Brand Strategy Cannes-Do Creativity

What we learned about the ad industry after a week at Cannes Lions


By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

June 24, 2022 | 9 min read

After its Covid-enforced hiatus, the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity returned this week – as did our journalists, who were in among the action for a long-overdue catch-up with the best advertising has to offer.

Cannes Lions

What we learned about the ad industry after a week at Cannes Lions

We asked our team on the ground what they learned during a high-intensity week in the south of France. Here’s what they had to say...

Cameron Clarke, editor

“It’s so great to be back in person.” If you’d been given a dollar for every time you heard that expression here this week, you’d soon be rich enough to put in a bid for Cannes Lions itself – although you’d face some stiff competition.

Rumor has it this event could be under new ownership by the time we all return next year, and there is no shortage of opinions on how Cannes should evolve between now and then. Sir Martin Sorrell, who is rarely found wanting for a strong viewpoint, even suggested splitting the conference into several localized iterations as a more sustainable and economical model – though good luck trying to convince the industry of that.

The truth is, it was great to be back in person, it was great to be in Cannes and it was great to see the uncynical and uplifting manner in which the industry celebrated its creativity. Undoubtedly, however, it was hard to escape the feeling that this little retreat on the south of France was detached from reality. The real world of spiraling living costs, war in Europe and a likely forthcoming global recession felt, at times, like it was a million miles away. [More on that here.]

After three years of pandemic-induced strife, the thousands who traveled here, whether from Bristol or Brazil, can be forgiven for wanting to bask in the work and each other’s company rather than wallow over the hardships they’ve temporarily left behind.

While there was no shortage of revelry, there was also a perceptible business-like air among the agency leaders and brand bosses who were, in many cases, getting to know one another in person for the first time. Looking after existing clients was a frequent refrain from agency leaders here this week and their preparations for economic turbulence are well underway.

On at least three occasions, the Cannes Lions bubble was burst by a hard pinch of reality delivered by Greenpeace. After gatecrashing the awards ceremony and storming the WPP beach, the climate organization was undeniably the talk of the Croisette. And it became quite literally so on Thursday when its activists stopped traffic on the main thoroughfare and scaled the conference hall roof to unfurl a banner reading ‘Everything is fine’.

As Greenpeace (brand of Cannes 2022?) reminded us repeatedly, everything is not fine of course, even if you could be forgiven for thinking it was in the joyous mood that prevailed here this week. But the outstanding nature of creativity on show all week [here are all the Grand Prix winners] should leave us all hopeful – rather than fearful – about the industry’s readiness to confront the challenges to come when the real work, and the real world, looms into view once more next week.

Jenni Baker, assistant editor of features, reports and research

With the iconic Carlton Terrace shut and the sporadic downpours, for those at Cannes for the first time the experience might have fallen short of expectations. But it wasn’t enough to dampen spirits and if you look beyond and to the real purpose of the event – bringing the creative community together to celebrate creativity – then it didn’t disappoint.

There was a real sense of the community being back together in-person, with what felt like more purposeful conversations happening – both on and off stage. And some of the advice works not just in marketing but translates into the real-world too – the importance of not just talking to, but listening to communities, building trust, creating meaningful connections and ensuring there is a real value exchange.

As ever, there was plenty of magic happening outside the walls of the Palais – randomly bumping into someone you hadn’t seen in years, free swag (much, but certainly not all, of which was reusable/sustainably made), random chats over a glass of rosé in the beach cabanas (if you were lucky enough to get in) and what felt like an endless array of headline performances to draw crowds to the parties.

As for the future of Cannes Lions, beyond the incredible work – which still gets people talking and is one of the main attractions – perhaps the event format itself could do with a shake-up. So much of the content created by partners surrounding the Palais was being filmed and live-streamed. For an industry trying to be more sustainable, does everyone need to be flown out to Cannes? Could a series of regional events achieve the same? If networking is the main goal, maybe that’s something that can’t be achieved in other ways.

Kenneth Hein, US editor

Top consumer-focused agencies talking about the bottom of the funnel is something I never thought I’d hear in my lifetime.

There has been a huge shift from trying to win a Lions in craft to touting e-commerce services. There’s less talk about remarkable, iconic work and more about performance. It’s an undeniable change that was caused by the pandemic and has now been exacerbated by threats of an upcoming recession.

Agencies are simply just selling different stuff than they used to.

Meanwhile, business-to-business brands are going for broke on brand awareness. The world is upside down it seems. The masters of manipulating the funnel have fully embrace the creative aspect of marketing and brand building. B2B marketers are doing Super Bowl spots and hiring Matthew McConaughey as a spokesperson. (Meanwhile, everyone seems to be hiring Ryan Reynolds who officially jumped the shark at Cannes Lions this year.)

I know, it’s not like B2C-focused agencies hadn’t done this stuff before or B2B marketers didn’t build brands – it’s just that the spotlight hadn’t been so brightly focused on either of those aspects.

Meanwhile, all of the adtech companies, which seemingly bought up every inch of billboard space up-and-down the Croissette, are only too happy to assist with better performance and/or awareness building. But given the lavishness of their spending here, it’s clear these Cannes Lions activations were paid for well before the stock market tanked.

Hopefully, all the investment pays off... it will be fascinating to report on how the year unfolds leading up to Cannes Lions 2023.

Sam Bradley, senior reporter

Given the size of the shadow it casts over the advertising business, the area occupied by the Festival of Creativity in Cannes itself isn’t really that big. Three blocks back from the waterfront, the branded pavilions of adland recede from view and you’ll find yourself in France – where concerns over the rising cost of living, energy price spikes and rail strikes are the order of the day.

The only signs of an impending downturn on the Croisette, though, were the front pages of free copies of Le Figaro scattered around the Havas Café. Agencies and advertisers were working their hardest to keep the doom away; Spotify flew in Dua Lipa, Post Malone and The Black Keys to lighten the mood; one media agency shipped out dozens of its clients to an island off the coast for an exclusive getaway; another reportedly spent €20,000 on a single bottle of wine. And back in New York, lay-offs in response to reduced client demand have already begun.

The skies, when not interrupted by helicopters regularly buzzing the Palais, offered both a record-setting heatwave and unseasonal torrential rain – a better sign of a changing climate than any inflation indicator. It provided a fine setting for Greenpeace, which crashed the party several times.

Though most agency leaders witnessing the campaign group scale the Palais or storm the stage seemed more tickled than truly concerned, it posed a real challenge to industry powerbrokers about their commitment to the fossil fuel industry. And, as it turns out, you don’t need a yacht, a beach or a hotel suite to make a mark on the Cote d’Azur: a fire ladder and a flotilla of kayaks will do just fine.

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