When I used to buy agencies, I discovered something that the consultants already knew. All agencies say the same thing. You can pretty much predict the exact words—media-neutral, idea-driven, brand activation, storytelling, stuff like that. (Actually, it's kind of amazing that, with all the people talking about storytelling, there are so few good stories.)
Anyway, what I figured out is that listening to an agency talk about its philosophy and proprietary process and whatever is pretty much a waste of time. All you really need to do is look at the work. And, at its best, that's what Cannes is about.
This is where the tide goes out and you get to see who's naked—who's talking about invention and who's actually inventing. But finding out which big agencies are doing what is only part of the story. Big agencies have lots of offices and lots of clients so, just by the law of averages, there should be some great things happening. To me, the real value of Cannes is discovering the gold you'd otherwise never find.
When I judged the Titaniums a few years ago, we gave the big award to a small design group in Japan that turned those ubiquitous ugly bar codes into pictures of mountains and rivers and graceful swans. Not surprisingly, people who'd entered huge multimedia campaigns with a video about all their consumer touch points weren't too happy with the choice, but I thought it was perfect. This little design firm had taken a mundane, kind of annoying piece of everyday commerce and turned it into art. It didn't do something old really well, it actually created something new. In fact, the same sort of conversation happened last year when the Titanium went not to a billion-dollar global campaign but to a little emoji shaped like a pizza.
The thing is, at any reasonably well-judged show, everyone's equal. Three people with a laptop at Starbucks can beat the biggest agency in the world. All they need is a better idea. And this isn't just about winning. Gold Lions and Grands Prix are great and the statues are quite heavy, but—and you may not be aware of this—not everyone sends flowers to the winners. Juries are juries, and agreeing on the best is hard. But agreeing on good is easy, so pretty much all the great work gets on the shortlists. And this is the place where you get to see it.
Cannes bashing is sort of the new black. Too commercial, too many awards, too many billboards, and flyers and posters and promotions and people handing out stuff with logos on it from data-mining startups. It's easy to get jaded and cynical, but it was inevitable. The first Super Bowl was just a football game with lots of empty seats in the stands. The first Academy Awards was at a dinner in a hotel—tickets were five dollars each, the main course was broiled chicken on toast, and the awards ceremony itself lasted 15 minutes. Cannes is just following the principle that anything people like tends to get real big and a little crazy. But it's all worth it because this is where the work is.
This is where kids who skimped on food to pay the entry fees get discovered. This is where talented little agencies get famous and not so little anymore. This is even where clients get inspired and start wondering why they're not getting more freshness and originality and heart.
Sometimes there's good stuff in the big theaters here—a lot of celebs, a lot of smart people and a lot of ideas about where we're going and how to prepare for it and things like that. But the real show is downstairs, in the reels of the finalists playing on the screens and the rows of work hanging from the walls. That's where the real future of this business is, and that's what you can find at Cannes.
You just have to know where to look.
This story first appeared in the June 13, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.