planting a flag in the sand
As usual, the tech giants will storm Cannes. But this year’s beach battle will be unusually fierce
By Garett Sloane Illustration by Dan Sulzberg. Published on June 10, 2019

While the tech companies have visibly taken over the Cannes waterfront at the International Festival of Creativity, this year will hardly be a stroll on the beach.

As the festival opens, a dark cloud hangs heavy over Google amid a pending U.S. Justice Department investigation, while Amazon and Facebook face a probe by the Federal Trade Commission. As the Google and Facebook duopoly is occupied fighting off perceptions that they are too dominant in advertising and not vigilant enough about privacy, rivals and newcomers to Cannes will look to kick sand in their faces. Verizon Media, in its first year at Cannes since rebranding from the ashes of Yahoo and AOL, will flaunt its vast reserves of data for advertisers. Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel will be at the event, unburdened by the same negativity Facebook and Google may encounter, looking to reinvigorate advertiser interest in the business. (But don’t look for the branded Ferris Wheel the company famously plonked onto the Palais in 2017: Snap is gunning for grown-ups.) And amid the usual suspects like Spotify and Twitter will be newer invaders like Target, Twitch and Tik Tok ready to storm the tech titans’ beachhead.

“It just seems like there is more of a work- before-party atmosphere,” says Neil Waller, co-founder of Whalar, an influencer marketing tech platform.

Waller is planning for Whalar’s biggest showing at Cannes since first attending in 2015 with a small booth at the startup academy, not even roomy enough to fit a handful of people. This year, Whalar has a cabana next to Facebook’s beach, and the space is being opened to other companies to host events. (Ad Age is among them.)

Facebook is sending its chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, to meet with ad leaders to address the privacy flaps of the past year, though it’s unlikely at this point she will have specifics to share about the federal investigations. “The biggest goal for Sheryl [Sandberg] will be communicating in a way that will renew faith in the platform,” says Jeanne Bright, VP of global platform development at Group M’s Essence Global. “Having that face-to-face meeting helps quell concerns clients might have.”

For the new tech cohorts, including the aforementioned Tik Tok and Twitch, Cannes offers a rare opportunity to get in front of the top-level executives at brands and make their best case, meetings they wouldn’t get otherwise. During his first visit to Cannes in 2016, Waller says he met Unilever and struck up a relationship that led to work with more than 30 of its brands.

“It’s a disarming environment, when these executives are in the right mentality,” Waller says. “They’re committed to being there and you get to have really meaningful conversations.”

That’s not to say there won’t be any fun at all: Spotify is bringing hip-hop royalty Nas, and Verizon has a pier to itself. Show business is still business.

Here’s a look at what some of the tech companies have planned in Cannes:

Facebook, Google and Twitter

Sandberg will have her work cut out for her this year. In addition to the FTC investigation, Facebook’s reputation has been among the most badly damaged in the wake of data-sharing scandals, external communications meltdowns and the fallout from its involvement with Cambridge Analytica.

Cannes comes as Facebook undertakes one of the biggest changes the company has faced since going public in 2012. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has laid out new privacy initiatives like end-to-end encryption that could impact how it collects data on consumers for ad targeting, making it more difficult for advertisers.

“A lot of agency executives aren’t aware of the actions Facebook is taking to help out the platform,” says Bright.

Cannes will represent a moment to reset, too. Facebook, of course, will have its set-up on the beach with a private pier jetting into the ocean. But there will also be time to talk about innovative uses of the platform and new formats like Stories videos and Groups.

“We believe creativity unlocks the potential of our platform, and we have a deep investment in the creative community,” says Mark D’Arcy, Facebook’s chief creative officer. “We think their work and the time they invest with us is critical to things being successful.”

One of the main themes coming from all the tech players, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, is diversity. The tech industry has taken heat for a general lack of inclusion—fewer than 5 percent of workers in the sector are black.

Describing herself as a “builder,” Dubuc has an entrepreneurial spirit at heart. She tried to bring that verve to her five-year tenure as CEO of A&E Networks, investing in things like the digital studio 45th & Dean and the National Women’s Soccer League.

“As [the Cannes] community becomes more diverse, it is important to reflect that diversity and the different elements that make up the modern industry,” says D’Arcy.

Google also is making diversity one of the central themes of its Cannes talks. “Cannes is an important event for Google because it is an opportunity for creative agencies, clients, industry bodies and partners to come together, celebrate creativity and see what’s next for advertising,” a Google spokesman said by e-mail. “It’s also a great opportunity for the industry to discuss its progress toward fostering a more diverse and inclusive community, and how that enhances creativity.”

Snap

Brand safety will be a big focus this year for Snapchat, which has been going to the creativity show since 2015, when its ad business was just getting off the ground and Spiegel was the darling of the tech circuit. This year, Snapchat is promoting Snap Select, a way for brands to reserve ad space on Discover, the media section of Snapchat that features shows. Advertisers can pick where spots run, so the commercials don’t wind up near unpredictable videos with objectionable subject matter. This is Snapchat’s answer to brands concerned by the proliferation of toxic videos on Facebook and YouTube, and the commercials are an unskippable six seconds long, meeting advertisers’ needs for videos people can’t ignore.

“Video on Snapchat and the power of premium video, in particular, on Snapchat is a big push for us,” says David Roter, VP of global agency partnerships at the company. “This is one of the product launches that coincides with the timing at Cannes.”

Roter is only a few weeks on the job, having come over from Twitter where he was a senior director of video ad sales and agency partnerships. His role as agency lead at Snapchat is a sign that the company is breaking out of its shell, and Cannes is the perfect place to put those agency relations to the test.

Spiegel is going to Cannes, too, and will host a talk with Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, sure to be one of the bigger draws of the week.

Snapchat will still play host to brands and agencies and promote the creative side of its platform with a similar art installation to one it did last year, but it is looking to shed its old image of detached cool that turned off some in the ad world. (Remember its exclusive parties behind gated villas?)

This year, it is more about making connections.

“You’ll see us step out of our space a bit more,” Roter says. “You’ll see us work with some of the agencies in ways we haven’t worked in the past.”

Spotify

The streaming music company has been going to Cannes for seven years, so it knows how to cut through the noise: A raging beach party.

Last year, Spotify featured Travis Scott and the year before that, Solange Knowles. This year, hip-hop legend Nas will be the main star, performing on the 25th anniversary of his seminal album “Illmatic.”

However, Danielle Lee, Spotify’s global VP of partner solutions, says bringing the star power is not about cornering clients, with advertisers expecting VIP treatment in exchange for a high-pressure sales meeting.

“It’s not that kind of trading situation,” Lee says. “But I think the Spotify Beach parties have built a lot of equity over the years. People just come to expect a great time.” It also doesn’t hurt that Spotify execs will also find excited ad clients there to discuss what’s next for the platform.

Spotify has built this presence from humble beginnings at Cannes. In the early years, “we were scrappy," Lee says, adding that Spotify was a "much younger brand that had a much smaller presence.”

Now, on top of the renting a spot on the beach, and beyond the concerts, Spotify also hosts a dinner with Hulu at a chateau outside of Cannes on the first night of the festival.

Podcasts will be the big theme for the streaming music company on the beach as it looks to promote that format to advertisers, Lee says. Spotify is bringing the stars of two of the top podcasts from the platfor—Dope Labs co-hosts Tiki Shodiya and Zakiya Whatley, and Se Regalan Dudas co-hosts Lety Sahagún and Ashley Frangie—and will create daily shows from the beach under Spotify’s in-house Culture: Now Streaming podcast.

Target

Target will be at Cannes for the first time as an ad tech platform rather than an advertiser. It’s now an emerging force in digital advertising, with the power to combine commerce and data to help brands manage their marketing.

Target introduced Roundel, its in-house advertising company, at the Digital Content NewFronts in May, and it will host what it calls a “cabana experience” at Cannes for the first time, according to a spokesman for the company. Target’s chief creative officer and chief diversity officer are offering keynotes on the main stage at Cannes, too.

Tik Tok

This Chinese startup is making its first official trip to Cannes as a sponsor, headlining a new mini-conference within the festival called CLX.

It will be a coming-out party for the video app owned by ByteDance, which acquired the lip synch app Musical.ly in 2017 to combine it with Tik Tok. In recent weeks, the company has set its sights on building devices and entering the music-streaming market. Tik Tok wants to take its next step into the advertising world, but the question is whether Cannes is the right place to make that case.

“Tik Tok already has our attention,” says Essence Global’s Bright. “But it is hard to cut through the clutter. There are a lot people there that want to meet, and it requires some relationships ahead of Cannes for the meeting to take place.”

Twitch

Twitch, the video-game streaming service owned by Amazon, is sponsoring its first space on the Croisette with a penthouse decked out in the company’s trademark purple.

The company is bringing 10 people including two of its video-game influencers to show brands how the platform works. “It’s all about meeting with partners,” says Walker Jacobs, Twitch’s newly installed chief revenue officer. “Streamers Pokimane and Sacriel will be on hand to participate in two panels and will also be live broadcasting on Twitch from the penthouse so our partners can get an authentic look behind the curtain.”

Like Tik Tok, it is tough for startups like Twitch to be heard above the noise of Cannes, says Pete Stein, Global CEO of Interpublic Group of Cos.’ Huge.

“Snapchat put themselves on the map with that Ferris Wheel, but was that the right thing to do? Probably not,” Stein says. “The focus there is for them to get meetings and tell stories with the right marketers and the ones who are actually going to spend on their platform.

“It’s smart for Twitch to be there,” Stein adds, “because they’ve got an audience that spends a ton of time with them and marketers are trying to figure out how to connect with gamers.”

Verizon

Verizon might be perceived of as an old tech company comprising other old tech companies, but Verizon Media is technically a newbie at Cannes even with its constiuent Yahoo and AOL parts. The entity just formed in 2018, so this is its first year under the new structure.

Verizon Media is sending Jeff Lucas, the head of North American sales and global client solutions, and it’s not his first time at the rodeo. In 2016, Lucas was newly hired to lead Snapchat ad sales and went to Cannes with Spiegel & Co.

Lucas sees Cannes as a way to get Verizon Media into the advertising industry’s consciousness, especially after the rebrand. “We spent a year and a half coming together, putting the ad tech together,” Lucas says. “Now it’s about how we take off, mean something more, and get recognized in the media space more. Cannes is part of that, coming up and saying, ‘Look we’re Verizon Media now. Not these other entities.’”

Verizon will host a series of talks on a pier it is sponsoring across from the Majestic hotel. The event will be an opportunity to make its case as a source of first-party data to marketers concerned about data cleanliness, according to Lucas. The new General Data Protection Regulation in Europe and similar laws being drafted in the U.S. are all cracking down on data brokers, third parties that buy and sell people’s online information without direct permission.

This has given platforms like Verizon new power in the ad world, given that their direct relationships with consumers puts them in a position to compete with Facebook, Google and Amazon.

“This is a cool moment in time,” Lucas says. “A year from now, we will look back and say ‘This Cannes was a pivotal point.’ CMOs are under pressure and they’re looking to work with fewer partners with first-party data access.” Adage End Bug