Cannes faces watershed moment

Cannes faces watershed moment

There will be more than just creative work on trial at this year's Cannes Lions festival.

A few years ago I went to the Cannes Lions festival just after my dad was diagnosed with cancer. It was the best Cannes I've ever had.

I’d spent the past three weeks sitting by his hospital bed, poisoned with worry. Finally, they worked out what was wrong with him and started treatment, then it was time for me to fly to Nice. 

Obviously I wasn’t going; how impossible, in the middle of the worst thing that had ever happened, to sit in the sunshine, drinking Domaines Ott, listening to advertising people talking about themselves. But my dad asked me to go, wanted some normality back. Cannes – normality? Ha, yeah, right!

I set off utterly heartbroken and frightened. Then spent the whole week in Cannes bathed in the joy of life: the giddy privilege of being by the sea with brilliant people, discussing wonderfully interesting ideas, looking at powerful creative work. I’d been going to the Lions festival for more than a decade and that week was literally brighter, more vivid. 

The Cannes Lions festival is our industry’s biggest, splashiest, most obscenely expensive, important and unifying event in the calendar. It’s the advertising and marketing Oscars. Except that the real Oscars is a not-for-profit operation designed to nurture and champion the industry it serves; Cannes Lions is a viciously self-serving commercial beast.

Now, it’s June again and Lions are about to roar. The festival has been trimmed for 2018: shorter, fewer awards. But you wouldn’t guess, looking at the exhausting number of speakers and categories and streams. 

There’s still a thoroughly ridiculous amount of awards, although, inevitably, creative work will have to fight harder than ever for oxygen. Creativity isn’t so much the point any more though. The celebrities (and Sir Martin Sorrell) will inevitably end up stealing the limelight. And the big bucks will be spunked by the tech companies and management consultancies – which is no more than a proper reflection of the changing shape of our industry, but makes the week nosier, fractioned, less communal, less creative. 

All of which means that for the advertising holding companies and their agencies, this year’s Cannes has less pull. Twelve months ago Publicis Groupe announced it wouldn’t be entering in 2018 or sending any of its people and that has given other groups licence to pull back, relieved to have the excuse not to compete at the usual level.

As it turns out, there will be 64 Publicis Groupe employees at the festival, none of them paid for by the company. In total, 399 campaigns by Publicis Groupe agencies have been entered, all paid for by clients and partners; the searingly brilliant Tide campaign from Saatchi & Saatchi is a sure bet. Publicis has paid to enter just one award, for Bartle Bogle Hegarty London’s Three Billboards-inspired campaign for Justice4Grenfell, the body fighting for justice on behalf of victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster. It deserves to win.

Consequently, revenue for the festival’s owner Ascential has taken a real hit. The company put out a stock-market trading update earlier this month confirming "Cannes Lions is experiencing a more challenging trading environment, with a lower than expected level of spend by the advertising agency holding companies". 

But there will be more than just creative work on trial this year. Inevitably, and crucially, the festival will provide an important platform for collective interrogation of the industry’s progress on diversity. What’s the gender split of delegates/entrants/winners? How well will the industry be able to police itself to ensure that when thousands of rosé-drenched executives gather in the sunshine for the purpose of feeling good about their achievements and the industry they work in, this is a safe and inclusive environment? 

And, lastly, will the festival still be exhilarating, fun? If it’s not, the prognosis could be ultimately terminal. 

Claire Beale is the global editor-in-chief of Campaign. 

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