Cannes Lions

U.N. Gathers Holding Company Heads on One Stage at Cannes for 'Biggest Anti-Poverty, Pro-Planet Mission'

Secretary General Rallies Ad Industry

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Leaders of the world's largest agency holding companies sat shoulder to shoulder in support of the U.N.'s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Leaders of the world's largest agency holding companies sat shoulder to shoulder in support of the U.N.'s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

In an effort to simplify the very complex, the United Nations has turned to branding and, in particular, the world's advertising, marketing and communication agencies. And what better place to do that than the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity?

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addressed the festival on Friday, half an hour after flying in from Cuba, where he witnessed Colombia and FARC agree to a peace deal after decades of hostilities.

In Cannes, he was on a different sort of peace mission, gathering on one stage WPP CEO Martin Sorrell, Publicis Chairman CEO Maurice Levy, Omnicom President-CEO John Wren, Interpublic Group of Companies Chairman-CEO Michael Roth and Havas Chairman-CEO Yannick Bollore. Unable to make it, Dentsu Group President-CEO Tadashi Ishii sent along a pre-recorded video.

Mr. Ban wanted them do their part in helping the U.N. implement its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which he called "the biggest anti-poverty, pro-planet mission adopted by the United Nations."

"I have come here to pitch," he said.

"I know all of you have tremendous power to shape opinions," Mr. Ban added. "I want you to help us to create the biggest campaign for all humanity."

He even offered a tagline, albeit an impracticably long one: "We are the first generation that can end global poverty and we are the last generation that can address climate change before it is too late."

The session -- and Common Ground, as the team up of holding companies is being called -- was an outgrowth of a Cannes Debate session last year in which Mr. Sorrell and Al Gore had a conversation about climate change.

The Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs for short, at their core embrace the fight against climate change. But each holding company is responsible for one particular goal, whether it's battling climate change, advancing equality or benefiting education.

And though this session fell under the Cannes Debate banner, there wasn't much of a debate. Each holding company leader was lobbed a question and given a chance to say his piece.

The rival ad giants couldn't help but insinuate that their particular goal just might be more important than the others, but there was no outright contention. Mr. Bollore did note that "We dislike each other … This is a true fact," but added that if they can put their differences aside, so can anyone.

Mr. Roth later said to Mr. Bollore, "You're a good guy Yannick. I'm always friends with you. You, too, Martin."

According to Mr. Sorrell, the big dogs are "asking for other agency groups to step up to the challenge to help us implement the sustainable development goal in relation to refugees and migration."

But if you're expecting to tackle gender equality, WPP already has that one.

Mr. Levy, surprisingly, did not jump at the chance to comment on WPP's gender issues in the wake of Erin Johnson's lawsuit against WPP. He did note that, in the spirit of peace, Publicis decided to tackle the food issue because it was "what was left on the table."

Speaking to the crowd in attendance, "We need you to help us find the best ways to tell the story. … You are the people whose innovation and creativity are second to none."

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