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This week, more than 12,000 members of the ad industry will descend on the South of France in their yearly pilgrimage to honor the craft and celebrate the importance of advertising.
In many ways, Cannes is a perfect reflection of the ad industry. The city itself is glamorous and beautiful, yet downright gauche and a little scruffy at times. The week of seemingly non-stop events and parties is inspiring and fun, while at the same time depressing in its ephemeral hedonism.
It is tempting, even easy, to say Cannes is an anachronism, a bit of Mad Men nostalgia for a once-raffish industry losing its sexy allure. But the truth is more complicated. Cannes, like the industry it celebrates, continues to change, with its far greater emphasis on digital and integration, an influx of clients and agency executives, and the creeping in of success metrics as judging criteria.
The conundrum for Cannes is the same for the industry, says Ty Montague, co-president and chief creative officer of JWT New York: It needs new blood. "Our business is upside down these days," he says. "The people with the most experience and most seniority are the people least qualified to lead the business forward."
Cannes, like the industry, Montague notes, hasn't shifted fast enough. Which doesn't mean it's going away, and not just, he says, because of the "bottomless well of ego." For all its warts, he notes, Cannes also represents something more.
"Paying attention to telling the story through every conceivable medium and most particularly through the actual physical experience of using the product is more important than before," claims Montague. "The future is bright for our business."
For now, however, Cannes, like the industry, is an old institution struggling to reinvent itself in a new-media environment, not to mention in an economic downturn. When it was first dreamed up in 1954, the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival was unabashedly modeled on the more famous film festival that precedes it. The idea of the festival is squarely centered around "the work," the art side of the art and science that is advertising. It's no coincidence that the crescendo of the week is the Film awards, drawing rowdy crowds that start lining up hours in advance for a shot at getting a seat inside the Palais des Festivals.
A significant sideshow is the parties, some small and intimate, others big and loud. Evenings begin in many places, but in Cannes they end at the Gutter Bar. The Hotel Martinez next door recently told The New York Times
that it sells more alcohol during the week the ad folks are in town than in the two weeks of the movie festival.
If there's a case to be made against Cannes, it starts with Google. The company one media agency exec dismissed just three years ago as "the Valpak of the Internet" is now the dominant force in online advertising -- the fastest-growing segment of the industry. Its success can be seen as the anti-Cannes strategy. Rather than kowtow to agencies, Google uses technology for media planning. Instead of the big idea, Google executives believe their algorithms can do a better job matching advertisers to customers.
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