Bullshit On Cannes: Ghost Ads, Cannes Farms And Cannes Itself Isn’t Going To Listen To The Industry

By SuperSpy 

Cannes has come and gone. The festival officially ended in late June, but the ad world is still aflutter with cries of foul. One question has been filtering to the top of blogs and ad magazines: What to do about Cannes?

This year’s festival like the many that have gone before had the annual outing of fake ads beginning, but not ending with JC Penney’s “Speed Dressing.” The dark side of client dabbling also hit the spotlight when Amnesty International ran an ad just once in order to qualify for the awards.


These dust-ups have lived beyond the life of the festival and regenerated across the blogosphere with new details and bold speculation attached. In the internet age, where everyone is a journalist, twitter confirms rumors and nosy blogs (just like this one) look to entertain, skeletons in the Cannes closet will continue to filter to the top of Google rankings. What once was privy to those in the industry is now fodder for everyone to enjoy – like it or not. So, what are we going to do about it? As R/GA CCO Nick Law put it in Adweek, it “is first and foremost a business. It will do what it has to do to survive.” Really? Then they best get on it.

After the jump, see what Cannes is prepared or rather, not prepared to do to tighten up the Cannes Lions Festival…”

Every awards show suffers from a dilemma of purpose.
1) to make money and 2) to recognize outstanding achievement in their discipline. For the Lions, this means that they are interested in the greatest number of entrants, attendees, sponsors and ancillary sales (the archive, kickbacks from vendors, etc.) as possible. Emap bought The Lions from WJB Chiltern Trust Company for $150 million in 2004, not because they wanted to support the industry, but to capitalize on the Cannes brand and it was a smart purchase. According to Forbes for the year that ended March 2007 the Cannes Lions helped Emap’s events revenue rise 11%. The Emap half-year report for 2008 informs that the revenue on the Lions was up 12%. Good for them. That’s what a business is supposed to do – clock cash. Emap clearly has got one end of the awards game down pat. Now, what about the other?

This is the hard part. Every award show also struggles to do justice to their industry. For The Emmys, the problem is money and interest. Last year’s ratings were the lowest since 1990. The Oscars consistently have trouble finding hosts that can keeping the four hour beast slobbering along. Yet, they have nailed a few things down. One is that there is no cheating. Let us pretend that the Oscars began to award fake films with statues. In some cases, the venerable event has had filmmakers create faux editors or writers for various reasons, but everyone understands that those associations are hoaxes of sorts, but what if, a film that did not follow the strict guidelines won Best Picture? Don’t think about it too hard, because the Oscar’s enforces their rules. On top it, they are constantly battling to keep up with the movements of their process from DVD mailers to ensuring that their judging body is over 6,000 strong rather than say, ten people in room. Final votes are tallied by Pricewaterhouse Coopers just to make the whole thing even more legit.

The Lions falls far short of earning such authority for their festival. We wondered about how quite often, fake ads make an appearance. Philip Thomas, the Cannes Lion Festival CEO, told this blog via email that:

“Let us be serious here. Cannes has 28,000 entries and the word often is a bit over the top. Let me be clear, if someone wishes to try and fool the organizers and juries by entering a fake ad it is clearly possible they can do so, but if we have a complaint or an issue we will chase it down very hard and if we find that it is a fake, we will withdraw the ad from the show. If a company or individual wants to take that risk it is on their head. Cannes had over 1000 marketers in Cannes this year and if they wish to use Cannes as a showcase for fake work they are running the risk of exposure to the very people they work for.”

Consider that the open call for documentaries for the Oscar’s garners thousands of entries. Each one must have been shown for a minimum of seven days in one theater in both Los Angeles and New York. On top of this, the Oscar’s have 25 categories in which they offer competition with thousands of participants. Alone, 96 countries are eligible to enter the foreign language film selection. Each and every one of these films is vetted.

Why is it that the Lions have yet to do what many in the advertising business suggest?

With the profit Emap makes, is it possible to fully check and re-check the shortlist at the minimum? Five college kids at $15 an hour doesn’t sound like too much of a dent in the profit margin. Alan Wolk, an ad industry blogger, once suggested that short list winners would:

“need to produce verification within 48 hours. Verification would be as easy as someone from the client company basically saying “yes, we endorse this ad.”

That may not keep brand sponsored ghosts out, but it will cut down on rogue ads from agencies. Five hundred and eighty one Lions were awarded this year. Cannes couldn’t be bothered to check those entries before passing them the Lion? Apparently, not even though, such a check would increase the authority under which Thomas and his team operates.

Public relations is everything. You’d think they be more interested. Sure, profit is rising, but as a good marketer knows, it’s about the brand stupid. Sooner or later, sneaky backroom shenanigans will render the brand inoperable with a Lion inevitably losing some of its charm. Just look at The Grammy’s. Everyone knows it is a rigged system with some artists, like India Arie, bailing on the show nominated or not. The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences has a secret committee that is empowered to tweak the nominations list to get more commercially appealing artists onto the show to ensure higher ratings. The onus is on the Cannes Festival to protect its assets and ours.

An idea to deal with scam ads that has been floating across the industry is that there should be punitive measures exacted upon the cheaters. Nancy Vonk is Co-Chief Creative Officer of Ogilvy & Mather, Toronto, suggested that scam agencies should be barred from entry the following year. It makes sense that this should be the case. Both brand and agency should not be allowed to enter any of the categories meaning complicit companies would be stricken, as well as their agency. Cannes has a different stance. Thomas also told us that:

“We believe that the removal of an ad from the competition and the potential stripping of a Lion from an entrant company is punitive enough. You have to bear in mind that this is a hugely public and embarrassing turn of events for any entrant into Cannes, as has been proved in the past, and is deterrent enough for the vast majority of entrants into Cannes.”

Not good enough considering that high profile fake ads are winning. It’s simply and clearly not enough. Agencies rumored to house “Cannes farms” such as Saatchi and Saatchi would be less likely to sweat their creatives on Cannes only work if real check took place. Sometimes, an agency will even write an internal brief for the creatives with marching order to produce off the wall work and a promise of showing it to the client. As one off the record CD told us:

“They’ll pass it on to the client who may really like it, but doesn’t approve it. The agency will go ahead and run it in some obscure location. The agency pays for everything. Some of them get it all billed back on a random line item. It’s the way it goes.”

When asked about the culture of creative Cannes farms, Steffan Postaer, CCO of EuroRSCG Chicago had some thoughts:

“My office is not shaped around the Cannes Lions hunt. For starters, I am not shaped around it. I do not covet awards the way some of my peers do. Never have. Never will. However, I do recognize their importance to my troops and to our creative management in New York and Paris. I should add that my team recognizes how difficult short-listing for Cannes is and would adore the honor and attention that comes with it. But to be clear, we do not have a win-at-all-costs strategy. My clients are not hell bent on awards. Thinking of ways to chase prizes on their dime is not sound business.”

Nonetheless, business it has become. Other agencies have a Cannes barometer on which they asses their creative ability. No shame in the game. Consider that JWT has a internal mandate and lovely little graph to keep track of their wins and it appears to be working for them.

No matter about the scam ads. Wins still have a clear cut value. Certainly, as Postaer relates, for team morale at least. Then, of the nine agencies to win the Film Grand Prix since 2000, only one (Crispin Porter and VW) lost their client in less than four years. Is it the Lion that keeps the CMO signing the paycheck or is it just the sign of an agency who not only produces good work, but also performs excellent client management? It’s hard to say.

For creatives, it’s like the Coen brother said of their Oscar win. “It was all very amusing to us,” Ethan said. “Went right into the ‘Life is strange’ file,” Joel said. A Lion can take you from just another copywriter to an adstar with job offers and press ops appearing in the email inbox. Lets not forget that agency bonus you’ll receive.

I asked Scott Goodson, founder of StrawberryFrog, what the value of a Cannes win was:

“Often the winning team receives a major financial offer to leave the agency they are at for a fat pay check in one of the huge “volume” agencies where creativity isn’t the priority but having Cannes winning talent in the “house” is. It is a fleeting spotlight. I know several friends who have won in Cannes, but whose careers stalled much like how an Oscar win sometimes derails an actors career. Personally, I don’t think it means that much since a lot of great work goes un-awarded and awarded work is soon forgotten. But when you win, it feels really beyond great. It’s a bloody hard industry we work in. Cannes is one of the happy points in a long year of work. It’s emotionally rewarding – if you win.”

Maybe Postaer’s final thought to us is a great way to think of Cannes:

“Cannes is excessive by design. A bigger show brings in more delegates, which brings in more money. Business and pleasure are inextricably linked. Everyone in Cannes fattens up on this largesse. Our industry benefits the same way Hollywood does a few weeks prior. Creators, producers, directors and clients from around the world convene in a glorious destination. On top of all the scheduled events, seminars and workshops there are countless business meetings, networking opportunities and even pitches. It is a cornucopia of marketing swoon! Seen through this lens, the awards are an afterthought.”

Hmm… we’re going to offer up more on Cannes in the next two weeks, but what do you guys think – should Cannes do something about scam ads? Is the value of Cannes still clear? Comments? Emails (superspyin at gmail dot com)