Lots of Process Monkeys, Little Substance

Cannes 'Debate' Isn't Much of One

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Here's what we learned at the high-powered Cannes Debate panel on agency reinvention, which I moderated during last week's International Advertising Festival: next to nothing.
The Cannes Debate produced a lot of talk but little useful information.
The Cannes Debate produced a lot of talk but little useful information. Credit: Pat Denton
Here's what that means: The ad business has a bigger problem than it realizes. Because its leaders refuse to share real learnings and best practices, or to discuss the frustrations they face in reinventing their legacy businesses, there's little chance of harnessing their collective wisdom to benefit the industry. Which means each player within it has to keep trying to figure it out on their own. That's a shame.

Chalk this up to the industry's competitive nature or its obsession with image and preserving myths. The outcome is the same. There's little willingness to have substantive public conversations about where the advertising business needs to go and how it might get there.

The Cannes "debate" underscored that. Here we had assembled a panel of smart, power players (Andrew Robertson, Jeff Goodby, David Droga and Wunderman's Daniel Morel). But, Droga excepted, the conversation rarely escaped the lazy embrace of philosophic musings. My goal, you may recall, was to get past "change or die" rhetoric and get to real-world examples of how these leaders were changing their oganizations' structures and outputs, which models they believed were most likely to succeed, and how they were dealing with resistance to change and shifting client demands. Several hundred people had packed in to hear them speak, choosing this 4 p.m. panel over the enticements of the warm Mediterranean sun. From the conversations I had with a number of them afterwards, many were disappointed.

Droga, who runs the upstart start-up Droga5, was the most generous and blunt-spoken. He said there is a crisis in the agency business. He talked of hiring people out of publishing and technology who could apply "storytelling with a different perspective." He chided big agencies for having too many "process monkeys" and too few idea generators.

Jeff Goodby acknowledged that agencies have a difficult time differentiating themselves because "we're not that different." He talked of the need to "mix it up" inside agencies by forcing interactive specialists to work on film projects, and TV creatives to do online work.

Morel played his assigned role as direct-marketing guy, valuing selling over storytelling and calling for an overhaul in agency compensation that would focus on back-end participation rather than fees and commissions.

Robertson surprised by denying there is a revolution under way, talking instead of a slow and deliberate evolution that can be accomplished without blowing up legacy roadblocks or putting profits at risk.

I'm not sure I believe him. I'm not sure the confidence of the panelists overall, the breezy "no worries, we've got it all in hand" tone, wasn't really about presenting an aura of calm, assured leadership in front of an audience of rivals, clients, employees, potential clients and potential employees. I'm not sure it wasn't all politics and show.

Really, I'm not sure I believe any more that a panel discussion can make a difference.

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