Cannes: an improved festival so ice creams all round

Jeremy Lee
Jeremy Lee

James Murphy's airport dash to pick up a prize in a slightly deserted Cannes shows this year's festival was a slightly odd - if improved - affair.

The electricians were already hard at work dismantling the rigs and most of the beach stages were being packed into trucks when James Murphy, the co-founder of Adam & Eve/DDB, received a call in London advising him to return to Cannes – a place he’d left 24 hours earlier – to pick up the honours for Agency of the Year.

It would be overstating it to say that, by Friday, Cannes had instantly been transformed into just another off-season seaside resort, but the shutters on the cabana village and the quieter streets and mostly deserted Palais suggested that the circus had largely rolled out of town.

Murphy dashed to get a flight, while the shop’s other remaining co-founder, David Golding, who had just landed at City Airport, only had time for a quick "comfort break" before jumping on the next flight back to Nice. To ensure they made the ceremony in time they were choppered over.

While celebrations were relatively muted – they ended up in an ice cream parlour on the Croisette (there weren’t many of their peers left on the Carlton Terrace to bray to anyway) – it was still a great way for the UK to celebrate what had been a pretty decent showing at the Cannes festival, which itself had gone through some significant changes.

Ascential, the festival’s owners, had promised to make this year’s beano simpler and shorter than last, when there was widespread disquiet about the extortionate costs, the policy of only delegate badge holders could get into bars, and the vulgar displays of conspicuous wealth by the tech companies – most notably demonstrated up by Snapchat’s "Ferris wheel of hubris". So how did it do?

Certainly the mood on the Croisette among the UK contingent, which was slightly diminished in numbers by the absence of most Publicis Groupe agencies that would otherwise have been here (those who had snuck over were keeping their heads down and quick to emphasise that a client had paid for them to be there), was pretty positive. Aside from the Agency of the Year prize, the UK came home with a decent haul of Lions compared to 2017 and across a variety of sectors (how nice to see some metal being handed out to proper commercial brands away from the usual ‘social purpose’ winners).

Cannes organisers had also tried to shift the dial back towards creativity although the tech companies and platforms, which now contribute so much to Ascential’s coffers, were still very much trying to make the loudest noise as the advertising sector still tries to navigate itself its way through its current existential crisis. The keynotes seemed a bit tighter and focussed although there was still that strange obsession with celebrity – remember the time when advertising used to make culture rather than desperately try and attach itself to it?

The consultancies were another new presence – who can fail to have missed they had the biggest yachts and had the largest tables at the Eden Roc – and a win by Accenture Interactive’s Rothco was the sector’s first award showing of any significance.

This effort by a consultancy to prove that it is not the antithesis of creativity might have backfired slightly with a later and ill-advised Tweet to its 81,000-plus followers asking the question: "What’s the most interesting topic at #CannesLions this year?" and with the choices: "Brand Transparency"; "Physical vs Digital"; ‘Connected Experiences"; and, err, "Awesome Parties". It was quite rightly ridiculed for forgetting "creativity".

Sir Martin Sorrell’s thick hide (or breath-taking ego) was evident; but I guess some credit is due to him for showing his face, although he would only grant audiences to softer, more compliant, interviewers and the only mea culpa on offer was for "demanding excellence".

While Sorrell was happy to express views on WPP's "horizontality", allegations of his own horizontality or otherwise remained unanswered. Anyway, maybe he was rattling the tin after sinking £40m of his own cash into his new marketing group and, reports suggest, finding just £11m from other parties.

Incidentally, this sum is considerably less than Ascential’s revenues from the 2017 Cannes Lions festival, suggesting that he has hardly taken the City by storm.

We probably won’t have to wait until next year’s Cannes to see if Sorrell’s attempt to get back into the fray has been successful or not, but at least this year’s Cannes seemed largely back on track. So - if we can’t have trebles or even magnums of D'Ott - then crème glacée all round.

Jeremy Lee is contributing editor at Campaign