More Agencies Are Coming to Cannes to Hunt Clients, Not Just Lions

Cutwater shows you can win without entering a thing

CANNES, France—Viral wizards. Coolness merchants. Holding company evacuees. The Cutwater leaders are many things to many people, but at Cannes they are one thing above all else: Relaxed as hell.

That's because they've literally got nothing to lose. The agency, which has had a roller coaster young life since being founded as an Omnicom specialty shop in 2007 (and splitting off from the holding company soon after), submitted zero entries in this year's Cannes Lions.

And yet here they are, sitting poolside in the south of France, drinking cold beer and laughing about the odd journey their shop and their careers have weathered to reach this point.

So what—exactly—are they doing at Cannes? They're not hunting Lions. They're hunting clients.

Last year, as the agency leaders were working to redefine Cutwater in the wake of its 2010 split from Omnicom and rebirth as a small independent, they found that the legions of agency execs at Cannes were increasingly being joined on the Croisette by an influx of brand marketers.

Specifically, they met the marketing chief for paper giant Georgia-Pacific. Fast forward a year later, to earlier this month, and you find Cutwater being named the creative agency for Georgia-Pacific's Brawny brand.

"We met the CMO of Georgia-Pacific at Cannes last year, which was the impetus for us working with them now. So that is directly related," said agency president Christian Hughes. "And there's more and more of that at Cannes."

Cutwater founder and creative chief Chuck McBride puts it even more simply:

"I think we come here to win Lions. That's why we come. But now we're also coming to meet clients that want to win Lions."

The case of Cutwater highlights a well-known but rarely spoken fact: Some years, even the most talented agencies just don't have winning work. For the rapidly growing San Francisco shop, 2013 was a year of new business wins but not necessarily a year of barn-burning creative.

"We saved the money we'd spend on entry fees and used it for coming here, getting some recruiting taken care of, possibly meeting some new clients and going back and really using next year as more of a creative launching pad for some of the new work," McBride said.

The shop built its name as an early and effective innovator in viral video with its "Never Hide" Ray-Ban clips including the 2007 YouTube hit "Sunglass Catch."

But despite being pioneers in the viral marketing movement, Cutwater found it difficult to remain dedicated to the tactic as more and more agencies got into the game.

"The truth is, once we pioneered viral, and then it became a common practice by every agency, you've got to move on to the next thing," McBride said.

"We used to win with viral work in Cannes, but now the category is so crowded. I think it's harder to win with that kind of media, so what we have coming next year is much more print, film and social media."

For now, the agency is enjoying its gradual re-emergence as a creative leader in the agency scene and simply soaking in the experience of Cannes without the stress of wondering if their best work will prove to be Lion-worthy.

It's a  phase they already realize they'll look back on fondly in the years to come.

"We've gone into the late teens of our agency's lifecycle," Hughes said. "In your late teens, you have some of the best fun you've ever had. You still make a few mistakes, but you don't tend to regret them over time."