Creative: Cannes – Judgment Daze

He endured military-like voting procedures, smoke-filled rooms and enough awful commercials to make this Texan want to re-enact the Alamo. Jim Ferguson, chief creative officer of Young &
Rubicam, New York, looks back at being a judge at the Cannes Advertising Festival and decides it wasn’t all bad.
Let me forewarn you about this story/diary. There are no major insights into the world of advertising. No advertising trend analysis. Dan Wieden himself will not be quoting the Diary of Ferg anytime soon as he often does 13th century Chinese philosophers.
This is simply the Diary of an Adman(iac). Or, how I spent six days in a room with 21 other creatives who all believe they are the creative messiahs.
Let me put it this way: Every morning when I woke up in Cannes, I felt the way Julia Roberts must have felt waking up next to Lyle Lovett. What was I thinking? Why did I agree to spend sometimes 14 hours a day locked in a dark room looking at 5,700 TV commercials? (At times it was hard to judge the anti-tobacco advertising because the cigarette smoke was so thick in the room we could barely see the screen!)
Here’s how the judging basically worked: A film would come onto the screen. The instant it was finished, a hideous, almost nonhuman voice from the back of the room would retch the word “VOTE!!!” At which point, under fear of losing a reproductive organ, we would vote … very quickly … very decisively. (I have been in advertising for 18 years; I personally cannot afford to lose yet another reproductive organ. I’m saving it just in case we really, really need to keep a big piece of business.)
The voting scale went as follows: 0-9. A zero meant one would rather spend the afternoon bent over the edge of a table in a proctologist’s office than ever watch this spot again. There were a lot of zeros given. In fact, I hit the 0 button so many times the first day, I wore my index finger down two knuckles. By the end of the week, I was missing more fingers than a farmer.
This leads me to ask one simple question: Who entered this stuff? Let me reiterate a number: I don’t believe there have been 5,700 great commercials ever made, much less in 1999 alone. For the love of Bill Bernbach, Ray Rubicam, Leo Burnett and David Ogilvy, please show some kind of restraint.
To say the least, we were busier than one-armed wallpaper hangers. No sooner would one spot end than we’d hear “VOTE!” and another spot would come onto the screen.
The editors of Adweek asked me to write a journal about my experience at Cannes. But it’s very difficult to write a journal when every day of the week turned into a blur. Monday seemed like Sunday. And Tuesday like Monday. And on and on and on.
Until …
We weeded the garden enough to be left with 500 spots that made up the short list. On the whole, these were terrific commercials. But it took three days to eliminate 5,200 to get to the place where the judging could really begin.
Then we cut from 500 to around 250 for the short short list. The cream was really starting to come to the top. We were seeing spots from MTV, Nike, AltaVista, E*Trade, etc. Now the job was starting to be fun.
By this time, I was constantly being asked by the media covering Cannes whether any “trends” were starting to develop. The answer was yes. A trend was starting to develop. The great clients and agencies were doing great work. Weird, huh? And the dot-coms continued to try and out-dot-com each other. All the dot-com spots tended to look alike. It’s hard to be the life of the party when everyone is wearing a lampshade on their heads. AltaVista stood out, as did, because (surprise, surprise) we could figure out what they were trying to advertise.
The infighting among the jurors at Cannes has reached almost legendary status. But, I must say, our jury was quite civilized. Only once did I hear something so rude that even me, a boy from the backwoods of Texas who’s been known to tie together a string of colorful metaphors, felt almost dirty. But only for a second. Overall, [jury president] Marcello Serpa [of Almap/BBDO] kept the group in check. He did an outstanding job keeping us focused on the job at hand … judging the world’s best advertising.
Overall, I think we did a pretty damn good job. At the festival, we made mistakes. I wish we’d had enough time to put the reel together, sit back and take a look at it. If so, the spot for the Toyota Dealers of Canada might have not have made it. Instead, it got more whistles than Heather Locklear wearing a mini-skirt in front of a bunch of construction workers. [Whistles equal boos at the Cannes show.]
About the grand prize: There was never any question that the Budweiser “Whassup?” campaign was the best advertising in Cannes. (“Whassup?” became the most popular phrase in Cannes … replacing, “No, I’m not married.”) It’s fun. It’s entertaining. And, hopefully, it will sell a lot of beer. It was an easy decision. Any other year, however, it would have been difficult to beat the Nike spot “Beautiful.” Also, the “Morning After” Y2K spot from Nike was a standout … at least to me.
Everyone has been asking whether I’d judge the contest again. Given the choice between judging Miss Hawaiian Tropic or serving on the Cannes jury anytime soon … I know which I would choose. It’s not that it wasn’t fun. It was, at times, incredible. There is a bonding that goes on in the the jury room that I haven’t felt since I ran the final leg of the marshmallow race to end fraternity hell week back in 1972. I made friends for life and grew to respect the judgment of creative directors like [Lowe Bull Calvert Pace’s] Matthew Bull from South Africa and [Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper’s] Mark Wnek of the U.K. immensely. These are two creatives I would’ve loved to have worked for.
Let me end by saying how much I enjoy the Cannes Festival. Foremost, it is the only international awards show that truly celebrates “the work.” I look forward to attending every year. And I can’t wait to sit in the auditorium next year and whistle and scream, “What are you knuckleheads thinking? That’s a turd!”
Good luck to next year’s jury. K