Cannes Lions

Tech Duopoly Doubles Down at Cannes

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Google and Facebook have become popular choices among creatives for making award-winning work.
Google and Facebook have become popular choices among creatives for making award-winning work. Credit: iStock/lucentius

Life's still a beach for Google and Facebook.

The duo is storming the shores of the French Riviera again this week. And although other tech companies like Pinterest will also be present, Facebook and Google are the only ones that can claim to be digital advertising's de facto duopoly.

The narrative last year, when the two giants invaded Cannes beaches for the first time, was not good. Yet despite hand-wringing from execs like AOL's Tim Armstrong or Havas Media Group U.K.'s Paul Frampton, folks who have come to traditionally define the event -- agencies, creatives and brand advertisers -- appear to be embracing the duo's inevitable return.

"Before, it was sort of like, 'What are you doing on our turf? This is our festival,'‚ÄČ" said Craig Elimeliah, managing director of creative technology at digital-centric agency VML. "They have definitely elevated themselves from frenemy to partner -- not just in buying and selling, but also from a content creation perspective."

Google and Facebook are integral to marketers because they're where consumers spend the most time, said Elimeliah, adding that the two platforms have become a popular choice among creatives for making award-winning work. "I think the majority of the work that you will see at Cannes will have one or two of these guys embedded into it."

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, who hasn't attended Cannes since 2014, will partake in a session at Face to Face, Facebook's name for its side of the beach. Google will push diversity with internet personality Gigi Gorgeous at YouTube Beach. Between the sessions, workshops and hundreds of meetings, both want creatives and marketers to get better acquainted with their offerings.

And that can play to either party's benefit: Last year's Grand Prix winner, The Martin Agency, created a wildly successful campaign for Geico dubbed "Unskippable," where video ads ended before viewers could hit "Skip This." Google executives told Ad Age it was the "inspiration" for its six-second YouTube ad format, something it intends to flog heavily this year.

Still, the duopoly takes money off the table before anyone else has a chance to sit down. It will capture 85% of all digital ad growth in the U.S. this year, according to Mary Meeker's latest Internet Trends report. Meanwhile, eMarketer expects Google and Facebook to gobble nearly 60% of all digital ad dollars spent in the U.S. in 2017.

"A good agency is hopefully not thinking Google-Facebook first, although I'm sure some of them often do," said Brigitte Majewski, VP-research director at Forrester. "Instead, they should be thinking, 'What does my client want to do? Who are they trying to target? Where are those people and where are they receptive to this particular message?' That likely involves Google and Facebook, but you shouldn't be thinking backwards."

To compete, Majewski says rivals need to find their niche and capitalize. "People call them a walled garden for a reason: They don't share a lot of data," she said. "But as they get smarter about sharing their understanding of the end target, they'll only become a bigger player in creating creative messaging and storytelling, both a key component of what a marketer does."

Indeed, Winston Binch, chief digital officer at Deutsch North America, suggests that the tech scene's beachfront sideshow is becoming the main event at Cannes. "Cannes says a lot of what is going on in the industry: Brands are currency and everyone wants a piece of the action," Binch said. "There's never been more competition and I welcome that. It forces us to innovate and to bring higher-quality and more impactful ideas to our clients that work harder. As an agency person, you can be reticent about the platforms, but they work."

For its part, Facebook has been on a hiring spree, snagging senior client-side marketers for its sales team, said Rich Guest, president of Tribal Worldwide. "I don't think they're acting in a sales capacity, but a consulting capacity," Guest said. "They get a lot of points, in my opinion, for having people who really understand the challenges and opportunities that client-side marketers are wrestling with and for being able to package their platforms for specific marketers."

Some of those hires are now part of Facebook's Creative Shop, a 200-person team that will guide the tech titan at Cannes in areas like programming or how to approach a specific meeting with a certain client.

Although the entire unit won't be at the event, this year will mark the Creative Shop's biggest presence, said Carolyn Everson, VP-global marketing solutions at Facebook. "The notion is oftentimes creative leaders want to talk to other creative leaders, so we wanted to have a team of people that the creative community really felt were like their peers," Everson said.

Facebook and Google have become so important that major outfits like Johnson & Johnson and Mars Inc. have hired people solely to manage dealing with them.

"We've invested much more in our agency ecosystem and our partnerships across the board," said Tara Walpert Levy, VP-agency and media solutions at Google.

Kevin Gentzel, chief revenue officer of USA Today Network, said it's going to be an uphill fight with tech companies at Cannes. Gentzel (reasonably) doesn't intend to dethrone Google or Facebook, but instead wants to be No. 3, a spot for which companies like Amazon, Snap and Deloitte Digital are all fighting. "To us, it's not about outspending a big tech Goliath that has seemingly infinite funds to spend on yachts and celebrities showing up at parties," he said. "Maybe there is a great opportunity right now to capitalize on great content and the importance of context in a way that will really move the needle for brands that improves purchase intent and favorability."

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