Brands flock to Cannes with their work in tow
The main complaint about the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity for years had been that it was overly ostentatious. It had gotten rosé-bloated, sagging under its own weight.
What a difference a couple years makes.
Perhaps everyone learned a hard lesson about the value of Cannes from watching Publicis Groupe sit it out last year. Perhaps marketers had a eureka moment in finally connecting creativity to better business results. Perhaps more people are inclined to go to Cannes since the festival has been cut down to five days (June 17-21).
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps
Realistically, it’s a combination of all those factors enticing marketers and advertisers to invest considerable time and money into the event again.
But what’s fueling interest in this year’s festival isn’t just the agencies hoping to win awards, but also brands submitting work from their own in-house teams.
The number of brands participating in the content portion of the festival (speaker sessions, massive beach takeovers, etc.) increased to 102 this year from 85 in 2018 and 57 in 2017, according to festival organizers, who report a particular rise in interest from direct-to-consumer companies, including Away, Hubble, Bonobos and Brandless, among others.
“Brands attend the festival because they understand the power of creativity as a lever in the boardroom,” says Cannes Lions Managing Director Simon Cook. “They know that unlocking creative potential is fundamental to driving business growth.”
Cannes says it does not yet have a total tally of entries or a breakout of brands that submitted work from in-house teams, but people interviewed for this story say entries are coming from companies including Spotify, Google and Apple.
Spotify and Apple did not respond to requests for comment. Google declined to comment, although the company did provide some information on what it will be doing on the ground—including continuing its Google Beach, where the company will host three sessions this year on topics spanning diversity, how to create personalized connections and the future of marketing.
Clients are coming
Cook says the festival is catering to this rising participation by expanding its offerings to brands. This year, for example, Cannes introduced the Creative Brand of the Year Award, given to individual brands in different regions worldwide that “push the boundaries.” (Of course, additional categories mean additional revenue for the festival as well.)
According to the people interviewed for this story, brands are also increasingly vying for the Cannes Lions Creative Marketer of the Year title, introduced in 1992. This year, the recognition was given to Apple for the first time after the tech giant swept the awards last year. Apple’s in-store retail workshop program, “Today at Apple,” created with Work & Co., garnered two prizes last year: the Grand Prix for Brand Experience and the Titanium Lion. The company's “Welcome Home” spot, directed by Spike Jonze and featuring FKA Twigs, via TBWA/Media Arts Lab, won the Entertainment Lion for Music Grand Prix. Apple picked up 22 additional Lions across 10 different campaigns in 2018.
In an earlier interview with Ad Age, Tor Myhren, Apple VP of marketing and communications, says being named Cannes Lions Creative Marketer of the Year is “a tremendous honor, and it is a bit humbling.”
“The creative world is watching and there’s a lot of creative talent out there who someday might work at Apple,” Myhren says. “It’s important to Apple in terms of potential future talents.”
Myhren will accept the award on behalf of Apple at the final Cannes Lions awards ceremony on June 21.
“I’m taken aback by the sheer volume of clients coming,” says Laurent Ezekiel, chief marketing and growth officer for WPP. “An enormous volume of clients want to partner with us through the experience.”
WPP is for the first time renting one of the beaches at Cannes, Miramar Plag, for the entire week. Ezekiel says that decision stems from the desire from clients to do more with WPP on the grounds of the festival (programming includes a panel with CEO Mark Read and Microsoft), plus the holding company’s own desire to get all of its employees from its various agencies in one place.
“Our approach is very thoughtful to content,” Ezekiel adds.
It’s a positioning driven by Read, who took the chief executive position at WPP last September after the resignation of Martin Sorrell. Ezekiel says programming on the WPP beach will run “more or less” from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and will feature sessions with specific agencies including Wunderman Thompson and VMLY&R, the two entities that were recently rebranded following the mergers of J. Walter Thompson and Wunderman, and VML and Y&R.
“This is the right thing for us to do in the right place at the right time,” Ezekiel says.
PJ Pereira, co-founder and creative chairman of Pereira O’Dell and jury president of the 2019 Social and Influencer Lions, says that Cannes is making a wise decision by introducing new categories to open up more opportunities for marketers to win.
Still, the increase in submissions from in-house teams is worrisome to agencies, as it cements the idea that not only are brands increasingly taking work in-house, but they are producing award-
winning work on their own.
According to a 2018 Association of National Advertisers study, 78 percent of marketers surveyed reported that they had some form of in-house agency compared to 58 percent in 2013 and 42 percent in 2008. Additionally, 90 percent of marketers surveyed by the ANA increased the workload of their in-house teams within the last year, including 65 percent reporting that workload has increased “a lot.”
Jay Pattisall, principal analyst at Forrester covering marketing and advertising, notes that there have been impressive creative campaigns coming from in-house teams recently.
The rise in creatives joining in-house agencies is credited with increased interest from brands in Cannes. And then there’s another theory.
“Brands are building in-house agencies and are submitting their own work to Cannes because over-billing, deceitful media practices and unethical business tactics have led to a lack of trust in holding companies,” says Matt O’Rourke, chief creative officer of independent agency 22squared. “There’s a lot of tension between clients and the giants right now, and you’re going to see it on the ground at the festival this year.”
Pattisall says it’s not just Cannes that is “becoming very brand-centric,” but other industry events such as CES in Las Vegas and even South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.
“Increasingly, these things are becoming the events to showcase content and technology,” Pattisall says. “As much as Cannes is a festival for creativity, it’s also a showcase of technology.”
The tech onslaught
Years ago, the beaches and yachts were occupied by agencies. Today, shops typically get priced out of prime beach and yacht rentals by tech behemoths like Facebook and even consulting giants like Accenture Interactive, which recently acquired Droga5. (Accenture Interactive will be hosting parties and meetings on its yacht again this year, while nine of its executives will speak on stage.)
According to estimates from global consultancy R3, the price to rent a beach for the week in Cannes this year is between $200,000 and $1.5 million, depending on the size of the space.
Consultancy MediaLink, acquired by Cannes Lions parent company Ascential for $207 million in 2017, will be moving its festival headquarters for the week from the Carlton Hotel to the beach. (The “MediaLink Beach” for the consultancy’s programming and meetings opens June 17 with a party in partnership with Condé Nast and Google.) MediaLink Founder and CEO Michael Kassan says the argument over whether Cannes is worth it “was last year’s story.”
“From a MediaLink perspective, we are trending well ahead in terms of participation across the ecosystem,” Kassan says. “Brands, agencies, publishers, tech, financial sponsors. If you want to be in the conversation at the center of marketing, media, advertising, entertainment and technology, Cannes is the quintessential place to do that.”
Pereira agrees with Kassan in that this year most creatives are no longer questioning Cannes’ worth.
“Whenever I hear an agency that says ‘We don’t believe in awards,’ I think, ‘You probably don’t believe in marketing,’” Pereira adds. “It doesn’t make sense.”
But what it means to win is evolving.
“The creative landscape is changing,” Pereira says. “It’s getting so much broader.”
The Publicis sit-out
One major signal that brands do care about the Cannes Lions themselves as much as their external agency partners came when Publicis sat out the awards last year to focus on investing in AI-
powered professional assistant program Marcel.
Its clients did not.
McDonald’s and Diesel were among the Publicis clients to submit work at last year’s Cannes. McDonald’s ended up winning a silver Lion in media and Diesel took home one silver Lion and three bronze Lions in Film Craft for “Go With the Flaw,” created by Publicis Italia.
Several people interviewed for this story—including Ezekiel, who joined WPP in May from Publicis, where he was a longtime veteran of the holding company and its agency Digitas—drew a direct correlation between Publicis clients having to submit work on their own last year and the increased participation by brands this year.
“I don’t know whether that was a direct effect of us,” Carla Serrano, Publicis Groupe chief strategy officer and Publicis New York CEO, says with a laugh. “From an industry standpoint, everyone took a reset moment, including the festival itself.”
Cannes was indeed forced to rethink its model. It introduced last year a new advisory committee to help shape the event’s future—and to get the hordes of creatives who spend most of their days and nights downing rosé and partying on yachts into the actual Palais for the event’s programming.
This year’s agenda includes an Economist-moderated panel with three chief marketing officers—Nina Bibby of O2, Syl Saller of Diageo and Diego Scotti of Verizon Communications—who will explore what marketers’ top concerns are today. Hulu CMO Kelly Campbell, Stitch Fix CMO Deirdre Findlay and actor, director and activist Kerry Washington will discuss how women are driving a direct-to-consumer economy. There will, of course, be a talk on cannabis, an increasingly hot topic, called “CBD and the Marijuana Revolution: From Stigma to Serious Medicine.”
“Lorne Michaels is coming for the first time,” Kassan says. “Lorne Michaels never comes to anything related to the advertising industry,” he says of the producer and creator of “Saturday Night Live.”
“I think everyone started to think about what this festival and creativity really should look like, and that includes our clients,” Serrano says. In the end, I do think that even though it was just us who sat out, we influenced a lot of what everybody else did to make sure we moved forward with a refocused energy. It would be disingenuous of me to say in the beginning it wasn’t controversial for our holding company. But I felt by last year, the people who were with us, even the creative community, were actually pretty supportive.”
That’s not to say Publicis wasn’t the butt of some jokes at last year’s Cannes.
“Marcel, why are the Knicks going to trade Porzingis?” Interpublic Group’s R/GA posted on Twitter last year, poking fun at Publicis’ assertion that Marcel is all-knowing.
And the winners will be...
The major campaign favored to win this year is Nike’s “Dream Crazy,” from independent creative shop Wieden & Kennedy. The video, narrated by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, features a collection of stories from athletes including Serena Williams, LeBron James and Odell Beckham Jr.
“’Dream Crazy’ is going to win everything, and it should,” O’Rourke says. “It’s one of the simplest, purest, most powerful campaigns I’ve ever seen. One of the biggest brands in the world took a clear stand on one of culture’s most controversial topics, and the results proved that opting out of controversy isn’t really an option anymore.”
While the Nike campaign received some backlash initially, it ultimately led to a sales spike. In the second quarter following the release of the spot, Nike’s revenue increased 10 percent to $9.4 billion, led by a 14 percent rise in the Nike brand to $8.9 billion.
Kassan predicts that direct-to-consumer will be the talk of the French Riviera this year, referencing brands like Peloton and Dollar Shave Club specifically.
“Understanding direct-to-consumer models is what everybody is struggling with and how they succeed in a direct-to-consumer world,” Kassan says. “You find me a topic that is more relevant to marketers today.”
Attendees are also predicting privacy and data will remain at the forefront of discussions, as will diversity and inclusion and trust and transparency. Some attendees are going to be looking at how Cannes advances the conversations around the #MeToo movement.
“Last year the #MeToo movement was raging as the festival began,” O’Rourke says. “Since then, brands and agencies have spent a massive amount of time and energy thinking about their roles in the movement. How they speak about it will say a lot about whether or not the industry has made any progress since last year.”
Pereira says the Titanium shortlist presentation is not one to miss, as it really gives attendees a sense of how marketers and their agency partners work together; it will be presented on June 18. (Pereira was a Titanium Lions juror last year.)
“I’ve been going for more than 20 years,” Pereira adds. “There’s the business Cannes that is ‘let’s go there and discuss the industry,’ and the trade Cannes that’s ‘let’s see where the work is going.’ I tend to go more for the creative side because those are the discussions that you can’t have anywhere else.”
Pereira says the parties, the business discussions and the breakfasts can be had anywhere in the world.
Still, as Kassan points out, a very large portion of the people who generate the entirety of the advertising industry’s revenue are there. Not to mention the fact that more clients attending the festival means more new-business opportunities for agencies.
“It’s a big efficiency play,” Kassan says. “Where else in the world and what other time in the world can you bring together the major players in marketing, media, advertising, entertainment and technology in four square blocks in five days? Tell me why that’s not the most important week of the year for our industry.”