After Protests at Cannes, Creative Leaders Say Climate Change Must Become a Priority

'A wake-up call in this setting of rosé, big ships and helicopters'

Much of Cannes' reputation stems from the opulence on display, but can it also become a hub of climate-change activism? Sean T. Smith for Adweek
Headshot of David Griner

CANNES, France—From almost any angle, the unavoidable backdrop of Cannes is a sprawling flotilla of cruise ships and megayachts. Black helicopters buzz endlessly back and forth, shuttling executives to and from the Cannes Lions festival. It is a place largely defined by inescapable excess.

While the juries at this year’s Cannes Lions certainly awarded work that championed social and environmental causes, few could say the festival conveyed any sense of urgency on the topic of climate change, despite the dire threats faced worldwide via warming oceans, mass extinctions and rapidly changing ecosystems.

A 2018 study by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted catastrophic loss of coral reefs and global crises from flooding and famine as soon as 2040, but the science panel’s attempts to raise alarm bells has met with limited success in the months since.

Protestors from London-based Extinction Rebellion tried to elevate the visibility of climate change at the Cannes Lions by waging demonstrations everywhere from the Palais to the beaches. Local authorities and security teams quickly dispersed such protests, most visibly detaining about a dozen activists on the festival’s famed red carpet.

But judging from conversations held with industry leaders across advertising as the global festival wound down, the protests might have been successful in sparking the kind of dialogue the activists had hoped for.

Per Pedersen, global creative chairman of Grey, brought Pussy Riot to Cannes in 2017 as presenters with the goal of “teaching Cannes to be more activist in their mindset—that we can’t just do advertising.” He said activism and conflicting ideas, even in the form of protest, play an important role in motivating the industry to improve the world.

“Having protesters here is a reminder that we’re being scrutinized like everything else in the world,” he said. “Our brands are being scrutinized, the products that they’re selling are being scrutinized, the things we’re doing are being scrutinized, our ethics are being scrutinized—and I think that’s a good thing.”

Pedersen said the protests should serve as an important reminder to creative leaders that there are more pressing issues than just clever ads and yacht parties.

“I think it’s fair,” he said of the protesters’ message, “and a wake-up call in this setting of rosé, big ships and helicopters is totally valid.”

Asked if the industry is doing enough to address climate change,  Joan Creative CCO Jaime Robinson was blunt in both her assessment: “No, no, no, we’re not.”

Robinson, president of this year’s Glass Lions jury, said she would like to see the topic’s priority elevated noticeably at the 2020 Cannes Lions.

“I’m personally hoping it becomes a big push for the following year,” she said. “Climate change is one of those things that seems like it’s so far away, but it’s not.”

“What’s our portion of the responsibility? I think it’s big. We’re an industry that spurs commercialism, buying things that people don’t necessarily need.”
Colleen DeCourcy, co-president, Wieden + Kennedy

Several creative leaders noted that the advertising industry is far from alone in terms of not doing enough to address climate change and that addressing the issue will require involvement from clients, NGOs, governments and more.

“As a species, one of the things we do is wait until it’s too late. It’s just how humans are,” said David Lubars, CCO of BBDO and president of this year’s Titanium Lions jury. “So I don’t think anybody on Earth is doing enough. I think this industry can work hard to do more, but it’s a bigger issue than this industry.”

David Droga, founder and creative chairman of Droga5, spent the week of the Cannes Lions immersed in work aimed at combatting social and environmental obstacles around the world. As president of the SDG Lions jury—honoring work that helps the United Nations achieve its Sustainable Development Goals—he saw a wide range of attempts at effecting positive change.

“It gave us hope and also chills,” he said of the work.

But Droga said many creative cause-marketing concepts are about generating awareness of an issue, rather than creating a practical solution that could directly address the problems. His SDG Lions jury wanted to reward the latter.

“Particularly in relation to the planet and the environment, there’s lots of action that’s about driving awareness, and that wasn’t enough for us,” he said. “Sometimes we think media impressions and awareness are enough. Where we started to get excited is where we started to see actions put in place.”

Droga said he wants that kind of thinking around practical solutions to be “at the heart of everything—from school classrooms to festivals.”

“We’ve got to connect it with what people can do or have to do,” he said, “not just what would be nice to do.”

To that end, this year’s SDG Lions Grand Prix went to “The Lion’s Share,” from Australia’s Clemenger BBDO in partnership with Mars Australia. The campaign urges brands to set aside a portion of their media spends to help with conservation efforts:

Colleen DeCourcy, co-president of Cannes Lions Agency of the Year Wieden + Kennedy, said she believes the marketing world has an obligation to get more assertive in addressing problems that are often exacerbated by consumer culture.

“What’s our portion of the responsibility? I think it’s big,” she said. “We’re an industry that spurs commercialism, buying things that people don’t necessarily need.”

DeCourcy issued a challenge to the creative industry to devote more time to crafting sincere and effective initiatives and less time on clever-but-inconsequential projects aimed at winning awards.

“I think the money and effort we spend on novelty—on nonsustainable efforts—is money and time that we should be putting into doing things that matter more. That’s the 20% of our industry’s effort that’s spent doing novel things that might win at Cannes, that we could all be putting toward things like racial inequity and climate change,” she said.

“I think we should do our work and do our work well.  I think we should do our work with a conscience. I think we should make the money go as far as it can and make the ideas as big as we can. As for the junk-drawer stuff, our efforts would be better pointed at things that are more meaningful than just trying to win an award at Cannes.”

@griner David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."