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It’s time for a Cannes Lions reality check

By Matt Williams | Head of content

June 27, 2016 | 6 min read

At times, the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity seems about as far removed from reality as possible. You have Channing Tatum giving his views on the advertising industry. Emails are answered while lying on the beach. And gallons and gallons of alcohol is drunk even on school nights (OK, maybe that last one isn’t so far-fetched).

Cannes Lions 2016

So it’s been nice at Cannes this year to have a few moments that bring you back down to earth. A few doses of reality that make you realise that the whole industry isn’t completely over-indulgent and inward facing.

And those reality checks really are able to come from anywhere – whether it’s a data analyst crunching the numbers or a global mega star with a product to sell. Here’s what’s has been keeping Cannes (sort of) grounded this year.

Get the product right

It says a lot when you need the Fresh Prince of Bel Air to bring the advertising industry back down to earth. But in his entertaining session on Tuesday, Will Smith explained the revolution taking place in movie marketing. And while his tongue may have been near his cheek, the point he was making was sadly something that still applies to quite a few brands in other industries today too.

“Smoke and mirrors in marketing and sales is over,” Smith said. “People are going to know really quickly and globally whether a product keeps its promises.

“Back in the '80s and '90s you had a piece of crap movie but you created a trailer with a lot of explosions and it was Wednesday before people knew your movie was shit. But now what happens is 10 minutes into the movie, people are tweeting: ‘This is shit, go see Vin Diesel'.

“It’s funny to go sit in a meeting in Hollywood now. It’s a new idea that we have to make good movies… Hmm, I never thought of that." Brilliant.

Don’t worry about the robots – yet

Smith had an unlikely accomplice in his product-focused claims at Cannes in the form of Alphabet’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt. During his interview, Schmidt was asked for the secret behind Google’s marketing successes. His response was clear – they make the product better. “The product creates the brand, we will earn the brand if the product works well.”

But it was a different topic that grabbed the headlines from Schmidt’s talk, and in a festival obsessed with VR, new technologies and in particular the rise of AI, the Google chief told us all to chill. The robots aren’t coming to kill us all.

“We’ve all seen those movies,” he laughed. “We’re not anywhere near that yet… (With AI) we’re not talking about consciousness, we’re not talking about souls, we’re not talking about independent creativity.” And if things really do come to a head? “We’ll make sure that people know how to turn this stuff off should we get to that point.” It does seem a bit baffling, Schmidt said, that in Hollywood films, humans just “don’t seem to notice” the tide turning.

It’s not all about the new…

Did you know that if you buy yourself a Coke in the UK more than three times in a year, you’re considered one of Coca-Cola’s heavy buyers? That’s according to Byron Sharp, author of ‘How Brands Grow’. In his Cannes talk, Sharp was full of interesting little factoids that aimed to ground those marketers getting ahead of themselves in the industry, but it was an off-the-cuff comment that resonated with me most. “Brands need to stop getting excited about the new things at expense of the last.” In a festival so obsessed with the Next Big Thing, it’s important to still remember that just because a channel is not as new and shiny as it once was, it may still be the answer.

…And if it’s not broke…

I remember when the animated Justino spot for the Spanish Lottery first emerged. Along with a huge amount of praise, there was also more than a few cynical ‘The idea is quite similar to last year’s ad’ comments. And it’s true, it was similar. But it still won the Cyber Grand Prix. Why? Because it took that great insight from last year and executed it in an even more captivating way. It told a beautiful tale with poise and precision. It was a victory for great storytelling. And showed that you don’t need to change a winning formula providing you can find new creative and engaging ways to bring it to life.

So yes, there can be times when the hot air being spouted from the Palais at Cannes is more intoxicating than the heat from the Riviera sun. But every so often there’s an action or moment of inspiration that makes you realise that if we don’t take everything too seriously, if we look at the wider picture and don’t just get suckered in by ‘what’s next’, then the industry can still be an affirming and creatively exciting place to work.

Matt Williams is head of creative content at Partners Andrews Aldridge

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