My Cannes time-out: Why I stopped going and why I’m back to stay

It’s human nature to want what you can’t have, so when the social mores of Cannes finally embraced agency types other than creatives, I rushed to Southern France to dive into the party that I had never been invited to.

Alas, be careful what you wish for, as that Cannes, that many years ago, was in its awkward adolescence. The clients had been invited too, and while no one was saying it, you could feel it; the underlying creative tension was beginning to shift from the defiance of “I’m not changing a thing” to the reluctant acknowledgement that “this ‘party’ is changing….”. While change was certainly in the air, the creatives were still in Cannes, and at least for the moment, it was still unabashedly a private party for the creatively privileged.

Shortly after I started going to Cannes, I stopped going. While there is no other experience in the world that is as creatively inspiring as this festival by the sea, that’s where the value of Cannes began and ended for me. I tend to take a world view of things, and as I looked objectively at this undertaking, I realized that this era of Cannes was a zero-sum game. We had become obsessed with a contest that was essentially an annual reallocation of creative reputation. Yes, a massive amount of year-long industry effort was being invested in an affair that culminated merely in a swapping of glory.

Imagine my discontent. I was witnessing the classic missed opportunity. The brightest creative minds in the world of business were engaged in frivolous folly when they could have used their prolific imaginations to enhance the reputation of others. I wondered if we would ever see the day when marketing did its part to make the world a better place.

After 12 years of a self-imposed time-out, I’m back at Cannes. Something dramatic had happened to lure me back but it didn’t happen overnight. Here’s what I like about what I now see as well as what I hope for:

Creativity has created incrementality: The zero-sum game of swapping creative reputations at Cannes has given way to creative growth. This progress has been fueled by an ideological revolution that has created the space needed for creative expansion. While imagination has never known boundaries, its application in advertising has; we’ve historically been limited by the boundaries imposed by the measured confines of screens and pages. In my earlier Cannes era, the event was named the International Advertising Festival, and we measured the power of ideas (and thereby incentivized their creation) within the context of the traditional media purchased by our clients.

In the last decade, we’ve morphed from ads to ideas that are now created and applied with a boundaryless orientation that lets them go places and do things previously not imagined. How far can we go? With 2017 Gold Lions going to innovative ideas like growing potatoes on Mars, we’ve gone from ad space to outer space. Now that’s proof that great ideas truly do have the power to go anywhere we want them to.

Marketing has extended its reach: The proliferation of technology and the expansion of connectivity has dramatically increased the number of people who can be influenced by creativity. At the same time, marketers have also increased the potential of marketing by raising the creative bar. The creative community that resented these Cannes party crashers all those years ago, are now the beneficiaries of their participation. Imagine that. Cannes has proven to be a common ground that has created a higher standard for better ideas. Adding spark to this creativity is meaningful progress in the ability to correlate creativity with in-market results. Collaboration used to be a wistful concept – now it’s a best practice that has clients and their creative partners more fully aligned in a common quest for the right version of better.

So here we are. The media revolution has given marketers the power of endless reach potential while they in turn have empowered their agencies to create even better ideas with no known boundaries. It’s a good place to be.

More work is being done on purpose: As the person who once wondered if marketing would ever do its part to make the world a better place, I’m encouraged that we’re now doing more work that’s advancing the real purpose of our brands. If 37 of the world’s 100 largest economies are corporations, business has a profound capability and responsibility to improve the welfare of our world. As marketers, we need to keep our “part” in its perspective. Our part is to leverage the unique power of our imagination, which in a world of boundaryless ideas and improved connectivity, has never been more potent.

Cannes understands the potency of its platform, and has led the way in expanding awards categories to encourage and reward creative idealism. More purpose driven work is being recognized in categories like Health & Welfare, Applied Innovation, The Glass Lion and the Grand Prix for Good. And in this year’s festival, we’re seeing the ultimate expression of benevolence – Fearless Girl – staring down gender inequality and running away with the show with three early Gold Lions. Finally, Cannes’ world stage is being used not just to award ads, but to promote the development of bigger and better ideas that can make a world of difference.

Much of the talk of Cannes these days is about its transformation from a creative festival to a marketing and media convention. Some even ask if the sun is setting on Cannes, but alas, these are people who should be looking upwards instead of looking to a nearby horizon. The Cannes that lured me back is one that’s gone beyond contest to culture. Nothing motivates humans more than recognition, and when the world’s most powerful medium for creative recognition shifts its attention to doing good, it’s going beyond creativity to create a potent culture for positive change.

It’s for that reason that I can’t ignore the irony associated with my last visit to Cannes. The Film Grand Prix in 2005 was awarded to Honda for its irresistible Grrr spot that told an animated story of diesel engine innovation. Many may still remember its pop artistry and catchy jingle, but what I remember most is its poignant message: if you hate something, change something.

So if I came back to Cannes because I liked what I was seeing, why am I going to stay? Because we still need to change something. While our work to improve the human condition has been notable, there is one notable outage. We live in an age of unprecedented global aging, and while many cultures respect their oldest members, the persistent norm favors youth. This is a phenomenon that marketing can disproportionately influence because we create the images that people judge themselves by. Dove’s legendary Real Beauty campaign speaks to the self-appraisal of beauty, but it’s also poking at how society judges beauty in the context of age. We need more, and we can do better.

Since my first dream came true i.e. we now have work that works harder to create a better world, then it’s time for a new dream. I yearn for a Cannes culture that promotes an “age-nostic” world of media, marketing and entertainment where people of all ages are valued for who they are and what they can contribute. Why not? I’ve applauded Cannes for its ability to get better with age over these last 12 years, so I’m brimming with confidence that it will use its power and influence to encourage marketers to actually get better with that other meaning of age. Cheers from Cannes.

Peter Hubbell is the chief executive and founder of BoomAgers. He tweets @BoomAgers

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