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The French connection: finding community in my first trip to Cannes

God-is Rivera, VML's director of inclusion and cultural resonance, gives her take on her first time at Cannes / God-is Rivera

I stepped off the plane in Nice, France, ready. Ready to represent for all my people back home, ready to shine for my agency, ready to establish my stance on this industry on a global scale, and even ready to defend my identity. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, and both history and rumor had me both apprehensive and excited. This was a simultaneous mixture of adrenalin and strategy that kept me grounded in my purpose, and the results proved to be beyond what I could have ever imagined.

I’ve been active in the advertising industry for several years, and I’m going to be honest here – in all of those years, I never had any desire to head to Cannes for the renowned Festival of Creativity that takes place in the south of France every June.

As a channel and content strategist for most of my career, I never felt Cannes was really a huge part of my journey. My wins were sky-high unique engagement rates, organic RTs by celebrities and increased conversion rates. Direct engagement from the people we serve was the currency that was often immediate and immensely coveted in my discipline, and I always felt Cannes spoke to neither of those motivations. It was an award ceremony that took months to prepare for, was costly to submit to, and was judged only by our peers, a jury I often struggled to believe could be completely unbiased.

Outside of these factors, what mainly fueled my disillusion was what I often heard about the festival; that it was not a place very welcome to those who identified outside of the margins of what was expected in our industry. As a black woman, I did not pine about being miles away from home in a country and a conference where I would be underrepresented and feeling lonely.

But after receiving requests to appear in Cannes to be a speaker and participant for initiatives that support women and people of color during the festival, coupled with a remarkable invitation to attend from my supportive executive team at my agency, I agreed to go and vowed to be open-minded about my experience. Interestingly enough, what I realized about the festival, is that outside of recognizing impactful work, its main purpose (whether it realizes this or not) is that the festival provides a platform for the surreal to become real, for magic to happen. The type of bumping elbows and casual connections that take place in Cannes could take place at no other time, nowhere else in the world. It was in Cannes that I discovered what I hadn’t even realized I was missing: community.

Pivoting late last year to pursue a career path that takes on inclusion and diversity awareness and strategy, I have recently been reckoning with the simultaneous joy of walking in my purpose and pushing for change, but also aware of the crucial responsibility I have placed upon my shoulders as well. A pledge to change this industry, represent and uplift both my community and others, and to always remain completely authentic.

Grappling with this delicate balance is not always easy as one must battle facets like time, resources and even energy. I didn’t realize this but I was starting to internalize all of self-appointed pressure to succeed and make a difference, and I was not proactively utilizing my community to support me on my journey.

In Cannes, I found what I didn’t even know I was looking for. Radiating throughout the palpable allure of the French Riviera, this year at the festival was a large community of supportive, dedicated, authentic individuals who were just as committed to the fight as I, and we instantly connected over shared values, fears, and hopes, and we built a bond that will remain long after the festival has closed.

These people included people of color, represented in what I would assume would be record numbers for this festival, who were leaders that had fought through the past and were transcending, and challenging this industry to evolve. They extended their expertise and advice to those coming after them, and offered to help in any way. To mid-career folks like myself who are unapologetically forging our own path towards success and change, and juggling exactly what that means. To junior talent of color, who were open, fearless, and determined to step into and shape this industry for the better. We enjoyed the festival and also enjoyed our time as a community, our time to celebrate and connect in a way that only our community could.

This unique ambience also opened the door for allies and leaders within the industry to take note of our talent, our value and our contributions to our organizations, the work, and this industry. Conversations with executives became deeper, richer, as we all collectively reflected on what could make this industry better, how we could not just survive but continue to thrive, and use our industry to reflect both the world as it is, and the world that we want to see.

The atmosphere made honest observations about how the festival must continue to transform a bit easier to point out and digest, like how imperative it is that agencies increase diversity within their executive creative teams and the award stage. How all attendees, both executives and juniors alike, must be comfortable and knowledgeable on cultural differences and norms as they interact with people and cultures from all over the world, and how there is a responsibility to both reckon with and channel the privilege and power of the festival in the most constructive ways.

As the rosé flowed throughout the week, the libation became not just a symbol of excess or entitlement, but instead a conduit into these connections, a fluid tether that tied together conversations between old and new, between hope and determination. For me, it became a gateway into a community that was so necessary for me, and for that, I am grateful.

Until next time: au revoir.

God-is Rivera is the director of inclusion and cultural resonance at VML.

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