About That Weird Line in the Cannes Lions Cancellation Announcement

By Doug Zanger 

In a time like this, advertising is equally incredibly important and not that important at all, depending on the situation or who you ask. Communication, and the use of language, is crucial. There is no time to waste any words, and empathy is most welcome, especially within an advertising community cracking under the strain of a global pandemic.

Most awards shows have made their decisions, most notably D&AD and The One Show. Both are continuing with remote judging, so, in effect, the show is still on, albeit in the new normal of being done via the web.

“We believe that the best work of the last 12 months still deserves to be awarded. Our distinguished jurors will assemble—digitally, of course—to judge this year’s entries (though we are hopeful that in-person judging will still take place for some categories),” said D&AD CEO Patrick Burgoyne.


The industry then waited to see what was going to happen with the granddaddy of them all: Cannes. The plan was to wisely wait until October to hold the festival, but it seemed a shaky proposition at best. However, instead of continuing with some kind of remote awards program, the organization pulled the plug on the whole shebang until June 2021.

In a statement, the organizers said: “As the impact from COVID-19 continues to be felt across the world on consumers and our customers across the marketing, creative and media industries, it has become clear to us our customers’ priorities have shifted to the need to protect people, to serve consumers with essential items and to focus on preserving companies, society and economies.”

But here’s where it got weird. Cannes Lions chairman Philip Thomas added: “Cannes Lions at its core has always been about creativity and the Lions. We realize that the creative community has other challenges to face, and simply isn’t in a position to put forward the work that will set the benchmark.”

Thomas’ choice of wording, and the decision to ignore the past 12 months of work, didn’t sit well with some.

“It really upset me to read the excuse they used. I think it was really disingenuous,” said Laura Jordan-Bambach, a frequent Cannes attendee, winner and judge. “I think there’s loads of interesting and great stuff that’s happening with [COVID-19] and, also, most of the work that would have been entered was done way before [the pandemic]. In any year, we should be celebrating the work because that’s how we move forward.”

On Twitter, London freelancer Nathalie Gordon excoriated the statement and pointed out, quite reasonably, how hard the industry is working, saying: “In many ways, I’ve never felt prouder. The work is good Cannes, it’s your attitude that stinks.”

Awards programs, like them or not, are one of the core drivers of the industry, especially with talent. Peer recognition is a kind of oxygen for creatives, and getting a pat on the back for a job well done isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Of course, there are a billion schools of thought on the importance of awards. On their own, they can be a decent way to build one’s reputation (full disclosure: earlier in my career, being recognized for the work helped land slightly better salaries).

However, the largesse that seems to emerge from these programs, especially Cannes, tends to raise the ire of those toiling in the day-to-day. People hemmed up in an office each June could care less about whether or not someone is on a yacht in the South of France or drinking a $40 glass of questionable rosé. In some ways, Cannes Lions is the Harrods of awards shows … fun to look at, but generally inaccessible for most.

Yes, I’ve gone nine times, enjoy telling the stories that come out of the week and meeting people I would otherwise probably never encounter in person. I also very much like the Cannes team, especially the women who lead communications. But, let’s be honest, if it weren’t for my employers, I wouldn’t go. I’d likely be putting that money toward more mundane things like a mortgage and college savings plans.

On the other hand, Cannes is widely considered one of the most important creative events on the industry calendar. Yes, it’s an expensive and massive investment, but like its counterparts, is a vital way for the global creative industry to get together and further push creativity to its most useful purpose: solving problems, whether they are for a brand or, most crucially now, to communicate in the midst of one of history’s most challenging times. There is great value in Cannes after one strips back the beaches, cabanas and excess.

Of course, here’s the thing about word choice and semantics. It doesn’t matter what was written—the words are out there, and people are interpreting it in their own ways, which is entirely fair. The problem is that this is more fuel for an already raging fire about the efficacy of awards in the first place, and especially Cannes.

We’re all feeling a little down and out. After the initial adrenaline of the first weeks of WFH/WTF, we’re settling into a grim reality that, simply put, sucks. Perhaps treading with a little more empathy—and picking words more wisely—Cannes, a creative leader, could have prevented an already smoldering pile of opinion from flaring up and given us all a tailwind we so desperately need.