The World Has Changed and So Has Marketing. Is Cannes Still Relevant?

Pre-pandemic, Cannes was where the top industry minds gathered—but priorities have since shifted

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Pre-pandemic, Cannes was where the top minds of the industry gathered. It was a place to meet talent, get smart, mingle with clients, court prospects and test your creative chops. If you were lucky enough to go, you went. It was never a question.

But the world has changed, and so has marketing. Of course, a visit to the South of France is recommended at any time. But is the festival still worth the price of admission?

Show up if you’re looking to win

Let’s start with the award show. Creative awards can be a valuable measuring stick for creative quality. Submitting your work to Cannes is eye-opening and a good way to codify what great creative looks like in your organization. The work that wins creates a baseline, shows the industry where to aim and helps attract talent.

But if you want to win at Cannes, be prepared to make a sizable investment both in money and time. Not unlike the Oscars, you need to show up at all of the shows (not just Cannes) and campaign for your work. Cannes is the most diverse and global, but the judges at all of these shows tend to be similar people, so your chances of being awarded are better if jury members are not seeing the work for the first time at Cannes.

Cannes is a good awareness play

Outside of maybe craft categories, the work that performs best at shows like Cannes often falls into the “never been done before” category. Novel ideas create headlines and can make you famous, at least for a little while. That’s a good thing if it’s awareness you’re after, but most companies want sustainable business growth and ideas that are repeatable and scalable, not one-offs.

Inventive ideas like “Whopper Detour” won just about every award out there, but they didn’t ring the register over time. Their impact was ephemeral. It doesn’t matter how creative, funny, charming, beautiful or insightful your work is. If no one saw it, and it didn’t move the business, it’s a failure.

The businesses that are growing the fastest are increasingly focused on data, performance and ROI. “Never been done before” creative stunts are not the focus—ideas that lead to sustained growth are. Unfortunately, most award shows, outside of the Effies, don’t celebrate business-driving work as their first priority.

Because of this, award shows like Cannes no longer represent the world’s very best creative. Also, agencies still represent the majority of submissions, yet there are so many more creators these days, from consultancies to influencers to brands themselves. Many of them don’t submit work to shows.

This means that you’re really only being judged against other agencies that value awards, not all of the awesome brand work that’s being produced worldwide. The pond is smaller than it used to be.

Before embarking on a submission, ask yourself if it’s really worth it. Do you have a realistic shot? Does your client care? What else could you do with that time and money instead?

It should be about business transformation

Creativity is a force multiplier and ultimately a critical differentiator for brands. It’s great that Cannes champions it, but the show needs to make business impact an even bigger deal.

What’s encouraging is that they introduced a Creative Business Transformation category in 2019. This honors work that uses creativity to drive business transformation.

Also, more clients are showing up on the juries. It’s critical their perspectives are included in evaluating what great creativity looks like today. For folks who have worked client-side, they know that creativity is something they spend very little time discussing each day because the focus is largely on the business. Having clients in the jury room changes and expands the evaluation criteria for the better.

The real value of the festival

Where the value of Cannes really shines through is in the Palais. It’s where I try to spend the bulk of my time on the ground and where I draw the most learnings. The talks and workshops hosted there run the gamut from practical to inspirational.

It’s important to hear other acclaimed creatives discuss how they’ve built their brands and the work being awarded. Those differences are important to capture and use in informing how to make the show more complete.

The industry is at an important inflection point as we go into Cannes this year, made abundantly clear in the wake of Coinbase’s QR work being simultaneously the most loved and hated Super Bowl ad of the year. Cannes has an important role to play in this debate and, more broadly, the future trajectory of the industry.

This year, let’s see more emphasis on content than on awards and organizers dial up the business and marketing focus even further. In the past, people have said things to me like, “Let the Effies have effectiveness. Cannes is about creativity.” That’s flawed thinking.

Today, there can be no daylight between creativity and effectiveness. If we want creativity to still matter in marketing, it needs to be more comfortable in a suit. The job is to use creativity to solve business problems, not just make creative work.