Best at Cannes offer antidote to ad world's huckster taint

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Back to the real world then.

Spent 16-22 Juin in Cannes, France, at the International Advertising Festival, thousands of miles from New York, millions of miles from reality.

There, most rules are suspended or rewritten by global fiat. The last night, I returned to my room before 2 a.m. and congratulated myself for the discipline I had shown in going to bed early, with hundreds of colleagues still out and hours to go before the sun seeped in. Attendees here, including CEOs and chief creative officers, are repeatedly amazed at how quickly 4 a.m. arrives.

Without merely seeking to justify the business expense, it bears repeating that Cannes, while in large measure a boondoggle, returns the investment. It is a networking orgy that connects ad makers from around the world, a global showcase for creativity.

Standing in line at the Nice airport to check in for the flight home, I overheard two people behind me. They had apparently spotted the bag slung over my shoulder advertising the Cannes festival. These were middle-aged Midwesterners, part of a group of tourists. "My brother was in advertising," the woman said. "He's retired now, but still a hustler." I waited for her laugh, but instead she sighed. "They all are," her traveling companion replied with the earnest confidence of someone about to make a sweeping generalization. "Their whole lives are spent creating lies, so they're in a fantasy world. They can't tell what's true."

I wanted to tell them how wrong they were, convince them that the best advertising reveals truths and insights, and not just about brands but-as with music, art, fiction-about life. The graphic depiction of the rocket ride from birth to death in Xbox's "Champagne" spot is an unsettling reminder that we all need to spend more time at play.

But I said nothing. I was tired, and the only thing I would have convinced them of was that I, too, was a huckster. These two were the incarnation of studies showing how poorly consumers regard advertising.

Admittedly, the Cannes judges weren't much more impressed by the body of work this year than the Midwesterners would have been. Chief judge Jeff Goodby's film jury awarded the fewest Gold Lions of any recent show. At the top, though, a handful of spots qualified as brilliant, including Bartle Bogle Hegarty's "Champagne" and its "Odyssey" for Levi's. The Grand Prix winner, Nike's "Tag" from Wieden & Kennedy, was a worthy choice.

The worst award was the Gold Lion given to a juvenile cinema spot for Club 18-30, a packager of vacations for sex-starved young Brits. Club 18-30 also captured a print Grand Prix with an ad that was sexually suggestive but cleverly art directed and true to the brand. The cinema spot, about the sexual escapades of a frisky dog, was simply gross.

The cyber jury narrowly averted a Cannes disaster when it awarded the BMW Films campaign one of two online Grand Prix. BMW was barred from the film category and blanked by the media jury. There were passionate debates over how to judge the most innovative advertising idea of the year. Cannes organizers need to have the same debates and rewrite their rules to recognize that creativity is being redefined.

Another needed change: Cannes' organizers need to recognize the advertiser-what a concept-behind winning work rather than just announcing the agency/production company and name of the ad. ("The Lion goes to . . . Saatchi & Saatchi, Los Angeles, for "Dog".) The slight reinforces criticism that agencies reward creativity for its own sake. Which is why the folks behind me at the airport distrust advertising.

No lie.

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