Why Cannes Lions Is a Showcase of Marketing’s Future

Reluctant newbie attendee sees transformation in winning ideas

The only thing that hasn’t experienced disruption at Cannes appears to be the award categories themselves.

As a former technology entrepreneur and a management consultant, I never planned on going into advertising. When Huge started out as a small digital design studio just over a decade ago, we all believed we worked in a completely different industry and that the real “creativity” in advertising was how traditional agencies convinced clients to spend so much money on TV.

We were doing something different: helping brands disrupt themselves by combining design, technology and a relentless focus on creating experiences that perfectly met user needs. It was about creating utility that people loved; the very ingredients required for companies to succeed in our increasingly digital world.

Aaron Shapiro

When our marketing teams would lobby me with a business case to make time for Cannes (“Everyone’s doing it!”), I was happy to point to a pre-scheduled family vacation as my excuse for bailing. To me, a CEO of a digital agency, a “celebration of creativity” on a beach in France sounded a lot like a distraction from a bygone era at best and—more likely—a celebration of BS and a waste of time and money. And perhaps more importantly, it didn’t seem representative of our agency’s “user-centric” mentality and ethos; Cannes didn’t seem to be about utility and driving business results by making things that solve people’s problems in elegantly simple and loved ways.

But today’s world looks nothing like it did 10 years ago and neither does our business, or what our clients—and subsequently what their customers—need. Clients no longer have time or the appetite for boundaries between different types of agencies. Marketing decision makers have seized the mandate for digital transformation and the lines between product and marketing, utility and storytelling, have blurred to the point that with the right client, the right team, and the right brief, they no longer exist. Huge’s own success and current advantage in the marketplace lies in years of hard work we have done to get the best of product and marketing to work together, creating an end-to-end solution which is what I believe it takes to create and scale real business transformation for clients.

Today’s most creative ideas must feature the convergence of product and marketing, storytelling and utility, all enabled by digital.

So with digital making its way into every part of marketing, this year I agreed it was time to see what the Cannes fuss was about. I expected to find a boondoggle and an excuse not to go back. Instead, what I saw gives me hope for the future of our industry. Rather than the gimmicks and fads that have shaped my impression of previous Cannes festivals, this year, juries awarded ideas and products that leveraged technology to aggressively challenge conceptions about how companies, brands, and organizations communicate and what marketing is and can be.

As a Cannes-newbie, it was inspiring to walk through the Palais and see an industry that used to stigmatize digital work embrace it so wholeheartedly, to the point that nearly every winning idea is now digital (if not always user) first. While many might still consider Cannes to be a festival about film, it’s really about innovation. I saw a genuine celebration of the kind of disruption digital agencies like Huge have always championed:

  • Fearless Girl and Unsafety Check were both simple, bold ideas designed for social which sparked important conversations across people’s filter bubbles.
  • Snapchat’s Spectacles demonstrated how to get wearables right, market your brand and evolve your company into something bigger at the same time.
  • TigoUne’s PayPhone Bank used technology to solve real-world problems for people in ways that we would be proud to have worked on at Huge.
  • MRM’s Voice Stamp combined multiple technologies to make the U.S. Postal Service relevant by ensuring no one has to visit a post office again.

What unifies all of this work is the fact that it doesn’t culminate with great storytelling; it starts with it. The story has become the departure point to create new products and services, to make things, that not only brings the story to life, but also creates real value and utility, and has a positive impact on the lives of those who experience it.

Once upon a time, Instagram or Uber would have been viewed as small, little apps that, if things went well, would have been lucky to be shortlisted in the mobile category. Of course, those products and many others have shown that mobile or digital experiences can be the most disruptive forces in the world. No film has this much power. It’s exciting to see Cannes winners reflect this new reality.

The only thing that hasn’t experienced disruption at Cannes appears to be the award categories themselves. As an agency that won Lions across multiple categories, it is hard to know the difference from one category to the next. I know it has been a trend for many years, but when the top work consistently wins across multiple discipline-oriented categories: PR, media, outdoor, mobile, cyber, design, data, etc., don’t the disciplines themselves become arbitrary and meaningless?

Marian Brannelly
It was inspiring to walk through the Palais and see an industry that used to stigmatize digital work embrace it so wholeheartedly.

It’s no longer “crazy” for a digital agency to make TV spots, to do PR or even outdoor, because it is all the same: a single big idea and story that is activated across all points of contact between user and company. Today’s most creative ideas must feature the convergence of product and marketing, storytelling and utility, all enabled by digital. Convergence is creativity and creativity is disruption.

How could Cannes be even better? Next year, the organizers should consider disrupting themselves by sunsetting discipline categories and moving to industry-based categories. Such a move would create a more relevant consideration set for judging, as companies in a given industry are all exposed to the same forces of digital disintermediation at the same time, forcing innovation.

Industry-centric judging would allow us to look at great creativity in the face of similar business constraints.

It allows us to see how creativity solves some of the most pressing business challenges of our time: how can our industry help retailers respond to the threat of Amazon?  How can financial services respond to millennial’s interest in social responsibility? How can we help established CPG companies win in a world where items like razors are becoming services?

The next great agency and next great set of creatives will solve those kind of pressing problems. It’s the kind of work I hope the future of Cannes will celebrate.

 Aaron Shapiro (@amshap) is CEO of Huge.