The Lion Wrangler: How Philip Thomas Keeps Cannes Lions Ahead of the Game

His balancing act, and his favorite moment from the festival

As CEO of the Lions Festivals since 2006, Philip Thomas has known he needs advertising's biggest annual gathering, the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, to stay one step ahead of the changes that have rocked that world since the turn of the millennium. It's not always been easy or successful, but he's overseen annual growth, especially from non-European markets. The journalist-turned-suit (he was managing director of FHM and ran Emap's Australian and Southeast Asian regions before running the Lions) has also had to contend with greater competition among those honoring advertising, as the Clio Awards (Adweek's corporate sibling), SXSW and CES have all stepped up their game. Still, anyone in the ad business who says they don't want to stroll the Croisette in June, dreaming of Lions, is a liar.

Adweek: People have said for years that Cannes Lions is getting too big. How do you respond to that?
Thomas: There's a number of ways of looking at it. Is it getting too big for the city of Cannes? We have around 15,000 delegates for the week. The film festival has around 150,000 across two weeks. So as far as what the city can cope with, we're by no means the biggest. And then there's the issue of, is there too much to do while you're there? Our view is, the more people who are there, the more interesting it is. The growth has come from emerging markets and different types of businesses—media, design, digital, ad tech—which add a richness. And if we did decide it was too big, how would you cap that? You'd have to make it very, very, very expensive, and we don't want to do that.

As showcases for marketing creativity, SXSW and CES are also growing. Are they a threat to Cannes Lions?
CES is pure consumer tech, and SXSW is a mashup of lots of interesting things. They are a threat in that more and more marketers and agencies are going, and those people have a limited amount of time to attend events. But really, the heart of Cannes is about the work. It's about the Lions and the inspiration that comes from that work. Creativity is at the heart of our brand, and there's nowhere else in the world you can get that.

The Croisette is becoming a string of social network cabanas. How do you keep Cannes from becoming mostly a tech conference?
We don't want to be a tech conference. There are plenty of those. Before the financial crisis, it was the ad agencies having the parties and taking the beaches. The ecosystem has grown—now we have designers, music people, lots of clients, PR and media people. The social networks are the ones spending the most money, probably. They're the most visible on the Croisette. But that masks the richness of the ecosystem. There's a huge maelstrom of different types of people.

How do you balance celebrities and agency issues on the main stages?
It's a really good question. There are, broadly, three types of content. The first is a creative person from a different industry who can shine a light on creativity from a different angle—directors, music stars, actors. Second, we have just really interesting thinkers, whether it's Malcolm Gladwell or Bill Clinton—people who've got something interesting to say. And third, you've got your advertising creative rock stars, your David Drogas and Lee Clows and John Hegartys. What's interesting, when we do our research, is that the most popular speeches are those creative legends from the industry. So we like to have lots of those, but we try to have a mix. On the celebrity side, it doesn't always work, and there's nothing worse than getting that wrong—to have people think, I just wasted 45 minutes of my life because some movie star has told me nothing at all.

Which countries or regions have impressed you creatively in recent years?
We've had the first Grand Prix from many countries, like India, China—and last year, Russia. Costa Rica, Guatemala, Vietnam, Tunisia, Lebanon—these places are winning five, six, seven Lions now where even five years ago they didn't win any at all. The countries that are really smashing it right now are from Latin America. Brazil has always been a powerhouse of creativity, but smaller countries like Ecuador, Colombia and Mexico are doing well. Peru didn't win a Lion from 1954 until 2010. Last year they won a Grand Prix.

Your ad campaign this year tells agencies to send people who are underperforming, instead of firing them. That's tongue-in-cheek, but it's not a bad idea is it?
Cannes does change people. It changes people forever, really. There's nothing like it in the world for recharging your creative batteries. We're only half-joking with that campaign. Whether you're great and you want to get greater or you really want to push your people to get better, we think Cannes is the place to do that.

The Glass Lion is new this year. Why was it the right time for that?
It's based on an insight that [Facebook COO] Sheryl Sandberg gave us, which is that whatever you can do with legislation or laws, it can only have a limited effect. To change things properly, you have to change culture. And advertising and marketing, along with movies, is maybe the most powerful tool to change culture. The Glass Lion is an attempt to highlight how advertising and marketing can change the culture by changing the way people see themselves. Gender is the first issue we'll be addressing. There may be another issue that comes along after that. But the point is, what can our industry do to take responsibility for the way people live their life? And if you look at the Dove work or the P&G work with "Like a Girl," the gender issue just feels very relevant right now.

Do you have a favorite moment from the festival?
I do. A few years ago, I was asked by Nestlé to show their CEO, Paul Bulcke, around the festival. He had his entire 23-person marketing team trailing around him. We were downstairs in the Palais and we were near the Design Lions shortlist exhibition, and he saw this piece of work—a piece of packaging for a battery company. And he was just like a little kid when he saw it. He thought it was the best thing he had seen in his life. He pulled over his whole team, and they were taking photographs of it and talking about how they could adapt the idea. It was so wonderful to see somebody of his stature being inspired by the work that gets shortlisted. For me, that was the whole point of our entire festival in one moment.

What's the biggest challenge facing the Cannes Lions going forward?
It's the same challenge we've always had. In a fast-changing, fluid environment, where one week is different from the next, our biggest challenge is to remain relevant while retaining our core value of creativity. If you think about our data and tech innovation festival, it's about positioning that to be relevant to the modern world, to embrace ad tech and technology and data but always bring it back to the heart of what we do, which is creativity. And that's actually a very difficult balancing act.