Brand leaders attending next week's Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity will confront the thorny issues tripping up marketers—everything from AI regulations to navigating a highly charged Pride Month. The topics on the agenda are more urgent than ever and the festival will reflect that mood.
Cannes 2023—ad leaders to confront most pressing issues facing the industry
“AI, that’s going to take a lot of mindshare and conversation,” said Michael Kassan, CEO of MediaLink, the management consulting firm. “The other big stories are all this transformation that’s going on with brands.”
That transformation includes the recent leadership change at Twitter with Linda Yaccarino joining the platform to strengthen relationships with brands. Meanwhile, TikTok is stepping up its game at Cannes by taking over the garden of the newly renovated Carlton hotel. Apple executives will set up at the Carlton, too, as the iPhone maker expresses renewed interest in the business of advertising. The ad tech industry is grappling with the looming demise of cookies on Google Chrome, and Google is dealing with a new anti-trust case in Europe related to its ad tech platform. The news of the regulatory squeeze came this week.
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Marketers, for their part, arrive at Cannes beset by culture clashes that add volatility to their businesses. In March, Anheuser-Busch InBev was named Cannes Marketer of the Year (for the second straight year), before it found itself in a controversy over a promotion with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Bud Light had sent Mulvaney a personalized can with her face on it, which the influencer shared to social media. Conservative critics organized a revolt, and then LGBTQ+ advocacy groups decried the brewer's response, after AB InBev CEO Michael Doukeris downplayed the partnership. During Pride Month, this backlash has extended to brands such as Target, The North Face, Kohl's and Pottery Barn, among others, for campaigns or products supporting the LGBTQ+ community.
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“Of course, we’re going to have the appropriate and necessary focus on DEI,” Kassan said, “and do you think it would be a shock that the AB InBev, Target, Pride situation isn’t front-and-center at Cannes. It will be because it’s current.”
Besides the intense subjects of debate, of course, there will be beaches, cocktails and super-exclusive concerts. Spotify announced its concert lineup this week, which includes performances from the Foo Fighters and A$AP Rocky.
Here's a look at the trends to watch:
AI tide rises
AI is poised to be the most talked about topic at Cannes. That's because, “It will forever change every part of our business, [everything] from ethics to intellectual property to bias to ad operations,” said David Cohen, CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the industry trade group.
Google and Meta are making AI centerpieces of their beach talks. “Meta is building a range of text, image, and video generation models along with ones that can generate rich 3D content,” a Meta spokesperson said by email.
Brad Lightcap, chief operating officer of OpenAI, the startup behind ChatGPT, is speaking on the Cannes main stage on June 20 and will be joined by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners co-chairman and partner Jeff Goodby and chief creative officer Margaret Johnson. Microsoft, which has worked fast to incorporate ChatGPT into all of its products, including Bing search, will host a beach house in Cannes. WPP CEO Mark Read will take the Cannes stage for a conversation titled, “AI Unleashed: How AI Is Revolutionising How We Live, Work and Create.”
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Advertisers are interested in how generative AI is shaping creativity and how AI models can be used in ad tech. Chatbots are even playing a role in ad platforms, assisting marketers to manage campaigns.
There will be some at Cannes who will encourage the industry to steer clear of the AI hype, though. David Shing will discuss how to “navigate the shifting currents of the creative realm without succumbing to AI's burgeoning dominance.”
Pride and DE&I
The politics of brand advocacy have never been more challenging, as evidenced by Bud Light’s marketing turmoil. And it’s not lost on any brand heading into Cannes that it is Pride Month. YouTube will host a Pride party at its beach on June 14.
Meanwhile, Group Black, the Black-owned media group, has a presence at Inkwell Beach for the second straight year. Group Black will host discussions around Juneteenth. Black at Cannes, an organization created to ensure inclusivity for Black professionals in advertising, has an official headquarters for the first time, dubbed “The Black House.” The Black Executive CMO Alliance, led by industry veteran Jerri DeVard, will host a session titled, “Harness the Black Effect: Diversity as a Game Changer for Brands.”
“The industry still needs to figure out and solve for diversity,” said Albert Thompson, managing director of digital innovation at Walton Isaacson.
With all the pressures surrounding marketers—there are economic uncertainties on top of an urge to retreat from social causes—it’s important to maintain the momentum, Thompson said.
“The smart marketers are leaning in,” Thompson said, “because they see how, unfortunately, there still is a stigma, there still is discrimination, and they can’t stand in no man’s land.”
There are worrying signs that brands are slipping back on diversity goals, according to Laura Mignott, global chief experiential officer at VMLY&R. Just this week, Starbucks workers alleged that some locations were removing Pride signs from stores; though Starbucks corporate leaders said that was not the case. The dispute showed that brands are in a bind.
“It’s pretty scary,” Mignott said, “as a leader who has very diverse team across every spectrum of diversity, it’s sad."
VMLY&R, which is a part of WPP, joined dozens of ad agencies in a recent open letter calling on brands to resist anti-LGBTQ+ forces during Pride Month. “You can’t succumb to the mob,” Mignott said. “But you can definitely see the struggle and it’s something we need to be honest with our clients about, what’s happening.”
TikTok will have an oversized presence at Cannes, taking over the garden and surrounding suites at the Carlton hotel, “where we will be hosting most of our clients for business meetings,” said Sofia Hernandez, global head of business marketing for TikTok. This is part of TikTok's efforts to develop relationships with the major ad agencies. It comes on the heels of TikTok's private NewFronts show in New York last month, and amid a fierce political fight over its ownership ties to Chinese-owned ByteDance, which has U.S. lawmakers debating whether to ban the app. But the company wants to show marketers what it's developing in terms of ad products and how its video platform has become an irreplaceable viral hit-maker.
TikTok has a Cannes partnership with WPP-owned GroupM, which will be at the rooftop of the Martinez hotel. TikTok also is hosting a party at Inkwell Beach.
“We contemplated where to host this event and I’ve known about Inkwell Beach and their mission, as a Latina,” Hernandez said. “They were built to give people of color, the BIPOC community, a safe space and a space where they could really kind of hang with each other at Cannes.”
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Apple is at the Carlton, as well, where it plans a major show of advertising force for the first time at Cannes. Apple is developing an ad platform that incorporates the iPhone and Apple TV. Meetings with Apple executives are in high demand among chief marketing officers and ad agency leaders, according to people heading to Cannes.
Pinterest plans to host what it calls a “Manifestival,” said Xanthe Wells, VP of creative. The platform wants to own the theme of “manifesting” because of its relevance among Gen Zers. Pinterest is taking the same beach it had last year across from the Carlton, where there is a private pier, too. The mini-festival will highlight trends on Pinterest, with nail art, hair stylings, tooth gems and tattoos on offer.
Reddit and Twitch are both at Cannes, too. The two companies have been in the middle of a creator revolt in recent weeks, raising the stakes at Cannes. Twitch, owned by Amazon, tried to implement new policies about the types of brand deals creators could strike outside of official channels; however, creators protested and the rules were pulled back. Twitch will host happy hours at Amazon Port.
Reddit is set to start charging developers to build on top of its platform, which scared hardcore users who access the site through third-party apps. There was a digital protest on Reddit this week, when thousands of communities went private for at least two days.
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At Cannes, Reddit is creating an installation for the second year near the beach. This one is called “Reddit Recommends,” which will flash recommendations daily pulled from the platform’s users.
Twitter is no longer on the Cannes beach after it gave up its spot this year. Its new owner Elon Musk has pulled back from a number of high-profile marketing conferences, including SXSW and CES. Yaccarino, the new CEO, started at the company this month, though people familiar with her plans said she won’t make an appearance at Cannes.
Twitter will still very much be part of Cannes conversations. Musk’s ownership style and policies reflect issues that are affecting other platforms—disgruntled users, divisive politics and nervous marketers.
Pickleball is coming to Cannes. The trendy sport, as well as athletes from other sports, will be part of Stagwell’s beach. The agency is renting its first beach, according to Beth Sidhu, Stagwell’s chief brand and communications officer.
“Everyone’s beach is the same, the same conversation with the same people,” Sidhu said. “It’s beautiful and fun but it’s not all very creative...Into this sea of sameness one of the things we noticed was completely absent was this home for sports.”
Stagwell’s Sports Beach will host athletes such as WNBA legend Sheryl Swoopes, retired NBA star Carmelo Anthony, and Olympic sprinter Allyson Felix. Hearst Magazine is partnering with Stagwell to host morning beachside runs, including one with Felix. The publisher wants to promote its expertise in sports and culture, according to Todd Haskell, chief marketing officer of Hearst Magazines.
NBCUniversal will have executives on the ground talking up the 2024 Summer Olympics, which will take place in Paris.
Brand leaders from Coca-Cola and Samsung will discuss the fandom surrounding sports, while footballer Cesc Fàbregas, will practice football juggling skills with Cannes attendees. And Amazon, which began streaming “Thursday Night Football" last season, will host a conversation on the evolution of the sports viewing experience.
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Music and audio are increasingly critical for brands, especially as soundtracks to backdrops to viral social videos. There will be multiple panel discussions throughout the week on how brands can harness audio on social platforms, including a session on how to serenade Gen Z featuring Jon Batiste and Shae Gill. The power of podcasting will be on display, along with conversations around the 50th anniversary of Hip Hop and how the music genre has influenced advertising.
Spotify is all business by day, hosting talks about its recent podcast and advertising changes. This includes panels with Alex Cooper of “Call Her Daddy” and Emma Chamberlain of “Anything Goes.” On Wednesday, Cooper announced that she would spin her podcast into a media entity called Trending, focusing on podcasts, film, TV and events.
At night, Spotify turns its beach into a concert venue, with performances from Jack Harlow, A$AP Rocky, Foo Fighters and Florence + the Machine.
Kassan’s MediaLink and iHeartMedia are known for their annual Cannes kick-off concert at Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc. Lizzo is slated to perform this year. And Amazon's beach will feature a performance by DJ Honey Dijon.