Cannes Takes One Small Step Toward Catching Up With Reality

But Biggest Signs of Progress Found Outside Palais des Festivals

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(CANNES) -- Well done, Nike . By taking the Cannes Grand Prix in film for your fun three-minute World Cup video, "Write the Future," you have demonstrated that triumph here is no longer about spending two or three trillion dollars to film sports superstars in a bombastic production contrived to raise the pulse of football fans and prospective jurors worldwide.

This is the digital age. The big prize went to Nike for spending trillions to drive people to YouTube and Facebook, at God-knows-what cost per friend.

You know what I call that ? I call that ... progress. After all, I didn't come here to second guess the juries anymore than I came to gulp $25 espressos. What I came for was to nose around for evidence that the International Festival of Creativity -- so long an enabler of the most self-destructive advertising pathologies -- has come to acknowledge and adapt to the digital world.

Lo and behold, it has. Beyond video, the rest of the award categories -- not to mention most of the seminars -- were notably sharing-intensive. In short, reality has begun to set in. One small step for Cannes, one giant leap for Cannes-kind.

Unsurprisingly, though, not all the signs of progress were to be found in the Palais des Festivals. Crashing a dinner with a pal of mine, I blundered into a revelation: progress, genuine progress, in the universe of crowdsourcing. Here, where the old advertising model meets the digital revolution exactly halfway, some extraordinary things are taking place.

Now, if you are in my global cult of acolytes, you recognize this to be a pet topic, because the crowdsourcing of mass advertising is such a deliciously paradoxical notion, and so fraught with structural issues. One is exploitation. Another is continuity. And a third is quality: the tendency of amateurs, semi-pros and out-of -work pros to produce substandard versions of the mediocrity turned out by Madison Avenue.

But what if a reasonable percentage of the time that weren't the case? What if my assumption about lame mimicry is just wrong? What if young filmmakers did not merely knock off the status quo, but came at advertising solutions from a wholly different angle? Increasingly we've seen evidence of this from the realm of PopTent, Victors & Spoils, GeniusRocket, et al. Likewise, as I discovered at dinner, MOFILM.

The event was held to honor winning MOFILM entries for such clients as Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Nokia, AT&T and Chevrolet, and the winners were all remarkably worthy -- some because they seemed plucked from the credentials reels of BBDO or BBH, some because they could never be found there. For instance: "Dance Tommy Dance," a three-minute spot (like Nike 's "Write the Future") on the subject of "possibility." The charming, quirky, inspiring mini-biopic about a modern-day London disco dancer ("If you were to cut me, I'd bleed rhythm") cost far less than Wieden spent on catering. Yet it is no less thrilling to see a man with a watermelon-size '70s perm attain his improbable childhood dreams of dancing for millions.

More surprising and unexpected still was a fictional interlude, created by Chris Bailey and Jake Naish for Sovereign Bank, called "The Keeper." It profiles a middle-aged man named Gordon Belker, who scrapbooks his debit-card statements to create an album of his life. "Every one of those line items," he says, "it helps me remember something. And, correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't it pretty normal to enjoy memories?"

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This MOFILM entry for Sovereign Bank is a keeper.

What a rare combination of poignancy and wit this thing is . The script, the editing, the performance are all absolutely priceless -- especially the performance, because the actor is Bailey's dad, and the price of that was zero.

More to the point, Bailey and his team took the brief -- which was to choose a few from a list of typical debit transactions -- and found a true human dimension, not to mention mining a strategy that has eluded thousands of advertising agencies pretty much forever. Till now, bank advertising has focused mainly on the banks themselves, which is problematic for a commodity product universally resented by consumers. This has required bank marketers to contrive dubious Unique Selling Propositions, or to mouth meaningless pieties ("We care about YOU!"). No wonder; truth isn't an option ("At BankVeritas, we care about YOU…exactly to the extent that we can gouge YOU on interest rates and bleed YOU with fees.")

But Sovereign here turns it around -- like the purveyors of undrinkable light beer -- by switching the focus from the product to the customer.

"Very fresh and different, in a good way," described Eduardo Tobon, CEO of U.S. cards and payments for Sovereign, a tarnished brand recently acquired by the global banking colossus Grupo Santander. Just as his company acquired Sovereign at distressed prices -- due to catastrophic bets by previous management on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- Tobon was curious about acquiring advertising on the cheap.

"We want to experiment with low-cost but innovative ideas," he said -- swearing that the "innovative" was just as important as the cost. "We were OK if these were gonna be a failure. If this doesn't work, we now know one thing that does not work."

Whether it works in the marketplace as well as it did in a contest is so far undetermined; the public has yet to see "The Keeper." For what it's worth, Tobon said, his previously skeptical agency of record, Mullen, has changed its tune. "They were, as we were, quite surprised by the outcome." Of course, he can't be sure whether they are surprised as in "delighted" or surprised as in "scared out of their wits."

"I think they're excited because we're excited," he said. "When the client says so, I guess the agency listens."

Either way, grudgingly or otherwise, the agency has offered a thumbs up to an ad created for pennies by a near amateur. And, as the ad's tagline goes, "Every statement tells a story."

Bob Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising, marketing and media for 28 years.
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