How the Young Lions Fostered a Sense of Hope for the Future of Advertising

From the perspective of someone involved in this year's competition

Different teams compete at Cannes Young Lions to develop a campaign, all in 24 hours.
Cannes

On the stages of the Palais and yachts in the marina, in the lobbies of the expensive hotels on the Croisette across the street from the gorgeous crystal blue waters of the French Riviera, the unsettling industry issues of the day are being discussed and debated. Under the surface and away from the glamor in the Palais basement, industry icons joined forces with 34 sleep-starved Young Lions for the first 48 hours of the festival to solve them. It’s there that I’ve found inspiration—and hope.

As we know, the lack of minority representation in senior advertising positions is something the industry has been reckoning with for a long time. Unsurprisingly, it continued to be a pervasive theme at the festival this year. Yet, while I was in lockdown for the competition, I didn’t get the chance to hear industry executives speak about the problem. Instead, I had the unique experience of being surrounded by future leaders who will solve it.

The ability to hear so many voices, diverse but with the same brief, digital but still human, may very well be the best part of the festival.

Among the far-from-glamorous rows of Young Lions, I found myself inspired by a Noah’s Ark of diversity, each team of two walked excitedly into the competition hall beneath their flag. From Saudi Arabia to South Africa, the United Kingdom to the United States, there was a mixture of colors, faces, beliefs and experiences all given the same brief, yet approaching it with different eyes. In this exercise, diversity wasn’t a lofty ideal—it was a tangible reality. Something you can see in those around you and the work they produced. The lesson was clear: Hire diversity to get it.

Another key challenge—or, to be frank, worry—was about whether there would even be a next generation of creative leaders or if we’ll simply become obsolete by the ever-increasing power of AI and automation.

For years, our industry has subsisted on creativity, the most powerful brand fuel available. But in today’s age of big data and AI, many industry functions have been transformed. From bid rate management to dynamic creative and everything in between, the world of advertising and media has become unrecognizable to the Mad Men of years gone by. In many respects, this is a good thing. It has made us more efficient, informed and precise. On the other hand, it doesn’t mean we are more effective.

In fact, what was most noticeable about the Young Lions brief was its absence of any references to AI or even data. The one constant? Creativity. Despite having grown up digital, we were being called to rely on our own human (analog) abilities to tap into the recesses of our memory, scour the cultural landscape and come up with that magical expression that instantly lights up the synapses of the industry’s most brilliant minds. While not an easy task, it was heartening to be reminded of the enduring value of our most important resource and to be assured that the human touch will remain the cornerstone of our business and the intangible differentiator between run-of-the-mill ads and those that win Cannes Lions.

The Young Lions competition is like the 10 meter diving at the Olympics. First, you’ve got to climb to the top, then perform a series of twists and turns in lockstep with a partner and finally stick the landing in front of a series of judges who have already seen 30 similar routines that day. To be exceptionally creative in a uniquely tight timeframe is the perfect test of any young marketer’s mettle and makes for a completely different Cannes experience than that of anyone else.

In fact, the ability to hear so many voices, diverse but with the same brief, digital but still human, may very well be the best part of the festival.

For all the problems plaguing the industry, there are signs of hope everywhere, but most notably in the shoddy hotels and basement classrooms in the South of France, where Young Lions ply their trade. Sometimes to find the answers we’re looking for, we just need to dive right in and look below the surface for everything to come into focus.