Cannes 2019: reasons to be cheerful

This year's festival was less about problems and more about solutions.

Let’s be positive.

Conrad Hilton said: "Travel bridges cultures and promotes peace in the world." Some people are pointing to Cannes this year as a harbinger of doom. Actually, it was the very opposite.

While it would be over-simplistic to suggest that the ad festival promoted world peace, the general message of the week was more about solutions and realistic situational analysis than it was about problems and existential crisis this year.

Yes, the IPA pointed out that there is a lack of correlation between effectiveness and creative winners. Yet a panel of chief strategy officers that convened later in the week pointed out that this reflected the nature of the entrants to the Effectiveness Awards rather than a crisis of creativity and called for a step change in diversity of types of work for the 2020 awards.

The sessions at the Palais ranged far and wide as always, with some of my colleagues reporting highlights including calls to dream big, flexing business models to be more agile, personalising where appropriate, and everything from AR to XR (extended reality enabled by 5G). There’s much more action (not just talk) on diversity and inclusion. Undoing stereotypes is long overdue and the Unstereotype Alliance is now making good ground.

This gives many people reasons to be cheerful. Berta de Pablos, Mars Wrigley chief growth officer, set a refreshing tone of honesty by presenting the results of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media’s analysis of how its advertising was doing. Better than most, but not enough. This honesty under the spotlight is inspirational. She said: "The best ads take on the responsibility to accurately reflect society. We hope that by releasing some of our findings from the institute, we can encourage the larger industry to prioritise the equitable inclusion and representation of women."

Back at MediaCom’s suite, a session hosted by global chief strategy officer Matt Mee was dedicated to optimism. Matt asked chief marketing officers Janelle Anderson of American Airlines and Kellyn Smith Kenny of Hilton if they felt optimistic about anything. The answer was a resounding yes. Kellyn, who cited Conrad Hilton’s purpose, said that his pioneering spirit was contagious. Yes, the sector has been disrupted, but that disruption has inspired the incumbents to new heights.

Janelle pointed out that budget airlines have opened up the habit of flying to many more people and that positivity was crucial to a business where, if anything out of the airline’s control goes wrong (such as the weather), passengers love to blame them. However, "if something goes wrong, and our people help through that, and make the customer feel good, then that’s a win for the brand".

The panel agreed that the role of the chief marketing officer is to be an engine for growth and to champion healthy brands. Kellyn said she believed that there had been more innovation in marketing in the past seven years than in the previous 200 and marketers had never before had better tools for mining insights from data. When I asked them for tips on navigating all this change, they advised: "Get a coalition by your side."

In light of this optimism, the alarming news from the IPA and Financial Times that there’s a big disconnect between the FT’s C-suite readership and any real understanding of how marketing works must be seen as an opportunity for development and education.

There are reasons to be cheerful this year at Cannes. Even if the path ahead is still steep and rocky, it looks like some light is beginning to dawn.

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom

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