The Lion King

This has been my first year at the Cannes Lions festival.

Cannes is the premier advertising festival, but, considering that it is preceded by the much more famous Cannes Film Festival, it can’t help but seem a little lame. When, at this time of the year, you say, “I’ll be in Cannes,” almost everyone outside of the advertising business will say brightly, “For the film festival?” And you must say, sheepishly, “No, for the advertising one.”

The first International Advertising Film Festival in 1954, an effort to promote the creative bona fides of TV ads, had 187 entries representing 14 countries; the current one has 24,000 entries representing 90 countries—and 8,000 delegates. And yet, surely, advertising has even less respect and glamour now than it did then. A discordant note here for any outsider is the constant use of the word “creative” in a world where no one else thinks of advertising as a creative act. Movies are creative, advertising…well, hardly.

And yet, movies are a dwindling industry (at the film festival it is much more likely to meet people trying to codger a meal than people trying to buy you one), and its product, dominated by sequels and franchise concepts, is “creative” only by an imaginative leap (movies are surely as committee-driven, manipulative, and formulaic as ads). Say this for advertising, its very form and nature is now so open to debate, reinvention, and unlikely possibilities (the maker of Angry Birds declaring that his game is a much more effective ad medium than television) that this is as much an existential as a commercial event on the beach at Cannes. What once was a boondoggle in a serene climate for copywriters and art directors has turned into a marketplace full of dedicated and aggressive buyers and sellers in search of a product—one without clear form, defined outlet, or certain creator. Ads are not even called advertisements any more; they are called solutions.

Oh, and there is a lot of money here—and, it appears, a desperate desire to spend it on whatever it is that will solve all the problems.

The search for this solution to what remains, at best, a deep conundrum—how to reach an ever-more fractured, jaded, and unmindful audience—makes for an oddly metaphysical marketplace, and elevates the word creativity into even more mystical reaches. You have, in Cannes, advertising agencies saying they are really, truly creative (creativity in this instance being a willingness to adapt to whatever the market says it needs); technology platforms (Google, Facebook, Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft) arguing that they can provide the best environments and functionality for these as yet unimagined creative solutions; brands hungry for a first look at these creative solutions once they do manifest themselves; and laggard, old media companies trying to hold on to the solutions and creativity that once worked, as well as trying to gamely say they will do whatever is necessary to stay in the game, whatever the game turns out to be.

It is easy to feel in Cannes that you’re among a lot of people who don’t know the world has ended. But at other moments, it quite feels that we are all here fortuitously as it is just about to begin—and that we will all be able to tell our grandchildren we were present at an extraordinary moment in the relationship of content and commerce. Which is the relationship that defines our world (and, for so many of us, our ability to make a living in it).

What you have in Cannes, represented more by the ferocious pounding of music from the beach and the tumultuous and not quite human din from the bar under my window at 3 a.m. than by any obvious or standout success model, is a market fearful of and hungry for the shock of the new.

To me the greatest opportunities and the best comedy occur when people have no idea what to do and pretty much no idea what they are talking about, and yet no alternative but to keep showing up in the blind faith that somehow someone will figure it out (and that, meanwhile, people will keep spending money anyhow).

For sure, I am coming back next year.

And I am grateful the center to the world, the nexus of all of our futures, turns out to be in a salubrious climate.