Can Cannes get out of its own way?
Even though none of us are going, Cannes is coming.
This year’s festival will be virtual, livestreamed and on demand beginning today (June 21). Since last year’s awards were postponed, the new Lions will cover the best work from the past two years.
Two years is a long time, especially considering that last year was one endless Zoom call. So what kind of work will emerge from Cannes as the iconic festival reopens? Will it be an optimistic celebration of creativity, a radical rejuvenation of disruptive thinking, or a just big Cannes of worms?
Yes, yes, and yes. The real answers, as always, will have to wait until prizes are awarded, but already there are hints of things to come that might help us navigate this year’s show. Countless creative directors will be writing articles commenting on the shortlists, the game-changers and the craft, so I’ll focus on the festival itself, its future, and why it matters.
By going virtual, many conferences reached a broader, more diverse audience this year. Anyone at any level of an agency or client organization can shimmy their way onto a livestream, but only agency aristocracy and celebrity CMOs used to fly to the French Riviera. Part of the cachet of Cannes was always its exclusivity—a global measuring contest of who’s hot, who’s on their way out, and which agencies are sufficiently well-heeled to send a sizable contingent.
Given that most of the industry’s creative output comes from mid-level talent, how can Cannes-on-demand forge a hybrid model next year that is both exclusive and inclusive for the entire industry? This year’s programming features topics ranging from creativity to culture, data to sustainability, design to NFTs and their impact on marketing. Guest speakers include actress Reese Witherspoon and bestselling author Yuval Noah Harari, whose book “Sapiens” is universally praised as being intellectual enough to make anyone seem smart if they claim to be reading it, and interesting enough to actually be read. If the education content at Cannes proves to be truly worthwhile, it would open up possibilities for a future hybrid model that blends the craft of Cannes with the provocations of SXSW with a little bit of CES and Sundance thrown into the mix.
No awards show would be complete without its faux pas and hypocrisies, so it will be fun to watch this year’s debacles from a distance. One of the ingrained ironies when Cannes occurred in-person is that the biggest parties were always hosted by the least creative companies. Tech giants, consulting firms and monolithic media platforms are the biggest sponsors of awards, raves and beachside pavilions in order to position themselves as being creative and cutting-edge. No one is buying it, but since the drinks are free, no one complains.
But without the physical power of persuasion, a virtual conference is at a disadvantage, and some of these so-called sponsorships start to look a little tawdry. Bear in mind award shows are big business—since Cannes Lions was purchased by a publicly traded company, Ascential, we know that the festival will make over $50 million in a bad year and, in a good one, something closer to $100 million in revenue. These Lions are not endangered, they’re multiplying. This year’s show features nine tracks of awards along with 28 specialist awards. With fees running well over five hundred bucks for a standard entry, it doesn’t take a confidence man to see that an industry full of neurotic egoists is a gold mine. Next year there should be an Astatine Award, named after the rarest element on Earth, given to the one agency or client that did not submit a single entry.
Most predictable will be the gushing over the Good Track, comprised of three categories that represent work supporting a worthwhile cause. Past winners have tackled female empowerment, racism, the refugee crisis, pollution, even peace in the Mideast. The caution here is to remember that sometimes the social currency of a topic may obscure the brand behind it, or a great cause might feel like borrowed interest coming from a brand that lacks credibility to play in that space. Said another way, a client who’s about to get sued over equal pay probably shouldn’t build a statue championing fearless girls, but that won’t matter to the judges. If the virtue-signaling is loud enough, everyone becomes tone deaf to the marketing behind the message.
Don’t believe me? In perhaps the biggest irony of the festival, the Good Track is sponsored this year by Facebook. (Apparently Ernst Stavro Blofeld declined on behalf of Spectre.)
As someone who truly believes creativity has the power to change people’s minds and behavior, and therefore the world, I’d humbly ask that the industry demand more discernment for these winners. All too often accolades are showered on work that was cynically designed around pro bono causes selected to game the awards season—versus work that actually works.
Finally, as we celebrate creativity in business, let’s not forget about those clients whose business depends on our creativity. Ads are commercial art, so don’t forget the commercial part of your commercials. Next time you’re asked to join a panel, take a look at the brief behind the work before you judge it, because some of those shiny objects might be blinding you to their true purpose.
Something to consider while you’re opening Cannes on your browser instead of chasing Lions across the Riviera.