Party On!

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Advertising agencies are slashing costs and laying off staff, but you wouldn't know it if you boarded a packed first-class cabin on a Delta flight from JFK to Nice next week.

The "Cannes Express"-the preferred flight for New York-based executives of multinational ad agencies-will see no shortage of U.S. delegates making the trek to the annual International Advertising Festival. At press time, the number of registered U.S. delegates was 450, close to what it was at this time last year, said Romain Hatchuel, the festival's CEO. He expects the number to rise in the days leading up to the show.

Americans are in the minority at Cannes, making up less than 10% of an expected total attendance of some 8,000 people. But while it's no surprise Europeans would still make the relatively short hop to the festival, or that Brazilian delegates can't resist a party, no matter how far away, the gossip mill had forecast a decline in U.S. attendance. It can easily cost $5,000 per person to send a U.S. executive to the weeklong show, a lot of money to spend in a weak economic climate.

However, agency executives defend the trip to Cannes, saying the event gives them a forum to network, to view work from around the globe and to recruit some of the world's top creative talent.

"It's a big networking opportunity," said Cordiant Communications Group's Bates Worldwide Creative Director John Fawcett, who uses the festival as the medium for the agency's worldwide creative directors meeting. "You share visions from around the world."

"We're in the business of relationship marketing and this is an important event in terms of our own DDB people ... our clients and recruitment," said a spokeswoman for Omnicom Group's DDB Worldwide.

The benefits come at a high price. The conference registration is $1,640, while a sea-view room at the coveted Carlton hotel will set an attendee back $400 a night. And that's not including airfare, food and drink expenditures. A number of ad executives concur, however, that even in tough economic times, agencies must have a presence in Cannes.

Mr. Fawcett, in fact, said, "it's even more important" now to participate. "People need to know the agency is still vital and still part of the worldwide network," he said, adding that the trip can also inspire the creative staffers who survived agency layoffs and now work harder than ever.

Those attending Cannes will only see a slight decline in parties, some of which cost upwards of $50,000 to host. For the first time since the mid-80s, Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann-Erickson Worldwide's lavish reception has been canceled. In a time of cutbacks, the revelry couldn't be justified, said Marcio Moreira, McCann's vice-chairman and chief creative officer.

"We'll be in Cannes, but we're not going to host a party at a time we're asking people to save," he said. "It's not that much money, but the savings are less important than the symbolism."

But a slew of other agency networks, such as DDB Worldwide and sibling Omnicom shop TBWA Worldwide, WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson Co. and Bcom3 Group's D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles will all continue to throw upscale bashes this year.

"As far as parties ... we want to create a forum where all of our people can come together and see each other," said a TBWA Worldwide spokesman. "Are we going overboard? No. Are we being frivolous? No. Are we sensitive to what's going on in the economy? Yes. But when you've got 150 [staffers] from countries all over, you've got to take advantage of that time to network."

Contributing: Abbey Klaassen, Laurel Wentz, Kate MacArthur

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