With fewer than two months to go before the ad industry’s marquee event, the Cannes International Festival of Creativity, agencies are scrambling to hit the Riviera on June 20.
A confluence of factors—the stubbornness of COVID-19, the threat of inflation, the Russia-Ukraine war and more—caused most shops to delay their decision to attend the festival, which was last held in person in 2019. CES, which coincided with an omicron surge in January, caused “scar tissue,” as one agency executive put it, leading many agencies to wait until the last minute to make a call on Cannes.
But with client interest on the upswing, agencies are now rushing to book flights and accommodations, though many of the 22 agencies surveyed by Ad Age for this story claim they will send smaller contingents. They also say they are scaling back on parties, yachts and formal presentations, instead preferring more intimate, client-facing meetings.
“Brands are definitely showing up and excited about it,” said Shelley Elkins, global chief creative officer for Jack Morton, which is doing three activations for brands at Cannes, up from two virtual experiences last year. But “there's a little bit of tension about how to show up. There's some tension between the kind of cautious approach and between the typical bold approach,” she said. “There probably will be some brands that go bigger and bold but certainly some that take a little bit of a quieter approach, but we're definitely hearing consistently that brands are feeling excited for the return.”
There were 12,000 registered delegates at the last in-person festival in 2019 and registrations are currently tracking in line with that number, according to a spokeswoman for the Cannes Lions. Only one major marketer contacted by Ad Age, Walmart, was able to confirm by press time that it is sending a contingent to Cannes. It is presumed AB InBev will also attend, as it is Cannes Marketer of the Year for 2022.
“There is pent-up demand” to reconnect after two years of estrangement, said one agency chief marketing officer. Like most shops surveyed for this story, the executive would not discuss specific numbers of executives the agency would be sending. Even scaled back, however, the numbers are big: One holding company agency estimated its presence this year at about 100 people, though the company did not say how that compared to 2019.
“It won't be as wild maybe as previous years. I think it'll be a bit more of a reunion vibe,” said Wesley ter Haar, founding monk of S4 Capital’s Media.Monks. “We didn't want to lose that moment [to attend], because it's been quite an iconic milestone. We sort of felt the responsibility to be there with Cannes back.”
Adieu, Carlton Terrace
In addition to a Media.Monks cafe, the agency will have space near the Palais for meet-and-greets with clients that will be attended by S4 founder Martin Sorrell, he said, as well as its traditional party on Wednesday night with sonic branding agency MassiveMusic that has regularly attracted 2,300 people.
The venues will be somewhat different this year: the Carlton Terrace, the place to meet and be seen, will be closed during Cannes for hotel renovations. But some agencies will have cafes on the Croisette, including Havas and Media.Monks, and the tech companies will have beaches in full force.
More than one agency interviewed for this story cited environmental concerns as a reason for sending fewer people, as many agencies have committed to reducing their carbon footprint, including Havas.
“We are excited to be joining our global Havas colleagues and returning to Cannes in person this year,” said a spokeswoman. “An unexpected benefit of the last couple of years of COVID restrictions has been the significantly reduced footprint of our international travel, and we are not willing to simply return to the way things were as the world opens back up. That is also evidenced by our commitment to becoming net zero by 2025. As a result, we are being more intentional about who will be traveling to the French Riviera.”
The agency’s contingent will include Stephanie Nerlich, Havas North America CEO; Dan Lucey, Havas New York chief creative officer; Myra Nussbaum, president and chief creative officer of Havas Chicago; and Sean McBride, chief creative officer of Arnold.
No two-hour waitlist
“Cannes is always important to us but, after two years away, we are looking even more forward to the opportunity to join in person this year,” said Duff Stewart, CEO at Omnicom Group’s GSD&M, which is sending four people. “Even if it’s not back to full attendance that can be a positive too. I think we are all looking to connect in a very real way and sometimes that happens more easily when there isn’t a two-hour waitlist to grab a drink.”
“Like so many firsts after a year in lockdown it’s hard to believe we’ll be attending our first Cannes since 2019,” said Bas Korsten and Daniel Bonner, global chief creative officers at WPP’s Wunderman Thompson, in a joint statement. “Our home base will be on the WPP beach,” said the statement. “We are being judicious in terms of attendee numbers as we want to have representation across creative, tech, innovation and of course geographies. Everyone wants to go to Cannes, but this is not the year to come back in full force yet.”
Many, though, expect a packed Palais. “I anticipate agencies and clients will be sending people at near 2019 levels. It’s been two years, and the industry is looking to celebrate amazing work and their peers who are doing it. It’s also a time to learn from the best and keep up with what’s to come,” said Margaret Johnson, partner and chief creative officer at Goodby Silverstein & Partners.” R/GA, in fact, promises “a strong representation on the ground from the agency,” according to a spokeswoman.