Cannes Lions must evolve as we learn to do purposeful business

As we learn to evolve consumerism and capitalism, so too must we learn to evolve Cannes, says 18 Feet & Rising's chief executive.

Last week Arthur Sadoun, Publicis Groupe’s chief executive, decided to cut all marketing spend which would include the entry and attendance of awards such as Cannes Lions. This prompted WPP’s chief Martin Sorrell to also question the worth and longevity of the festival.

Jose Papa, managing director of Cannes Lions, defended the festival and all that it stands for, highlighting that their mission "is the campaign for creativity, because [sic] it’s a positive force for business, change and good in the world".

After looking at the nominees and victors it is apparent that social good is embedded within the festival. Whether it’s Publicis London’s "Worlds apart" campaign for Heineken or McCann New York’s "Fearless girl" for State Street Global Advisors, there is a definite theme of universalism. However, currently "purpose" is just another form of brand rhetoric, like when Pepsi tried (and failed) to capitalize on the Black Lives Matter movement by demonstrating that racism can be solved through white supremacy.

As people wake up from their hangovers, next to a dishevelled inflatable swan, the cold reality sets in: purpose is now the redundant word. The combination of social purpose and a sales message has damaged brands like McDonald’s, Dove and the aforementioned Pepsi. And Richard Shotton of Manning Gottleib OMD has undone the logic that suggests there is a relationship between purpose and business performance. The awards suggest had there been no public outcry, they might be picking up too. 

I was offered the B Corporation Retreat or Cannes and I reluctantly chose the former. The B Retreat to B Corp is what Cannes is to the advertising industry. Except on B Retreat you go wild lake swimming and drink gin that funds the provision of clean water in the world’s poorest communities. B Corps like JoJo Maman Bebe, Ben & Jerry’s, Lily’s Kitchen, Ecover and Pukka aren’t struggling with how to create an ethical, sustainable business model – they’ve already achieved that. Instead their problem is how they market it, and how to get others to do the same.  

From where I stand I’ve observed two annual festivals: one that has managed to change business for good, but fails to market it, and another that awards itself to excess while its meaning and long-term company merit is debated. 

As an industry of marketers we have a duty of care – because whether or not we like to admit it, it is consumerism, and by extension capitalism, that pays our bills. We may not be able to discard our shared fiction that is capitalism but we can fix it. Our system has deemed business as the most powerful man-made force on the planet; it’s our chance to use business for good. 

This is a turbulent time. A time where Cannes has the opportunity to reinvent itself and re-establish the value that it holds. I agree with Jose Papa in that creativity will always impact society for the better. That can only happen by agencies being more selective with who they work with, and clients being more focussed on the companies they are, not just the ideas they are winning awards for. 

Let’s create an industry that’s famous for doing great work with great businesses. As we learn to evolve all the "c" words – consumerism, capitalism – so too will we learn to evolve Cannes.  Because rest assured when shit hits the fan, money won’t keep us warm. 

Jonathan Trimble is the chief executive of 18 Feet & Rising

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