The Cannes Lions are recognized as the most prestigious awards in the advertising industry. For decades, advertisers, marketers and PR professionals have flocked to the South of France to network and celebrate the best and most creative campaigns of the year at the Cannes Lion Festival of Creativity.
But recent changes in leadership at the Cannes Lion School, its career accelerator program for young professionals in the industry, have called into question whether the organization reflects the lack of diversity in the advertising industry.
In a Twitter thread published Sunday, lecturer and chairman at Hyper Island Abraham Abbi Asefaw called out Cannes Lions for removing his deanship and replacing him with a white person after ignoring his requests to fill his role with a person of color. The decision removed the only person of color leading the program.
After three months of silence from Cannes Lions since my last, constructive effort to hold them accountable as an organisation seemingly committed to DEI, I have now decided to share my experiences publicly.— Abraham Abbi Asefaw (@AbrahamAsefaw) May 16, 2021
In the thread, Asefaw called attention to previous commitments to diversity made by Cannes leadership, and chastised the organization for failure to meet them.
The thread revealed private apologetic emails from the Cannes organization to Asefaw, which described the choice to replace him with a white person was a “quick fix” under pressure to hire someone.
“With regards to RHA, my decision was selfish and not thought through and for that I apologise. I was presented with a quick fix solution during a stressful time but in hindsight, I would handle this differently.”— Abraham Abbi Asefaw (@AbrahamAsefaw) May 16, 2021
- Steve Latham, Head of Talent & Training at Cannes Lions
The series of tweets quickly received reactions from industry professionals who shared their own thoughts about lack of diversity and representation at Cannes, along with messages of support for Asefaw.
It’s not a surprise.— Rob Campbell (@Robertc1970) May 18, 2021
But it is disgusting. Again.
Hey adland (& in this case, Cannes Lion) D&I stands for diversity & inclusion not distract & ignore. Christ, was ONE Person of Colour really too many to have in a category for D&I?! #ComeOnCanneshttps://t.co/naolYWxYxB
This is an industry-wide pattern. Efforts to increase diversity are empty without consistent inclusion and inclusion doesn’t matter without continued building of equity.@Cannes_Lions we need @AbrahamAsefaw’s vision, voice, and perspective included. We need to do better. https://t.co/B8w8SeKRpq— Jezz Chung 정수지 (@JezzChung) May 17, 2021
Yet another example of adland shouting dIvErSitY until it’s time to really be about it. SAD. https://t.co/dfpyBAqarx— Ayoade Bamgboye (@Alloraa_) May 18, 2021
Abraham has been the most influential, transformative mentor I have ever had. When this guy comes to you, not begging to keep his job, but giving you a list of people to carry on his mission, he deserves to be listened to. Do better @Cannes_Lions .— Anne Gaëlle (@mouducaillou) May 18, 2021
I was in the RHA 2017 class. I learned so much from @AbrahamAsefaw and saw him as a mentor. He's driving the industry in the direction we need to go and I am so grateful for his work. @Cannes_Lions needs to do better. #ComeOnCannes https://t.co/HBVvIBdwOr— Brianna Gross (@BriGross_) May 18, 2021
Cannes Lion responded to Asefaw in a Twitter thread on Monday, acknowledging the “misstep” but claiming it was “unintentional.”
We’re addressing everything @AbrahamAsefaw has said very intentionally, and welcome his criticisms to ensure a mistake like this is not made again. We’ve reached out to him, but would like to offer him a public apology.— LIONS | The Home of Creativity (@Cannes_Lions) May 17, 2021
While some acknowledged the apology as a step in the right direction, other industry leaders were not buying it, rejecting the apology and calling Cannes Lion to do more.
Owning a mistake, sincerely apologizing, and taking steps to prevent similar mistakes is always a positive move in the right direction. #DiversityandInclusion #EqualityForAll #inclusionmatters https://t.co/HDmZgMfRTm— kerriefinch (@KerrieFinch) May 18, 2021
This is NOT an apology https://t.co/9XHDCbU2KV— benjie (@MillennialBrick) May 18, 2021
Campaign US wants to know: do you think Cannes has a diversity problem?
Does Cannes have a diversity problem?— Campaign US (@CampaignLiveUS) May 19, 2021