Diary of a Cannes Judge


Behind Closed Doors With the Press & Poster Jury

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CANNES (AdAge.com) -- For the first three days, judging the press and poster entries at Cannes is a lonely, solitary affair.

There's a scanner in your hand and a

Mike Hughes, president and creative director of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Martin Agency, Richmond, Va., is serving as a judge at the International Advertising Festival in Cannes. He is recording his experiences in this series of columns.
bar code on every ad. You make your way through your portfolio of entries while each of the other judges goes through his or hers. Assistants are always ready to bring you another portfolio. There's no joking or fooling around. (I was told there would be international politicking. I have no idea how that could happen. I have no clue what the judge from Helsinki's doing -- and he has no idea what I'm doing.)

Amazingling quiet
It's amazingly quiet, the only sound being the constant "beep, beep, beep" of the scanners.

It's also amazingly thorough. Even though there are something like 6,000 print entries, every single one will be considered by at least seven or eight judges. And then all 23 of us will review all the work that makes it through the initial screening. Nothing falls through the cracks.

The first day is for outdoor. There are some good posters, but not a lot of them. My theory about this being a lean time in the world's creative community seems, unfortunately, to be holding.

Slasher movie
I'm intrigued by a poster for a slasher movie -- even though it completely grosses me out. The poster is made to be hung in the rest rooms of theaters. The poster itself is all the usual blood and gore, but what gets interesting is what the creative team does next. They smear "blood" on the walls around the poster, on the sink, onto the floor. There are bloody handprints everywhere. The creative team submitted a photo of one installation. It's clear that the whole room is, well, a bloody mess. I don't find that at all appealing myself -- in fact, I'm repulsed. But I bet those 16-year-old boys who can't wait for the next slasher flick are incredibly excited by all this.

I bring the slasher concept up at

Photo: Laurel Wentz
Attendees browse the Press & Poster entries in the Palais des Festivals.
lunch the second day. The judges who remembered it (only one third of the judges see each concept) hated it.

The second and third days are better. Everything moves faster. The work's still not great, but it's an improvement.

Frisbee-catching rhinos
This is the year for exotic animals in automobile ads. There are car-washing baboons, flying elephants and Frisbee-catching rhinos. In fact, there are ads for several different cars that have hippos. Where do these fads come from?

This is definitely not a year for copywriting. (As Jeff Goodby says, a writer wouldn't want to be paid by the word for his work at Cannes.) It's clear that international shows have an inherent weakness when it comes to uncovering great writing. How would I know if that ad from Italy or Hungary or China or Japan is beautifully, compellingly written? All I know is that the translation seems clumsy. The other judges all speak English -- but who would expect them to have the ear for the language's nuances that the natives would have? There are some long copy ads I love and I give them high grades. But I bet few, if any, make the short list.

Breathtaking immaturity
There are a number of reminders that I'm getting old. The first is how many ideas I see that I've seen many times before. (Could it be that the ideas are new to this generation of ad makers? I doubt it.) The immaturity of the work is breathtaking. Visual pun after visual pun -- none making any real points. An amazing number of condom ads in predictable bad taste. Sophomoric jokes are everywhere.


Headquartered in Richmond, Va., the Martin Agency has 350 employees providing advertising services to a client list that includes Coca-Cola, UPS, Olympus and Saab. Some of its most recent campaigns include the UPS' "What can brown do for you?" and Vanilla Coke's "Reward Your Curiosity."
an ad into the competition here is expensive. What are people thinking entering some of this stuff? I wonder how often my agency part of makes the same bad judgements. Probably a lot.

Hal Tench, group creative director at our agency, recently watched a reel of award-winning TV commercials. He wrote down what the point was in every spot. There was rarely more than one point per ad. It was a reminder to us at the Martin Agency that we shouldn't cram too much into one execution.

If the print ads that I'm judging here are any indication, the rest of the world has the opposite problem. There's no point to many of these ads. Maybe there's a joke or a shock, but there's nothing to recommend the product or service. In fact, sometimes you can't even figure out what the product or service is.

Ads as puzzles
One of the most talented designers I've ever known liked ads that you had to figure out. If you spent enough time studying the page in front of you, you'd get the joke. He thought those ads were good because they got people involved. I didn't agree then and I don't agree now. I can't imagine people taking the time to figure out what a magazine ad means: I believe they'll just turn the page. But I see more and more of these ads in the portfolios I'm reviewing here. I just give a low score and turn the page.

Speaking of turning the pages, some judges are faster than others. Since the huge majority of the work is in English and all the translations are in English, I figured we English speakers would be the first ones out of the room. After all, this is our first language. That's not the case -- I'm usually finished in about the middle of the group.

There is one huge incentive for finishing early

Photo: Lee Snider
The Croisette and beach in front of the Carlton Hotel.
in the afternoon: the women on the beach. Get out early and you can stroll down the Croisette, which is kind of like a classy boardwalk. Many of the women on the beach below you don't wear anything above their waists except their headbands. Everyone seems incredibly nonchalant and sophisticated about this. Children play, men nap. Me, I almost walk off the pier.

Hating the thin ones
The people at Cannes are, by and large, beautiful. They crowd the bars, the restaurants, the ice cream parlors. They eat from morning until night. And they're all thin. I hate them with a passion that's red hot.

What's more, belying their stereotype, the French drivers are among the most skilled and courteous in the world. Of course they have to be: the French bicyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians are crazier than loons.

I enjoy talking to the judges from around the world. It's amazing how similar our challenges are. Most of us are at least a little worried about the health of our industry and our companies. We think creativity is in a slump. Most of us love our jobs -- but not as much right now.

I'm convinced it's all tied together. We do our best work when we're having fun. World conditions -- social, economic, political, you name it -- are not conducive to having much fun these days. So the work isn't very good.

The power of creative joy
I went to the Musee Picasso in Antibes the other day. You could tell Picasso was embracing life -- you could see it in his art and in the photographs of the man himself. He might have been a real son of a bitch in life, but he was one joyous, boisterous, defiant son of a bitch. (My wife commented that she could see why women loved this balding little man: "Look at his eyes.")

The agencies that will come back the brightest in the months and years ahead will be the agencies that manage to bring back the joy. No one can dictate that -- and creative communities of all kinds in all parts of the world are notoriously grumpy. But I am determined that we will discover that higher level of joy at my agency.

The advertising at Cannes this year may not be the best reminder of how great our work can be, but you can't help but feel the hugeness of the opportunity.

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