Independents' day at Cannes proves bigger isn't always better

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In a corporate climate where Time magazine keeps a straight face as it presents the release of a children's book as a cover-worthy news event, you don't have to travel far to be exposed to the dark side of ownership conglomeration. But if you did travel far-say, to the south of France-you found still more evidence that consolidation is stifling creativity.

There's a delicious irony (hypocrisy?) to sitting out in the Mediterranean sun, eating extravagant expense-account lunches and listening to men who've sold their agencies for millions of dollars and now keep vacation homes outside Cannes complain that public ownership is ruining the business.

Still, any serious student of the business can present a solid case in support of that assertion. Since public companies are responsible first and foremost to their shareholders, so the argument goes, clients come second and consumers a distant third. Smart chief executives realize that if they serve consumers and clients, shareholders will win. But that's a long-term view and public companies care mostly about short-term results.

That sentiment, the belief that being big has hurt agencies' ability to be good, was something of an unofficial theme of the International Advertising Festival in Cannes. Typically, the business of advertising doesn't make an appearance at this weeklong spectacle. For better or worse, the awards show remains the one place where the product of advertising, the work, is the obsessive focus. But it has become clear that the two are inseparable, that creative does not exist in a vacuum and that the ability of creatives to do good work has been affected by the risk-averse cultures of their publicly held parents.

This year's festival winners appear to support that theory. The three commercials that vied for the film Grand Prix, the top honor, were all created by agencies that are independent, or about as close as you can come to it these days. The winner, Ikea's powerfully simple and deserving "Lamp," was created by Crispin, Porter & Bogusky, which is part-owned by also-ran Canadian holding company Maxxcom.

(Miami-based Crispin Porter, as an aside, is indisputably the hottest agency in the U.S. right now, and it was fun to watch Chuck Porter and Alex Bogusky bask in their newfound celebrity at Cannes-especially since few attendees had even heard of them a few years ago. "They are so on the map now," said Nigel Bogle, of the highly regarded Bartle Bogle Hegarty, when he learned of Crispin's Grand Prix win.)

Bogle's agency, itself a quasi-independent that is part-owned by Publicis Groupe, was the Grand Prix runner-up with a spot called "Ear Tennis" for Xbox. The other Grand Prix contender was Honda's two-minute film "Cog," from Wieden & Kennedy, a true independent.

"It was not a good year for the networks," said one attendee, in what was easily the understatement of the festival.

It can be argued that the most effective client solutions often don't include cutting-edge TV ads, and that awards shows such as Cannes harm the industry more than consolidation by perpetuating its dependence on the 30-second spot. There are, too, greater challenges to the relevance of agencies.

But the chief executives of several global networks went home with bruised egos because their suitcases weren't stuffed with Lions. Ads are the only tangible product agencies produce, and they want that product to be of the highest quality. When it comes to peer-group benchmarking, employee morale, client confidence and new-business opportunities, awards aren't as meaningless as critics of them would have you believe.

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