What Cannes Learned from This Year's Festival and What to Expect in 2018

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Duncan Painter, chief executive officer of Ascential
Duncan Painter, chief executive officer of Ascential Credit: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Duncan Painter, CEO of Ascential, the parent company of the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, has been on a listening tour since the festival ended in June, gathering feedback from the industry about what can be improved going forward.

Ad Age talked with Painter about some of the industry's gripes about Cannes, such as affordability and relevance, as well as Publicis Groupe's decision to pullback from the festival for a year. He also discussed a new award category being introduced in 2018.

This interview has been lightly edited for flow and readability.

The news about Publicis Groupe pulling out of Cannes in 2018 dominated the conversation this year.
This is a client we've had a very strong relationship with for a long period of time. They've made it a very clear matter of public record that they have some short-term business challenges that they're working their way through and I don't think they're alone in that challenge. And Arthur [Sadoun, Publicis CEO] has been very clear with me that he has every intention of returning in 2019 because he's in the creativity business and he knows that. But what he's saying is he needs to improve his muscle tissue so that when he's back, he's fighting to win.

Some industry professionals have said that Cannes seems to have lost its focus.
Customers are entitled to make many criticisms -- that's the fabulous luxury of being a customer. If you look at it over my tenure as chief executive of the group over seven years, Cannes, like the industry, has dramatically changed. And just like everyone else, we've been working on the Cannes brand to make it reflect the industry for creativity, because the mission of the platform is to best serve the industry. Like everything, when things evolve rapidly you get things right and you get other things not quite right.

How are you trying to fix the 'not quite right' bits?
This year we're in a big consultation process with every major stakeholder group, not just holding companies, although they are very, very important to the creative industry. It's been perhaps the most in-depth feedback we've done of Cannes and we're not quite finished.

What's one of the first pieces you're working on?
We're going to change a few things about our communication approach to give people a little bit of clarity earlier in the process. Traditionally, we would announce the Cannes platform and what it would look like at the beginning of the year. One thing I captured in the feedback from clients, brands and holding companies is that people would like earlier visibility than when it opens as to what it looks like, so they can get more aligned in their business units and think about Cannes before they hit their new financial year and goals.

How much earlier will you introduce the event?
We're going to probably do two launch events in November where we formally invite in the stakeholder groups in London and New York and we'll brief people on what exactly Cannes 2018 will look like.

What other feedback have you gotten so far?
There are three key areas we're hearing crisp feedback on.

Let's hear them.
Number one is relevance of all the awards and how they fit into the industry model today and make sure they're crisp to where the industry is going and seeking the best balance in there. The second area of consistent feedback is affordability, so about how we can enable an environment and work actively with the city to ensure that there is a positive environment for people to be able to come and engage with the festival at their degree of affordability, and the last is around accessibility. It's not about getting into the festival, but driving more young next-generation creatives to Cannes to help them learn about and define the future.

With Publicis pulling out next year and others holding companies sending fewer attendees, are you nervous about the success of Cannes in 2018?
As a business, the approach we take to our brands is that we own them forever. We think about these products for life, not for next year's results.

So you're okay with a revenue dip?
If it's the right thing to do for Cannes Lions in 2018 to have a year of revenue decline to get the platform right for the future, then that's what we'll do. As for Ascential, we have enough balance in our business that we'd be fine. Ascential has 19 brands and has high-single-digit growth. I want a massively successful Cannes Lions seven years from now, and if that means we have to take it down to go back up, then that's what we we'll do.

Will there be a new award category for 2018?
It basically allows a focal point in Cannes and for the industry around the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals. The award will help all the stakeholders in the industry who have bought into the Sustainable Development Goals. This will hopefully give those creative teams and their brands a focal point around how well [their initiatives] are working and if they're making a difference and if the creativity is shining through, which is the goal. We want to give the industry a focal point to say, 'Are we using the power of creativity for good?'

Where do the entry fees for this category go?
One hundred percent of the entry fees and revenues will go into the Sustainable Development program, so it will be for real activities going on in the world and the United Nations will help us decide those distributions.

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