Once again, thousands of people from various corners of the marketing industry and the world descended on the French Riviera for the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Some things haven't changed: the celebrity appearances, the late nights on the Carlton terrace that invariably lead to a regrettable hangover, the gigantic Daily Mail Yacht and the endlessly flowing rose. But this year also brought some surprises, including the Brexit decision at the end of the week as well as some unexpected Lions winners. Here are some other takeaways from adland's biggest event.
1) VR is the next big thing. (And Publishing is not dead, thanks to VR.)
Virtual Reality was very much a part of the conversation at Cannes. The Maison Samsung featured a VR surfing experience on the roof and a super-secret "second-floor experience."
VR pushed publishing forward, as the New York Times was a surprise big winner of the week, earning double Grand Prix for its virtual reality initiatives. The Times VR platform itself claimed the top prize in Mobile. And in the Entertainment Lions, the New York Times took the Grand Prix for its VR experience "The Displaced," which took viewers into the lives of refugee children pushed from their native countries. Entertainment Lions Jury President Jae Goodman, CCO at CAA Marketing, said the idea "catapulted the Gray Lady 100 years forward."
Two VR experiences, Lockheed Martin's "Bus Ride to Mars," out of McCann New York and Goodby Silverstein's "Dreams of Dali," for the Dali Museum also were early contenders for the Grand Prix in Cyber, but ultimately, neither took the top prize.
On a number of juries, presidents and jury members expressed a desire to award big brand work, versus the smaller clients and good-leaning efforts we've seen in the past. Jury presidents for Promo/Activation and Direct both said they'd consciously subjected work for charities to a higher standard on the belief that so many honors going for charity work is diverting young talent from work on big brands. (An executive who was on the North American Effies jury said there was a similar concern among judges there, though the top prize still ultimately went to a non-profit at that show.)
Others who have judged Cannes awards have said that they would like to see non-profit work split into its own separate category, given that so often non-profit work wins based on the emotions it draw from viewers. Multiple judges said that those kinds of entries often put entries that do actually solve business problems at a disadvantage and would be better off under a separate consideration set.
3) Creative Does Matter
During "Underdog to Game Changer," a conversation on the main stage between Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank and Droga5 Founder-Creative Chairman David Droga moderated by Ad Age's Creativity Editor Ann-Christine Diaz, Mr. Plank acknowledged the impact of great creative and strategy on both brand building and sales. He recalled how the brand's first-ever ad, a half-page in ESPN Magazine that featured a gritty image of a huge, ripped guy wearing a Darth Vader-like helmet led to 8,000 calls and $800,000 in sales within three weeks. "We only made $1.3 million the year before," he said. A subsequent ad, featuring less compelling imagery, led to only 35 calls -- but that was largely because the first ad captured the "zealots." Later in the conversation, the pair went on to discuss the impact of the brand's "I Will What I Want" campaign promoting its women's line, which last year took home the Cyber Grand Prix. Mr. Plank said that of the $5 billion in revenue his company expects to see this year, $1 billion of that will be from women's.
4) The Whole Package
The importance of agency-client partnerships was also a key factor in deciding one of the week's most coveted Lions, the Titanium Grand Prix. That went to REI's "Opt Outside," which centered around the outdoor lifestyle realtor's "punk rock" decision to close its doors on Black Friday. The idea itself came from REI, but the messaging and delivery were executed by a trio of agencies: Venables, Bell & Partners, Edelman and Spark (now known as Mediavest/Spark). During the Titanium press conference, when Jury President and BBH Co-founder Sir John Hegarty was asked how much idea vs. execution went into the jury's decision to award, said, "It was not only taking a profound idea, but it was executed in a way that really touched people. We really were looking for a combination of both idea and execution." Another juror went on to say "even just the name 'Opt Outside' is an execution," and pointed out how on Black Friday, the retail website became a place where consumers could discover new parks. "It's really how that idea rolls out and grabs you emotionally," he said. "That could have been poorly done, in a way that put you off."
5) My Calendar Exploded!
The immensity and intensity of Cannes was a recurring theme, with some people complaining about back-to-back-to-back meetings leaving them unable to see much of the work or seminars, even as they scheduled more meetings. RB Senior-VP Global Marketing Laurent Faracci said the company's policy was to have senior people in meetings while requiring more junior marketers to focus on the work and the seminars, including going to the award presentations. "Less is more," said Procter & Gamble Co. Global Brand Officer Marc Pritchard. "We've really tried to give people a little air so we can spend more time on the work."
6) The Newbies Want In
The segregation of Lions Health on two days before the full festival and in a separate building at the Palais was the subject of grousing by agency, client and media executives alike. WebMD CEO David Schlanger, whose company hosted ABC's Robin Roberts in a well-attended talk, was among those who said he believes it's time to more fully integrate health into the main show.
7) Artificial Intelligence Is the Next, Next Big Thing
Artificial Intelligence became a topic more this year than ever before. Saatchi & Saatchi featured an AI-created film in the New Directors Showcase, and a panel called "Will a Robot Win a Lion?" discussed the technology at length. But AI also came up in multiple conversations among marketers and agencies, who are beginning to take more seriously what AI and machine learning can do for creative work -- whether that's an AI-created brief, chat bot or some other form of creative work. Asked if we had to worry about a "Terminator"-like scenario, Alphabet Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said, "We're not anywhere near that."
8) That Gender Problem
It wasn't all sunshine and rosé at Cannes. While the industry tried to beef up the presence of women and topics about gender equality in and around the Palais, its actions didn't exactly live up to ideals. Former ad exec and equality crusade Cindy Gallop unveiled a party invite sent on behalf of VaynerMedia and Thrillist asking for "attractive females and models." She also called out the Outdoor jury for awarding a sexist ad for Bayer, from AlmapBBDO in Brazil, a Bronze Lion. In the former case, VaynerMedia founder Gary Vaynerchuk and Thrillist founder CEO Ben Lehrer apologized and accepted responsibility (while pointing out a third-party was responsible). In the latter case, Bayer distanced itself from what may well have been a ghost ad.
9) More Scamminess
This isn't the first time there's been some controversy over work that won an award, and every year someone gripes about ads that only ran once in some tiny market just so it could be submitted. This year was no exception, but two entries found themselves in hot water. Early in the week, Apple pulled an app, I Sea, from iTunes not long before it won a Bronze Lion in the Promo and Activation category. The app, created by Grey Singapore, purported to locate and help rescue refugee boats by providing real-time satellite images of the Mediterranean Sea where there might be a boat. The app was initially flagged by users who tested the app and found it to not be functional, and Apple later removed it. After coming under fire, the agency said that the app was still in its testing phase, and on Thursday Cannes said in a release that it was reviewing it "after the veracity of the app was brought into question."
AlmapBBDO pulled its Brazilian Bayer work after BBDO's Chief Creative Officer David Lubars requested it do so. That came after the ad, which some had accused of being sexist, won a Bronze Lion and Bayer said that the agency ran the ad on a limited basis so that it would be eligible for submission into Cannes.
10) The Numbers Game
Festival participants complained this year that it has become too much of a "numbers" game, one of the driving factors behind why scam ads get submitted. AlmapBBDO ultimately earned the Agency of the Year prize despite being involved in the Bayer incident. To further clamp down on scamming, perhaps the Cannes Lions should re-think its scam policy to be something more akin to the policies the International Association of Athletics Federation imposed on Russia's athletics federation -- punish the larger bodies involved. Currently, Cannes official rules only call for punitive measures on individuals involved in the scam work, not the agencies at which they work.