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THE DARK SIDE OF CANNES VIEWING 3,900 ADS AS A JUDGE CAN BE BRUTAL, BUT THE WHOLE AD FESTIVAL EXPERIENCE SPARKLES

By Published on .

Helayne Spivak, exec VP-creative director at Ammirati & Puris, New York, last month made her first trip to the Advertising Film Festival at Cannes as a U.S. judge.

Picture this if you will.

A brilliant yellow sun in a clear blue sky over sparkling azure water lapping against a pristine beach in the south of France.

At least that's what I thought I saw on my way to the bathroom during a 15-minute coffee break before going back to a small, dark room with 21 other unnaturally pale people to watch 3,900 commercials from 8 in the morning until 10 at night.

This is not an attempt to get your sympathy. I'm just stating the facts. And the fact is judging the Advertising Film Festival at Cannes is really brutal, but the Cannes experience is really fabulous.

Every year for eight days in June, the entire city of Cannes becomes Madison Avenue Worldwide. This is not as revolting as it sounds.

Day and night you sleep, drink and eat advertising. (If you're having Public Service, may I suggest a nice Chablis?)

You're surrounded by hundreds of young ad fanatics from all over the world who love the business with an absolute, unapologetic passion. (You do remember that feeling, don't you?) It's a great atmosphere in which to be open. Energetic. Democratic. Which brings me to the subject of the infamous judging process.

The point of the Cannes film festival is to have a kind of advertising Olympics. An international panel of judges judging work from dozens of countries to find the best of the best in the world. The only problem with that is it tends to cause Tonya Hardinglike competitive feelings between countries.

Now, I'd heard some horror stories about the judging process. Countries voted in blocs. Fights broke out. There was shameless self-promotion, etc., etc., etc.

However, this year John Hegarty (of Bartle Bogle Hegarty) was president of the jury and he was determined that we would not become part of the "Bosnia-ization" of the festival.

So, at a press conference called to go over the shortlist, John stood up, ripped the list in two, and told everyone that he and the jury would refuse to answer any questions that concerned which country got however many commercials on the list. (I love a good, dramatic gesture.)

Needless to say, it was a short press conference, but it was a much fairer-judged show. And due to some procedural changes Hegarty requested this year, I believe the judging will continue to improve.

There's not much to say about the process. We sat. We looked. We voted. Great work won. Some really good work should have won. And some really horrible spots should never have been entered. (What do people think? The work will get better in the mail? No one will notice how atrocious it is? We'll find out none of the really good stuff ever actually ran so everything will be eliminated but the crap? Anyway ...) The usual mantra.

The proof was when the reel was shown on awards night. No produce was hurled. No one was abused physically. Good work was greeted with incredibly loud enthusiasm. And only four commercials were equally enthusiastically booed. (One involved a demo of a carpet-loving chimp, which seemed really good to us, very late one night.)

Yes, there are cultural differences. (The Europeans just don't get the emotional appeal of commercials like the John Hancock spots-they say it's very American. And I could be wrong, but I don't think they mean that in a very positive way.)

Yes, there are translation problems. (Some of the Asians told me they had difficulty with the plays on words that the English and Americans "always like to do.")

And yes, there are subjective opinions that neither logic nor threats of death could ever sway. (See the Bronze-winning Beauty Toilet spot with the walking seal.)

But once again, let me say Cannes is an experience everyone in advertising should have at least once.

I know I'm planning on going back next year. But as a delegate, not as a judge.

I want to sit on the beach, under an umbrella, looking up at the judging room in the Palais des Festival, waving away, just in case someone is glancing out on his or her way to the bathroom.

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