Art & Commerce: A Serious Good Time

Where I live, near Wall Street in Manhattan, most of the other guys I have met as fellow dads taking their children to school are quite jealous of what I do for a living. Nearly all of them work, you guessed it, on Wall Street. They’re not jealous of the money I earn, of course, but just of what I do, which to every single one of them seems like great fun: coming up with ideas to sell things. And I guess they’re right. In fact, the whole marketing side of business is the fun part of business. I think all the best and most successful ad people and marketers go about their business with a sense of fun: After all, our mission is to communicate to people everything there is to enjoy about products, brands and services.

Which brings me to, in my view, one of the most fun events in the yearly calendar, the Cannes global advertising festival, which is taking place this week. This festival is to many the most authoritative and important global digest of all that’s best and newest in our business, culminating in the judging and awarding of coveted Cannes Lions in Olympian bronze, silver and gold. Cannes, as the festival is universally known, was actually created in a different, more relaxed time, when the advertising business, and indeed business in general, wasn’t quite the piranha tank it is now, with a sense that there was no need to get too stressed out because there was enough to go around for everybody. In those days, the ad world’s fat cats descended on Cannes in their rented open-top Ferraris in a haze of Havana cigar smoke to sip pink Champagne on the Carlton Hotel terrace or in the Colombe d’Or restaurant for a week, while somewhere in the bowels of the Palais des Festivals, a polite, geo-politically aware group of august gentlemen politely awarded gongs to their fellow countrymen, regardless of such vulgar criteria as merit.

Cannes’ quasi-myth has it that this all changed in the mid-1980s, when John Hegarty was chairman of the Film jury. (Cannes was only about TV until relatively recently.) One day early in the week, it is said, the coziness of the jury room was shattered, as Hegarty and other officials entered and delivered the stern warning that if there were any “regional bloc” voting—i.e., Europeans voting for European spots, or Latin Americans voting for each other, etc.—that the guilty would be publicly dismissed from the jury.

Virtually overnight, Cannes became a very serious competition. More and more agencies entered, more and more categories and events and workshops and seminars were added. The seminars given in the Palais became more numerous and more interesting: This year, Al Gore is there, as is that marketing guru (?!?!) and soccer legend Bobby Charlton, and the brilliant author of Funky Business, Kjell Nordstrom. As corporately naive as ad agencies are compared to real businesses, they cannot resist boasting about what they do and how they do it to a degree unheard of in other industries; and so attending Cannes seminars and workshops is almost like sponsored industrial espionage. I personally always look forward to the dark lord Bob Greenberg’s annual exposition of his new plan to conquer the universe.

Unsurprisingly, all this has attracted more and more clients—serious, major clients. As you know, the presence of clients renders traditional ad-agency management insane in many different and amusing ways. These ad people live in a constant state of potential antibiosis with their clients. Every encounter is a possibility for something to go horribly wrong. To these unfortunates, clients are not normal people like you and me but Martians: odd, potentially lethal creatures who may react to any sudden move with extreme prejudice. These agency folk are terrified of the mere idea that a client would think they are having fun, while at the same time understanding that Cannes is a fantastic learning experience for everyone, an experience that a client could be forever grateful that you introduced them to, while at the same time being terrified that their clients may meet smarter, cleverer, better-looking and -smelling and more famous agency people than you, while at the same time fearing that if they don’t invite a client, a rival might, while at the same time being aware that didn’t a P&G agency recently invite that client to Cannes, and P&G were so inspired by the spirit of creativity that they promptly awarded Old Spice to Wieden + Kennedy? You get the picture. Torture.

The Anglo-Saxons are particularly conflicted about Cannes. This year, the U.K.’s Campaign magazine has a piece titled, “Cannes: Is it just an excuse to party?”

Can you imagine such a presbyterian utterance coming from the mouth of a Latin American? The Latinos know how to do Cannes. They have a blast. Is there any connection between this ability to have fun and the fact that the Latin American community continues to be the most vibrant and exciting source of creative talent in the world—particularly in all the new media?

For my part, I am taking a bunch of my most creative people so that they can immerse themselves in the best of the world’s creative thinking. I consider the learning they get to be brilliant ROI for my clients. Since France has electricity and telephones and computers, I expect they will be able to do whatever work they have to do, although I have warned them that any outward signs of having fun must be carefully controlled in the event of Martians.