As the Industry Evolves, So Does Cannes Lions. But Are We Going Too Far?

Opinion: Why the shifting focus toward technology is a cause for concern

An image saying 'Cannes Lions' with confetti scattered around the title and a Lion to the right of the text
Is Cannes changing for the better?
Cannes Lions

It goes without saying that Cannes has been and continues to be an important event for our industry. However, it’s also changed in recent years to become almost unrecognizable from a decade ago.

When I first had the opportunity to attend Cannes, it was smaller, with few to no brands in attendance. Back then, it was a pure celebration of creativity that was attended primarily by the people directly involved in making great ads. For me, it was a source of inspiration. I would see the best work in the world, understand how high the bar had been raised and return to the office determined to deliver at the same level.

As our industry has grown more complex and fragmented, the festival has evolved. First, agency parties and creative galleries gave way to the publishers and platforms. Then came the rise of the startups and ad-tech players. Finally, the organizers hacked the event to include consultants and broadened the award categories across health, data and innovation.

At the same time, the creative side of the business has retreated. Publicis did so first and famously, but large agencies across the board are scaling back their presence at the show. Attendance last year at the core festival was down perhaps 20–25% since its peak. The Palais has certainly seemed emptier, even as the number of awards has increased dramatically.

The Palais has certainly seemed emptier, even as the number of awards has increased dramatically.

In truth, Cannes today is a cross between a celebration of creativity and an industry trade show. It is not merely a place to showcase the best work, but also somewhere to connect and do business with decision makers. On the downside, we’ve moved the center of gravity away from the work. But if we’re going to think about it in a positive way, at least the festival reflects industry reality.

Around the world, we are going through an intense period of transformation as brands are investing significantly in technology in order to meet the requirements of modern marketing. They need systems that collect and activate on data, deliver digital experiences and personalization, tailor creative to micro-audiences and measure and analyze it all. When we look back in the future, we’ll likely see this as a tooling up era where big ideas moved into micro-moments.

Tracking this trend has meant that a much more diverse set of players comes to Cannes: data providers, technology vendors and consultants of all varieties. That has made the event more fragmented and its crowds more distributed. Every company is shouting, “Look at me,” and trying to create their own selling opportunities. Fewer people may be going to the festival itself, but many more are likely skipping it in order to go to the unofficial events taking place around it.

Part of me wonders, however, if we are going too far. Working at a creative and performance agency, the focus away from the festival and toward technology is cause for concern. Tech and creativity are often seen as distinctive—or at least in most agencies, one certainly takes a back seat to the other. In reality, brand building through great advertising is perhaps the key ingredient in driving the performance of technology-based systems.

Without a terrific brand, the data-driven marketer loses a critical edge in driving results. In my own practice, I’ve seen that when brands stop investing in advertising, their technology investments very quickly become less efficient and effective. The answer then tends to be a renewed investment in data, analysis and technology when the smarter move might be to divert budget back to brand.

On the other hand, perhaps we are seeing Cannes finding its place. The festival is certainly keeping creativity around while incorporating the geekier side of the business. This balance correctly reflects the true yin and yang of our industry where great advertising drives the performance of technology.

For my part, I miss the focus on the work. It was pure, simple and inspiring. But times have changed, and we shouldn’t fault Cannes for doing what we get paid to help our clients do: change with them.

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