - welcome stranger image

Cannes: Confessions of a First-Timer

“Courtney Love was really funny!”

“What could she possibly have talked about?”

“Creativity. I mean, the panel was about creativity… so she basically just talked about her music.”

This exchange between two festival-goers really summed up the Cannes Lions in the eyes of a first-timer. The annual Festival of Creativity seems more like a Festival of Celebrity— in which advertising people gather to 1. See one—get a selfie with or a long-distance photo of a celebrity or 2. Be one—if their creative execution is a Lion winner or 3. Party like one—swigging Rose “A Provence” at the yacht party they scored an invite to.

This was not what I expected. Sure, I noticed in the program that Jared Leto and others would be attending to “speak,” but naively believed those celebrities had been chosen to give remarks on the subjects at-hand. I felt a little duped when broad topics such as “storytelling,” “creativity,” or “storytelling,” (yet again) were used as catch-alls that would allow for celebrities to talk about themselves. Kanye West’s tales from his wedding might have been better suited to the audience of the Daily Mail than the Cannes Lions, all while carrying the slightly disingenuous title of “Technology, Culture and Consumer Adoption: Learning To Read The Cultural Landscape.”

Despite all the celebrity brouhaha, there was content of much greater value to be found in the much smaller rooms around the Palais. The smaller forums and presentations invited the exchange of ideas I had expected from Cannes—with speakers presenting thought-provoking POVs that challenged current ways of thinking both inside and outside of advertising.

There were familiar themes like Big Data, social media, mobile, innovation, and so on. But even though each of these talks had a different topic, at the heart—they were all about ways the advertising industry can remain relevant given epochal shifts in both business and consumer environment. More than one speech featured dinosaurs, posing a warning about extinction if the advertising industry failed to change. While the stages at Cannes held great theories about how to create that change, they were often so varied as to contradict one another.

This was illustrated in the AdMap panel, hosted at the Google beach venue by Kantar Media. In it, panellists Marc Mathieu from Unilever and Guy Murphy from JWT politely disagreed on how brands would utilize emotion in the future. Murphy finally punctuated the exchange, saying, “The answer is we don’t know. That’s not like the past, is it? It’s not like when people came up with an answer, wrote books about it and did training courses everyone took. The communications industry has to reach some consensus—we owe our clients a view, not a differing view.”

At first, I bristled at Murphy’s idea of industry consensus on the difficult topics, as the discourse of different views tends to lead to better and more interesting thinking. But then I considered it further: clients are flailing to redefine marketing in this upended universe, and looking to agencies for help in navigating the waters. In response, agencies are offering extremely varied points-of-view that might actually further confuse, or make big issues seem even more overwhelming to clients. While it’s nothing new for each agency to have proprietary processes and theories, previously those were fused to a constant—an agency business model that was clear and profitable. The biggest themes were agreed-upon, and the tools of the practice were consistent, from the basic purchase funnel to measurement of impact via TRPs. While the stability of the old world is undoubtedly gone forever, should there be no attempt to give clients a more unified response to the heavy and heady issues that are keeping them up at night?

Cannes is unique in that it has the distinction of being the only worldwide conference that is well-attended by the biggest ad agencies and the biggest thought-leaders from around the globe (tech companies, agency upstarts, trade organizations, industry journalists). Would it not be a great time to take the separate theories, the opposing viewpoints, the best and the brightest ideas, and work together to answer some of the thorniest questions of the new marketing world for our collective clients? Would it be so crazy to have a worldwide industry perspective on the use of emotion in advertising, or the best way to deploy data while protecting privacy, or other issues that are creating angst among both clients and agencies alike?

I’d love to see a Cannes with a working agenda—where the thinkers aren’t busy promoting separate talks in hopes of drumming up attendance (and new business), but working together as industry leaders to craft thinking that could serve as broader points-of-view. If panels of the biggest creative names (and egos) in the business can come to decisions on which work is worthy of a Cannes Lion, then why can’t panels of thought-leaders around the industry come to some consensus on the issues we’re all battling? I’m not advocating for any kind of decree that threatens the proprietary thinking of agencies, but rather, for some broad ideas and guidelines on how to approach an environment that has sent everyone scrambling in different directions. This could provide a stabilizing and reassuring benefit to our clients at a time when they need us the most, having huge potential to reduce panic and restore some needed confidence in the industry as a whole.

And if the apocalyptic dinosaur metaphors are accurate, and advertising must ‘change or die,’ then of course we should be working together to avoid that death rather than fending for ourselves. To extend the drastic metaphor, perhaps if the dinosaurs had worked together to survive, we’d still be bumping into them on our commutes? If the industry is serious about reinventing itself given the serious challenges it’s facing, it couldn’t hurt to bring the best and the brightest together for some reasoning on how better to weather the storm.

Or, I suppose Cannes could tackle industry reinvention in the current manner, and simply host a panel about reinvention featuring Madonna, Lady Gaga, or other celebrities who recreated their image over the years. The latter option would probably be more tweet-worthy and Insta-worthy, but like many things at Cannes, might be a bigger opportunity wasted.

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