As Lions Live begins, WARC’s reporter looks back at what Cannes Lions has always been about and what this year’s digital event shows: advertising is all about solving problems.
I was first sent to cover Cannes Lions in 2017, and, in all truth, I wasn’t looking forward to it. I was staring down the barrel of a 7:00am flight, for which I was beholden to the flimsy timekeeping of Thameslink’s north western branch toward Luton. It wasn’t my only delay. My flight was packed with people who, like me, needed to be in the South of France for a meeting in 20 minutes time and we were still on the tarmac. I remember something about a faulty coffee machine.
It starts fast, as it means to go on. There’s a sensation, throughout, that you’re lurching from one near-crisis to another. Or perhaps, you’re simply showing up to someone else’s crisis. That first year, I was perpetually lost, always about five minutes away from where I needed to be. While the event exuded a Riviera glamour, I’d argue that the reality was more comforting. Once you realised that everyone was somewhere beyond their comfort zone.
We can’t pretend that it’s not fun – I don’t think anyone kids themselves about that – but crisis sits at the centre of the Cannes experience.
Every year has seen one big agenda-setting story that has cast the industry in some new light. 2017 was marked by the Snapchat-sponsored Ferris wheel towering over the beaches that would once have been ruled by agencies - it made for an obvious colour-piece. This creeping reality was further underlined by the weird announcement – on the Tuesday of the festival – that Publicis Groupe was going to build a platform to connect its 80,000 employees, and would be pulling out of the festival for one year to pay for it.
And yet, 12 months later, CEO Arthur Sadoun, along with his Strategy and Creative Chiefs, Carla Serrano and Nick Law, took to the Lumiere stage to give a progress report on their own crisis. All were careful to point out that no expenses were being claimed.
Much of this pointed to the broader conversation taking hold during 2018. Agency lunches were now coveted by a very different type of professional services beast. You could see it over the Palais, on the lanyards, there were even some networking bracelets: the management consultancies were coming to stake a claim in marketing. And they had yachts.
They also had the thing that everybody wanted: a seat at the top table and trust from senior executives beyond marketing. This was the rallying cry for Sir Martin Sorrell’s incredibly swift return to the advertising fray just a few weeks after his and WPP’s own crisis. The new venture, S4 Capital, he said, was “going to try and deal at the highest levels” of its clients’ organisations. The consultants were the ones to admire.
Last year, the problems seemed more existential. Droga5, a famous creative shop, was bought by Accenture Interactive, further complicating the conversation. But a bigger question was coming into view. What was the discipline of marketing about? Not only did 2019 see in a more nuanced conversation about capitalism’s relationship with the environment and its responsibility to society, it was also about a realisation that the job itself was metamorphosing before its practitioners’ eyes.
Amid all this, the sight of the press room never failed to impress. Even compared with other major international business events, there are a lot of journalists. A Mexican publication had made special t-shirts for its staff. The Brazilian media always made a strong impression, and not only for their big numbers. In 2018, during the World Cup, their bright yellow jerseys formed a dazzling column as they queued up to interview Burger King’s Fernando Machado, then serving as jury president for the Creative Effectiveness Lions. The national team were playing that day.
Fashionable as it is to roll eyes at the idea of a week in a lovely setting, that week mostly serves to remind me of the people I work with, and how good it is to have them around when it all hits the fan. That’s what gets celebrated at the end of those long days: the end of running around and writing, the end of a day of hustling, or of pulling off what we thought of as WARC Day. What began as our modest presence, with the extremely hard work of my colleagues in WARC marketing, grew to one of the highlights of the festival (I’m more than a little biased). I was proud of how our little brand was packing out big rooms: we were saying something people wanted to hear.
If the advertising business is good at anything, it’s good at solving problems and making the whole thing look stylish, beautiful even. Lions Live is taking the place of the physical festival during a year that we will remember for the rest of our lives, trying to overcome this current crisis and learn from those solving the problems it poses in new ways. WARC will be there.