Ad Industry Critiques Cannes Lions’ Choice of Cambridge Analytica CEO as Featured Speaker

Nix once used racial slur to describe a political leader

Cambridge Analytica disbanded after it was involved in the exposure of more than 80 million Facebook users' personal data. Getty Images

The Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity announced on Wednesday that Alexander Nix, founder and former CEO of controversial data and political firm Cambridge Analytica, would be among its list of featured speakers for this year’s five-day event. Nix was forced to step down after his firm was tied to a massive data breach that exposed the private data of more than 80 million Facebook users last year, and the company later filed for insolvency.

The panel, to be moderated by Financial Times U.S. managing editor Gillian Tett, will explore the topics of personal data and political agendas.

“The content at Cannes Lions needs to inspire the industry to produce better creative work, generate better results and make the world a better place,” a spokeswoman for the Cannes festival said in a statement to Adweek. “It’s a neutral space where speakers inspire, educate and define the agenda for the industry, as well as interrogate the most critical issues. We believe that Gillian Tett will use this opportunity to ask the questions that many people want to ask around data mining, the Cambridge Analytica data breach and its implications for the industry as a whole going forward.”

"This seems like the conference version of clickbait: a session that is purposefully engineered to stir outrage."
Ana Milicevic, co-founder, Sparrow Advisers

While the Cambridge Analytica scandal alone is enough to raise eyebrows regarding Cannes’ selection of Nix, the former CEO has drawn enough criticism for controversial comments he’s made in the past to attract scrutiny.

Personal controversy

For instance, The Guardian reported last year that, in a leaked 2010 email exchange between Nix and a member of Cambridge Analytics sister company SCL Elections, the executive used the N-word to describe the prime minister of Barbados. (His firm was pitching to run election campaigns in the Caribbean at the time.) One might think that would be grounds enough for Nix to be banned from an event that has aimed to champion diversity and inclusion through initiatives such as “See It Be It.”

The Guardian report came after Nix finally testified before Parliament in June 2018, after refusing to go before British lawmakers who accused him and his firm of unethical business practices, abusing user data and playing a role in swinging the British vote to leave the European Union. During that hearing, Nix confirmed that Cambridge Analytica collected data on millions of Facebook users without their consent—data that was used in the firm’s political consulting work for U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign as well as Brexit—but denied any wrongdoing.

"I feel Cannes is shifting from a marketing/advertising festival to more of a pop culture festival."
Steve Weiss, CEO, MuteSix

He subsequently received harsh criticism for depicting himself as the victim during his June testimony, as he argued that he was targeted by a “concerted campaign” from the “global liberal media” to destroy his company.

Speaking to Adweek, several industry leaders questioned why Cannes would choose Nix as a speaker, given the accusations against him and the fact that he hasn’t provided any thoughtful discourse on the issue of data privacy in the past.

David Gross, head of digital and performance and founding partner at Anchor Worldwide, called the decision “tone deaf” on the part of Cannes.

Others suggested that the festival is purposefully trying to create buzz around the event. This morning, a press release specifically promoted his appearance.

“This seems like the conference version of clickbait: a session that is purposefully engineered to stir outrage,” said Ana Milicevic, principal and co-founder of marketing-focused consultancy Sparrow Advisers. “There’s no shortage of experts focused on the intersection of data, politics and ethics. It’s high time the advertising industry approaches this topic not as a carnival sideshow where the opinions of demonstrably bad actors are welcomed with open arms but as a serious discipline that’s integral to our relevance and future.”

Obviously, founder and CEO Mae Karwowski said she understands why Cannes would want to “generate buzz,” but that it was done in the wrong way. “Let’s do that by bringing someone who has a groundbreaking company or technology rather than a rap sheet,” she added.

“I feel Cannes is shifting from a marketing/advertising festival to more of a pop culture festival,” added Steve Weiss, CEO of digital shop MuteSix. “Having Nix speak at this year’s event is a way to sell tickets and drum up interest, which has been declining in recent years.”

Don’t call it a comeback

Weiss also predicted that Nix will use this platform to try and make a “comeback” and “increase his exposure in front of advertising honchos.”

Florian Adamski, CEO of OMD Worldwide, said he would be open to hearing Nix out only if he is willing to acknowledge that he “made a deliberate decision to undermine [public] trust, weaponizing technology to spread disinformation and dissension.”

“At OMD, we believe that earning and sustaining public trust is our fundamental priority as marketers,” Adamski explained. “As an organization that believes technology should be a means to achieving empathy, we would welcome an honest dialogue about the ethics of balancing what we can do with technology versus what we should do. That will, of course, depend on whether Mr. Nix has now learned the difference—if not, we’d have no interest in hearing him defend the indefensible.”

“From an event-programming perspective, Cannes Lions has a responsibility to give hard-hitting topics in the creative industry a platform and a voice.”
Shannon Simpson Jones and Yadira Harrison, co-founders, Verb

Aaron Walton, co-founder of Walton Isaacson, offered a similar take. “Best-case scenario, the message is a mea culpa of sorts and the controversy stirs up productive conversation,” he said. “Worst-case scenario, Nix tries to defend himself and stirs up divisive dialogue. Either way, his behavior was indefensible, and the industry needs to stop catering to a predictable profile and not miss out on opportunities to reflect progress in messaging and messengers.”

Not everyone was as appalled by the selection, though.

Canvas Worldwide CEO Paul Woolmington said including Nix makes sense, “as Cambridge Analytica was one of the biggest stories of 2018,” especially for marketers trying to navigate the use of consumer data. He argued that having Nix there is “not in any way an endorsement by Cannes.”

Shannon Simpson Jones and Yadira Harrison, co-founders of Verb—an agency/consultancy that focuses on integrated and experiential campaigns, brand partnerships and proprietary platforms for clients—said in a collective statement to Adweek that ensuring Nix’s presentation does not “feel like an endorsement” will be key.

From an event-programming perspective, Cannes Lions has a responsibility to give hard-hitting topics in the creative industry a platform and a voice, so it makes sense to welcome Alexander Nix and Cambridge Analytica to the conversation,” the duo said. “Ultimately, the festival is a forum for discussion, and if we can’t have intellectual discourse and welcome disagreement, then what’s the point?”

@kitten_mouse Lindsay Rittenhouse is a staff writer at Adweek, where she specializes in covering the world of agencies and their clients.