Economic, geopolitical and climate realities loomed large over Cannes

Economic, geopolitical and climate realities loomed large over Cannes

The return of the dreamy creative festival on the French Riviera was punctured by the realities of a changing world.

Like many in the advertising industry, I was happy to be back in Cannes last week.

The return of the Lions festival, after two years of isolation and virtual networking, was charged with an energy and enthusiasm that’s impossible to imagine in pre-COVID times.

It felt genuinely good and productive to meet with people face-to-face, however intense and packed the week was. For those of us who also happen to like to travel and go to concerts, the glamorous, sun-dappled destination and private performances from the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Post Malone, Dua Lipa, Sam Smith, Nas and LCD Soundsystem didn’t hurt either.

Despite entries dropping 18% over 2019, I hear delegate numbers held steady since the last in-person festival. It certainly felt that way on the ground, with swarms of sweaty ad executives shuffling in and out of the Palais and strolling the Croisette. Attendance from Asia, however, felt muted, where COVID-19 restrictions are still strict in many places.

The industry showed up in full force. Meta, Pinterest, Twitter, Google, Spotify, WPP and Dentsu staked out their usual spots on the beach. Ad tech companies lined up on yacht row. Newcomers Reddit and Roku went big with installations and beachfront cabanas. Amazon took over an entire port. The usual hustle and bustle resumed around the hotels and luxury apartment buildings dotting the Croisette. (Noticeably quiet was TikTok, the darling of the ad world, which held court at an apartment near the Palais and hosted a private event.)

But the glossy bubble of the festivities were punctuated by many stark reminders of the current reality marketers are operating in.

Greenpeace led three stunts that shamed ad agencies for working with fossil fuel clients and urged them to cut ties. Former Cannes Lions award winner and activist Gustav Martner stormed the stage during the awards opening ceremony and unfurled a banner that read “no awards on a dead planet.” Protestors, dressed in dog suits and holding signs that read “This is fine,” a riff on a 2013 meme, stormed WPP’s beach on Wednesday before scaling the Palais with a truck ladder on Thursday. (Greenpeace actually won a Lion and spoke on a panel at the event hosted by Reddit — Cannes is full of contradictions.)

Climate activism felt higher up on the industry’s agenda this year, too. Ad Net Zero, a UK sustainability initiative that aims to get the industry to net zero carbon emissions in the next decade, announced plans to launch across Europe and in the U.S. Clean Creatives, an industry climate activist group, held a sign on the Palais that asked people to walk one way if they wanted to work for fossil fuel clients and another if they wanted to save the planet.

There were also efforts to donate to Ukraine embedded in various activations, and a message from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy about the power of creativity, reminding us that war was raging just a stone’s throw across the European land mass as we sipped rosé over business talk.

Finally the threat of inflation and a pending recession hung over every party, panel, meeting and conversation. It felt strange and disconnected that so many companies would show up in force at Cannes when an economic catastrophe is supposedly around the corner.

But at the end of the week, when an agency CEO reminded me that most of the money spent at this year’s festival were holdover investments made in 2019, the illusion made a lot more sense; it did, in some ways, feel like a throwback to pre-COVID times. I’ll be curious to see how Cannes looks next year when we’re living in the thick of economic challenges.

Finally the week ended with the crushing overturning of Roe v. Wade in the U.S., a slap in the face for me personally and millions of other women, and a reminder that our world is as polarized and difficult as ever to navigate, for brands as well as human beings.

Let’s not mention the horrifying travel tales I heard (and experienced myself) of missed connections, canceled flights and lost luggage, as the global airline industry massively struggles to keep up with the surge of people ready to get back out there and see the world.

The return to Cannes was invigorating, energizing and surreal. But now it's back to reality — with inflation, a pending recession, massive political challenges, and for me, at least, lost rights over my own body and a suitcase rotting somewhere in Montreal airport that I don’t know if I’ll ever get back.

C’est la vie.

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