‘Cannes Has Changed’ and ‘Content Isn’t King’

Anomaly’s Carl Johnson returns to the festival

     Carl Johnson, co-founder of Anomaly, a marketing communications firm and advertising agency, isn’t actually staying in Cannes. He’s staying at the historic Hotel du Cap in Antibes, an extravagant celebrity destination since the early days of Hemingway. Johnson has a bit of the Hemingway in him himself, insofar as he has a gut and some stubble, curses somewhat liberally, and actually says what he thinks. In a town—he drove in to Cannes for our interview—where so many people are repeating variations on familiar themes, he made for a refreshing lunch partner.

      Johnson, now in his early 50s, hadn’t been to Cannes for over a decade. After Sept. 11, 2001, the then-COO of TBWA\Worldwide packed up the family and moved from New York to Sydney, where he spent two years “on the beach.” He only got back into advertising in 2004, when he started Anomaly: the firm or agency or whatever you want to call it—he prefers “a place for clients to go when they don’t know where to go”—that is responsible not only for successful Budweiser, Converse, and Sony campaigns, but for the Emmy-winning television show Avec Eric, the experience of flying Virgin America (down to the interior, the uniforms, and the entertainment), and all the posters and stickers around New York City for a soccer team that doesn’t even exist . . . yet. In 2010, Adweek picked Anomaly as one of six top insurgent agencies to watch.

     “It was always important to me that if I gave up living in Australia—which, to be honest, was fucking hard—it had to be for something really meaningful to me,” he said. “So Anomaly was a deliberate attempt to say, ‘All this crap is wrong, all these silos are a barrier to the right types of ideas. Ad agencies, design agencies, digital agencies, media agencies—all these things have changed. And yet we’ve got these big silos that don’t like each other, don’t talk to each other, can’t collaborate, can’t share . . . In order to be a compelling new model agency, you had to break that.”

    Given that point of view, Johnson didn’t see any point in coming to Cannes. “When we were starting Anomaly, I thought this was the definition of the past, and therefore had no interest in coming here and confirming how crappy it was,” he said. “But it has changed.”

     How?

     “It’s changed primarily in that it’s moved from a gigantic agency party, which it used to be 10, 15, 20 years ago. It was basically a global, fantastic, drunken party, with talent from all around the world. Now, principally because of the introduction of clients, and a more serious agenda, you’re going to learn more here, not just get drunk.”

     He qualified that: “You’re still going to get drunk, but you’re going to learn more. It’s much, much less indulgent. It used to be a party for the awards; it’s now a worldwide gathering of talented people . . . talking about the ideas that matter. I came here thinking it was just going to be a fuss; I’m leaving here thinking it’s essential that we come back.”

     We were sitting at a table on the terrace of the Carlton Hotel, which is to Cannes Lions’ wealthier delegates what Rick’s was to Casablanca. Arguably, you could meet everyone you wanted to meet at this festival without leaving your table. (Ours, incidentally, had been offered to us by Arianna Huffington.) But that also had something to do with the fact that so much of what was being said on stage sounded the same. The chances of getting through a lecture in Cannes without hearing a CEO or CMO or COO talk about the importance of “content” was about as good as your chances of getting a helicopter ride out to a yacht, which is to say, roughly one in 20.

     I asked Johnson how he felt about the notion that “content is king.”

     “I don’t agree with that,” he said. “I think it sends you down the wrong track. I’d say the emphasis is on relevance and usefulness. The danger with the content story is—the most powerful thing you could do to me as a brand if I went to [a music festival] is you could chill my beer for me. If you pursue ‘content,’ you won’t come up with that idea. And if you go to the airport and get power from Nokia or Sony, that’s much more meaningful to me as a brand. I think content steers you away from that. I think content is a subset of that, if it’s relevant and useful. But the more fundamental thing is for brands to have a meaningful relationship and engagement with their audience.”

     Here was something else. And that, of course, is what Anomaly set out to be. But it’s been seven years since 2004, and in the new landscape, there are many agencies that describe themselves as “not an agency” and talk about “breaking down silos.” So how long can Anomaly continue to be an anomaly?

     “Right now, you’d have to have your head in the sand to not get the change that is needed,” Johnson said. “A lot of people have made a lot of change, so we have to continue to change. An anomaly is a deviation from the norm; the norm is changing. So our need to continue to pioneer will mean we will have to continue to be the forerunner. . . . But if you have commitment to quality, and you’re willing to put your balls on the line, it’s there to be had.”