Matt Seiler, CEO of Mediabrands, recalls the moment last year that it became obvious to him how interested Big Media was in the ad industry's annual summer soiree. At a table crammed with French food, surrounded by media buying execs, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes mused: "I've been leaving you guys alone with the digital guys for how long now? What's going on here?"
That same year, Ed Erhardt, ESPN's president-global customer marketing and sales, made the trip to scope out what his company should be doing at the annual gathering.
Mr. Bewkes will be going out to Cannes again this year to introduce a panel titled "The Passion of Storytelling for Television." Paul Caine, exec VP-chief revenue officer for Time Inc., will be making his first trip. Michael Clinton, president of Hearst Magazines and chairman of the MPA, will be there. A TV giant, Viacom, will be going to Cannes for the first time. President-CEO Philippe Dauman will host a seminar and take top clients and agency execs to dinner at a castle in neighboring Antibes.
"We're evolving the way we work with clients -- across platforms, globally and collaboratively on creative -- and we think there's a high-level dialogue around these trends at Cannes Lions that it's important for Viacom to be a part of ," said Rich Eigendorff, chief operating officer for Viacom Media Networks, via email.
That Cannes brings together the global ad community, with large delegations from Brazil and China, has kept Big Media at bay for some time. But now that America's biggest media companies are also expanding internationally, going to Cannes makes more sense than ever.
"Cannes is a global meeting, not an American meeting," said ESPN's Mr. Erhardt, who will attend again this year, but not host any big events. "We can promote our properties that are global, like X Games or our new global soccer brand ESPN FC."
"I think the digital brands went first because they were one of the few that could play in a multi-country way; they have big global reach," he added.
Of course, long before Microsoft ever rented a yacht in the Mediterranean, Cannes was actually a playground for the industry's creative agencies. They'd gather along the Croisette and celebrate the industry's best work from around the world. Then the clients began to show up and the big digital guys moved in, eager to snag their attention and align themselves with creative endeavors. More recently the media agencies, which hold advertisers media purse-strings, have descended on Cannes and, not surprisingly, the traditional media players are following.
The festival's official representatives in each country were originally mostly cinema advertising companies, because the festival started out more than 50 years ago with a single competition for TV and cinema ads. Now they are more likely to be major newspaper groups that sponsor their country's Young Lion creative teams and often host seminars or other activities at Cannes. The festival's U.S. representative, for instance, is USA Today, and the U.K. rep is Guardian News & Media. In Brazil, the country that sends in the most entries after the U.S., it's top newspaper group O Estado de Sao Paulo, and in India, another big Cannes-crazy country, it's The Times of India, which hosts the popular India party yearly at the awards show.
Not all big media companies are making the trek. U.S.-centric broadcasters such as CBS Television are sitting the festival out. But Meredith Corp. is only sending execs from its agency unit Meredith Xcelerated Marketing. Bonnier, despite having non-U.S. titles, won't be going either.
"For years, it was just digitally based media owners," Mediabrand's Mr. Seiler said. "Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL were the ones that were there first and it was a smart move." Even Facebook has had a presence at Cannes for the past three festivals, including a big party at the Majestic Pier. This year even digital startups such as Viggle and Tremor Video will get to showcase in advisory firm MediaLink's new speaker series Tech Talks (and, full disclosure, Tremor is co-host of Ad Age 's annual Cannes party).
2012 will also see the biggest wave of mobile ad execs as the festival debuts its first award in mobile marketing. Branded entertainment is another new category this year.
The trouble, however, is that agency executives such as Mr. Seiler are reaching a tipping point. In addition to entertaining his own clients, there's an endless string of meetings with the growing number of media sellers in town to make their pitches. In Mediabrands' case, that 's caused the Interpublic Group of Cos agency to host its own events and dinners at a villa an outside Cannes, so sellers can come to them.