Treat Cannes seriously, just don't take it literally
I’m finishing up what must be my 12th trip to Cannes. I decided to use all my experiences over the years to take a stab at what this weird fixture of the media business is all about. I hope it doesn’t come across as cynical. Cannes is great, if you accept it for what it is and have a deep appreciation for absurdity. Please send me your feedback and ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Cannes Lions is flummoxing for first-time visitors or those that have never been. That’s because it is many things: boondoggle, mirror on the state of the media industry, garish display of excess, an energizing but exhausting break, and an essential marketplace for overlapping sectors. There’s no one Cannes. Like most things in life (and people), it is neither all good nor all bad. It’s a jumbled mess of contradictions and hypocrisies. Over the dozen times I’ve been here, I’ve developed some rules of Cannes
The first rule is to take Cannes seriously, not literally. Over the years, I’ve had to write the dreaded “walk-up story” to Cannes and other events. The walk-up is a staple of the craft, a scene-setter piece that does the important job of justifying your trip to a fancy locale and settling a sponsor obligation. These are not fun to write. How many times can you explain that the real purpose of the event isn’t the awards or on-stage pontifications but the “meetings and behind-the-scenes dealmaking?” The good news is they were easy to write, mostly plug and play, and far less soul-sucking than having to gin up another top 25 CMOs list.
My first trip to Cannes was in 2007. That year, Microsoft took a marquee sponsorship here, emblazoning its Microsoft Advertising logo on the Palais where the awards, a conference takes place with the usual panels and keynotes and there’s an exhibition of “the work.” At that time, much of the ad industry was still lying to themselves about what tech companies were poised to do to their business. This was a time when Dove “Evolution” was a big deal, and agencies still repeated the mantra that it’s all about the big idea. The creative side of ad agencies had already ceased to be a main cash cow. Agency holding groups had gobbled up agencies, acting like private equity in squeezing efficiencies. Some creatives still groused about ad buyers and even, God forbid, their clients invading Cannes, which was supposed to be a playground for these auteurs wearing the de rigueur Fedora and white sunglasses.
But Cannes and the world was changing. Much as the center of gravity at CES moves away from its roots in the newest advances in consumer tech, Cannes has moved far beyond being about creativity and become, increasingly, about the tech used for distribution and monetization.
Cannes nowadays presents itself as a festival of creativity, but it’s really a carnival of capitalism. It is an extroverts’ paradise. It is endless coffee meetings, cocktails, lanyards and wristbands, lavish dinners and intimate dinners. Sales people love Cannes. And in truth, everyone is in sales. Cannes makes clear even celebrities have to sell. That’s why Paris Hilton was hanging around the T-Mobile Advertising cabana. It’s why Ryan Reynolds is on billboards for a connected TV company where he’s chief creative officer. We all gotta hustle. And to be fair, everyone I’ve ever spoken to about this claims, hands to heart on a linen shirt, that Cannes is extraordinarily effective for doing business. And that’s because, no matter what the promises of programmatic, the media business is more complicated than ever because so many different players need to be orchestrated as their businesses overlap. Retail media, for example, is a big deal here this year. The blurring of technology and media is now joined by a blurring with commerce.
The second rule of Cannes is that everyone needs applause. Your day to day can be a grind, but for a week you can feel like a VIP, even if you took the 210 bus from the airport instead of the copter. These kinds of “tentpole events” have long been fixtures for all sides to come together to network, do deals, have fancy dinners and, most importantly, provide the reassurance that this industry is still glamorous and those working in it are very important. You might work for a data cruncher, but you’re on a yacht in the Med.
Cannes Lions began back in the 1950s as a way for move advertisers to get the same kind of recognition afforded films.Cannes grew into a global advertising awards, attracting “delegations” from around the world. Over several years working for Adweek, I would need to attend many jury press conferences over the year, forced to sit in a rickety wooden desk chair with an arm that never came all the way down and made note-taking exceedingly difficult. Sitting in a room of 40 reporters waiting to ask questions of an ad agency exec who decided the best Cyber (?!) entries was enough to make one reconsider life choices. Sometimes the less jaded journalists would burst into applause for the jury. That’s nice, if odd. But we all need applause
The third rule of Cannes is to accept we all like to lie to ourselves. Cannes is a perfect place, in some ways, for a gathering of the media business. The town isn’t that special compared to the rest of the places on the French Riviera, but it has managed to add a whiff of mystique and glamor to attract Russian oligarchs, marginal European royalty and various members of the .001%.
Ostensibly, this is an awards show for the best of the best. But many of the ads ran in the middle of the night one or two times. Sometimes the client didn’t even know about them. This controversy of “scam ads” has lasted for decades. I’ve come to regard it as a victimless crime of mendacity. There’s a role in showing how advertising can be true commercial art without the inevitable watering down and hedging risk that comes with most every corporate-directed endeavor. Before coming to Cannes, I was in a Porto vintage store and found a stack of Brazilian editions of Popular Mechanics from the early 1960s. It’s remarkable how, before sophisticated targeting, the ads were so stylish and told actual stories. I doubt any of them would pass muster today. Pity.
The worse lies are those that are self-congratulatory on more important issues. On stage at Cannes, people hold forth on the importance of diversity, but then they head to an exclusive beach party or dinner in the hills that shows how little of that talk is put into action, particularly at the highest levels. This year, there is an increased focus on sustainability and climate change. Greenpeace has a ship bobbing offshore that advocates stopping fossil fuel advertising. They have one poor soul dressed in a furry dog costume modeled off the “Everything is fine” meme. Tough job. Some programmatic players are pushing their carbon-neutral approaches to storing and processing data. As one programmatic exec told me, it seems like there are more tangible issues for these platforms to address in terms of supporting quality content and banning disinformation sites. The freedom of speech doesn’t include the freedom of monetization.
Then again, the last time I was here in 2019, Phillip Morris had a beach exhibition heralding the arrival of a “smokeless future.” That’s the kind of jaw-dropping shape shifting that anywhere else would be lampooned. Here, all bets are off.
The fourth rule of Cannes is avoid the Gutter Bar. Cannes is notorious for its vibrant social scene. The week is filled with private outings to private islands. Dinners at villas in the hills and, for those less important, along the steep cobblestone-lined Rue Sainte Antoine in Le Suquet, Cannes’ old town that retains the feeling of its roots as a sleepy town by the sea, a far different vibe than the garish scene along La Croisette.
The Cannes party circuit reveals a pecking order. The massive beach parties thrown by the likes of Spotify are for the lower rung of Cannes attendees, the ones who sport their delegate badges even when away from the venue. Big name acts are usually featured. Amazon, for example, has LCD Soundsystem playing a party. The real action tends to be at high-end private parties, particularly the MediaLink dinner. Cannes has always had one see-and-be-seen event. For years it was the USA Today dinner, filled with top ad execs. MediaLink, the ubiquitous connector that’s seemingly everywhere, tightly controls access to the party, creating the scarcity that’s mostly missing in media since it got taken over by tech. All good, apparently.
Then there’s the Gutter Bar: 72 La Croisette, the humdrum cafe next to the Hotel Martinez, turns into a raucous party zone each night. It is known for crowds spilling into the street – this turned tragic one year – general drunkenness, terrible and overpriced drinks, grotesque restrooms, long lines and broken glass. It is very popular. Maybe there’s a metaphor there. The Gutter Bar is, I suppose, a Cannes institution. Most people who have come to Cannes have been sucked into its grips, against their better judgment and ideally not wearing open-toed shoes. I’m told it is just as heaving as ever. Cannes at middle age is a tamer affair than your friskier years.
The fifth rule of Cannes (and media) is the more glamorous businesses are usually not the most lucrative. Microsoft would lose interest in Cannes as it focused its business on enterprise software, but it was replaced by Google, then Facebook, then every platform possible set up large presences. The choicest spots in Cannes are the beach compounds set up along the Croisette, the strip of luxury hotels along the seaside promenade that unofficially ends at the Hotel Martinez. The Croisette is now lined with massive beach setups from the likes of Google, Spotify, Pinterest and Twitter. Amazon has established a massive compound here, marking its arrival as an ad juggernaut. You start to realize that these tech companies are also massive marketing machines.
The ad tech yachts in the marina are a handy metaphor in case you have to write a bleary-eyed what-it-all-means piece at the end of the week. A who’s who of the Lumascape have rented boats for parties, sparsely attends panels, client meetings and more cocktails. Ad tech overall is everywhere. It’s hard to understand how this amount of spending makes sense. It’s a bit of a disconnect at a “festival of creativity” how many of the ad tech ads here are terrible. One martech company says it’s “for the unifiers.” Another urges or invites you to “opt in — to true attention.” An ad tech firm wants me to “open your eyes to emerging channels” while I embrace “the cookieless present,” and a supply-side platform’s ice cream stand assures everyone is “built for you” and “the cherry on top of your programmatic strategy.” Finally, a mobile ad network message we can all agree on: “Apps speak louder than words.” Too true.
The entire setup can seem like bread, circuses and ad networks. The art of advertising that I saw in those old issues of Mecanica Popular in recent years has been taken over by the math of data crunching and targeting. I lamented this loss to an ad tech veteran. He responded: “I say good luck competing with computers working 24/7. I’d rather be on the other side of that bet.“
The good news is the pendulum is swinging in favor of high-quality publishers. In one panel session I hosted, breaking another of my Cannes rules to never moderate panels, a CPG executive said he recognized the need to pay more for access to quality audiences. Hope springs eternal. But the reality is the big name publishers have a small presence here in comparison to the middlemen. The WSJ House is a fixture, there are smaller spots here and there. But it’s telling, if Cannes is a barometer of the industry, that there’s a Taboola yacht while Vogue is a content marketing provider to Snap, with Vogue editor Edward Enninful working on a collection of luxury clothing pieces people can try on with augmented reality glasses. Everyone’s got bills to pay.
I think we all just want Semafor to launch. More details have dribbled out, including a vow for another crack at “reinventing” the news article. What I think is interesting is the template that’s emerging for many new digital publishers that’s seeking to find the sweet spot along the institutional-individual continuum.
I gave some optimistic thoughts on Cannes to Peter Huston for the reliably excellent Media Voices podcast.
The issue of sleeper subscribers is a thorny one for publishers. Running subscription businesses involves mastering an entirely new set of competencies, particularly in shifting your business to serving many thousands of customers versus a comparatively small number of direct relationships with an ad business.
Thanks so much for reading. It was great to meet people who subscribe both at FIPP and here in Cannes. If you have feedback, please send me a note at email@example.com. Also, and I know I’ve asked this previously, share The Rebooting with anyone you think would find it valuable.
Great article written with your usual biting, insightful and acerbic wit full of insights.
“Cannes nowadays presents itself as a festival of creativity, but it’s really a carnival of capitalism.” Great line.
I think the last time I went to Cannes was in 2016 (Unfortunately, I did end up at the Gutter Bar.) I was working for a “competing” awards show at the time. Ostensibly, we were there to conduct competitive research and make connections. In reality, we quaffed unreasonable amounts of coffee and rose, and had lots of hollow, if pleasant, exchanges. I’m sure deals get made there, but I have to wonder if the end justifies the means. Not long after that, Publicis announced its moratorium on awards shows, opting to invest in their tech instead. I’m sure it was at least partly a PR ploy, but I remember respecting them for it.
Anyway, I’ve been reading your stuff ever since I was a junior PR guy in the mid to late aughts during your Adweek days. Good to rediscover you here.