More than just a case of the traveler's blahs, I was experiencing something I knew I'd have to shake if I'm going to endure over the next six days a steady barrage of sun, booze, self-promotion and show reels. I was truly, deeply, madly in hate with advertising.
The credit -- or blame -- for this goes to Delta Air Lines, one of the few, if not the only, American carriers to fly directly from New York to the airport in Nice, a 45-minute cab ride to Cannes. Delta, as you might have seen, recently unveiled a new branding campaign designed to call attention to some new customer-service perks such as leather seats and seat-back TVs, and distract you from the fact that it spent the past few years mired in bankruptcy. Its new tagline, "Change," is meant to hammer home this evolution from an old-line carrier gasping for every breath into something more customer-friendly (read, JetBlue).
At 6 p.m., on Saturday night, Delta's terminal at JFK airport seemed less a calm staging ground for travelers as the new brand ads would have you believe than a scene from the American embassy in Saigon when that city fell. The baggage-check system broke down, stranding well-heeled customers in line without moving for upwards of 45 minutes, as they wailed about the threat to their trips to France, Milan and Rome. Then, once I made it on board Flight 82 and slouched to economy past the business-class ad barons such as Ron Berger, Bob Greenberg and Richard Beaven, it was time for the obligatory 105-minute wait on the tarmac.
A long trip made all the longer by organizational incompetence and the grouchy weather in Cote d'Azur conspired to churn up the bile. But its real source, I believe, is this feeling that for all the talk about consumer empowerment, about the need to create experiences that live up to promises made in the show-biz gauze of TV advertising, consumers are still by and large treated like animals being prepped for the abattoir. Sure, that Delta terminal could have been a set -- not for a slick 30-second spot but for a cellphone video, YouTube-type affair, a low-budget, high-truth version of the customer-service mayhem that included screaming, foot-stomping and a fellow who looked like Peter Jackson's Gollum from "Lord of the Rings" repeating over and over, "This is just screwy. You guys are screwy."
The Cannes apologist could argue that ads have nothing to do with things such as brand experience or customer service. Yet, just scanning the program, I see seminar topics suggesting otherwise. The gauntlet has been thrown and the ad business has certainly taken up the challenge, at least in its conference topics and talking points. But isn't the show still really rewarding just ads? Doesn't this just echo Madison Avenue's notion of creativity that's too cinematic, too Hollywood for an era where truth eventually bubbles the top? And doesn't that relegate the Cannes Lions to a half-baked version of the film festival that took place here last month, you know, without the celebrity, the production budgets and the deal-making?
Until about 3 a.m. this morning, I was stuck on these questions. However, several beers and Scotches and a Gutter Bar encounter gave me a bit of faith. After midnight, when the bar crowd spills out onto La Croisette, when bottles have been broken in the street and an ambulance has stopped by at the neighboring Hotel Martinez, I stood on the fringe of the wonderfully polyglot gathering chatting with Mr. Greenberg, head of the interactive agency R/GA, and one of the more recognizable ad industry figures. Mid-conversation, a pair of young dudes interrupts to get a picture with Bob. "You are the shit," said one in halting English. It turns out they are Brazilian, a 23-year-old creative team, and they claim that just 20 minutes before they had landed their first job, at DDB Brazil. In their version, this seemed to have occurred largely by virtue of their coming to Cannes for a program for young creatives. There was a level of excitement there that I haven't seen from ad folk in New York since, well, ever.
Even as a Cannes virgin, I'm sure Gutter Bar epiphanies are a dangerous thing. But, as the jet lag fades and the booze flows and the crowds build, I'm left to wonder, maybe there is something to this.