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Imagine spending night after night in a bar until the gray light of dawn softens the sky, and day after day in a dark room staring at flickering images on a film screen.

Doesn't sound too appealing, does it?

Now imagine doing that for a week in one of the most stunningly beautiful places on the planet, surrounded by thousands of creative minds from around the world, and you have a glimpse into the singular spectacle known as the Cannes International Advertising Festival.

The 44-year-old festival, held in late June, is unique as a global forum. Less than 5% of the more than 6,000 delegates came from the U.S. this year, with the rest representing every country from Argentina to Yugoslavia.

They pour into the bar of the Martinez hotel each night during the festival, several hundred people from dozens of countries mingling until the wee, small hours. They speak different languages, yet understand each other perfectly.

That's because Cannes is also unique in its focus on the one thing that this business is really about when all else is stripped away-the work.

There are only a handful of "suits" in attendance, even fewer media types. In the screening rooms of the Palais des Festivals, in the open-air bars and restaurants lining La Croisette and on the shores of the French Riviera, the talk isn't of compensation issues, agency mergers or media consolidations. It's about creativity, the base upon which the industry rests. It's about concepts, casting, dialogue, music, direction, branding, editing.

It's about the budget-busting production extravaganza that fell flat, and the simple execution of a brilliant idea.

It's also about people not afraid to judge the work. At any other industry awards show, even baffling results are greeted with polite applause. When the crowd at Cannes sees an ad it doesn't like, the room fills with whistles of contempt, a global razz that needs no translation.

It's interesting to hear the whistles early in the week, as thousands of entries are shown. It's surprising to hear them when the short list is screened, and amazing to hear them during the Saturday evening ceremony as a creative team climbs the stage to accept its Gold Lion. Yet few are offended. Most love to hear the honest and unfiltered-if less than polite-voice of the creative community.

Even at 4 a.m., the work rules. At a party in an apartment across from the Palais, an award-winning copywriter from the U.S. clinks glasses with an award-winning director from Sweden. At this time of the morning, they'd be excused an irrelevant, even an incoherent conversation. But they speak passionately about how cutting-edge creative ideas are often given short shrift in the U.S. They debate whether advertising should be judged primarily for its entertainment value or its effectiveness.

"If people hate my ad, that's good," the Swede says, and he means it. If you're part of the target audience, he wants you to love his work. If you're not, you can despise it. What he never wants to inspire is indifference.

It's easy, if you haven't been there, to dismiss the Cannes festival as an industry boondoggle, a perk for overworked-and often underpaid-creatives. It can be difficult, after all, to justify a week spent eating rich food, hanging out in bars, walking along the Riviera and watching TV.

But that wouldn't do the festival justice. It is boisterous, yes. Exhausting. Fun. It's also educational. Enlightening. Global. Most importantly, it's about the one thing that really matters: the work.

Mr. Donaton is executive editor of Advertising Age.

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