If 'Cannes' were in Norway, would people still go?

Trondheim is a beautiful place on a spectacular fjord in Norway. It has its own airport, a conference hall for 3,000 people, everybody speaks English (and is happy to do so) and with 182,000 inhabitants, it’s twice the size of Cannes.

Cannes is a noisy place on the Mediterranean. It is hard to get to from Nice airport, its conference centre is bursting at the seams, locals who do speak English are not happy to do so, and it’s at least twice as expensive in summer as it is in winter.

There is no rational reason why Trondheim shouldn’t be able to host the Lions festival like Cannes has for years (and before that Venice and once Monte Carlo). Rationality, however, doesn’t enter the picture. It’s no contest: for the hip and happening advertising crowd, the beach will beat the fjord anytime. Therefore, the big question circulating among the global advertising community every spring is definitely not: “So, are you going to Trondheim this year?”

Creative town square

An American delegate characterised Cannes aptly: “It’s the town square of creativity, marketing and media. It’s a great place to learn, find inspiration, network and recruit. There’s no conference or festival like it. I leave with ideas and leads every time. It doesn’t hurt that it’s set in the south of France. Odds are high that you’ll end up on a yacht.”

No, indeed, it doesn’t hurt that it’s set in the south of France. That last bit is an understatement. Cannes has always been a prized reward for promising young agency creatives as well as the standard perk for top creatives who’ve already made it to the Cannes podium a few times. The bright young copywriter who is told by the creative director that he can go to the Kinsale Sharks festival would have a hard time hiding his disappointment.

Kinsale has always been a great little festival, showing a lot of the same work that is shown in Cannes. But being sent there by your creative director instead of Cannes – well, some would see that as an incentive to start looking for another agency. Cannes has become that important. The status of the festival reflects the status of people attending the event. And there is no denying the status of Cannes as the place to be for more than one creative industry.

Location makes a difference

'Cannes' has become a top brand in the award festival industry. First during the summer months, when it hosts the Cannes Film Festival, attracting Hollywood stars, acting hopefuls and anyone else eager to strike a great movie deal. Then a few weeks later the international advertising industry takes over for Cannes Lions.

This used to be the exclusive preserve of agencies, their creatives and production companies hoping to win the Grand Prix or a couple of Lions to make their mark internationally. Over the years, as the attention value of winning a Cannes Lion grew, attendance by chief executives and global brand marketing chiefs has grown steadily. Today its attraction extends to the new industries that have become an integral part of creative communication: the best and brightest from the music, gaming and digital industries. In they come, flocking to Cannes like pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela.

Many would have thought that the rise of digital would diminish the need to fly across the world for face-to-face meetings. Given the way communications technology has been developing, there have been more than enough voices predicting that we would soon all be meeting by telepresence or as holograms on the other side of the world. Finally, we would all be able to cut back on the hours spent on planes and inside airports, as well as put an end to spending millions of dollars on travel expenses.

The strange thing is that the opposite happened: the conference industry has never had it so good. It is a booming business and it is even expanding (roughly speaking) in line with the growth and possibilities of the internet. Instead of a decline in the number of conferences, we see their numbers rising – and they’re getting bigger too. The reason is simple: we are human beings. When it comes to expanding our knowledge, keeping up to date, finding new inspiration, we feel we need to go places and meet people face to face. As much as internet technology has progressed, and as much as it will bring us ever more and better means of communication, we won’t shed our conviction that there is just no substitute for meeting in the flesh.

Being there

The importance of the physical encounter, of close-up contact, is rooted in human nature. It is still the reason why grandparents cry when they their kids tell them they are moving to a different part of the world – they know they can see their grandchildren on Skype, “but it’s not the same, is it?” No, it isn’t. For the same reason, we pack our bags for a week of networking inside the crackling atmosphere of an international conference or festival. Especially when it’s in an exciting place like Bali, Las Vegas, Venice or little old Cannes. Why we really, truly need to be there instead of a highly similar professional gathering in Gdansk, Bratislava, Vladivostok or some other place we have to Google to find? This comes from another basic human need: the need to go somewhere out of the ordinary that promises a little glamour and excitement.

Of course, no one will readily admit this. Many executives in the world, probably most of them, will sell the home front on the idea that having to go to Cannes is no fun at all. “Really, honey, it’s all work, back-to-back meetings, talks and presentations, from early morning till late and I’ll be arriving knackered already because of the red-eye flight over." Nice try, but of course Cannes is fun, even if your days are filled with back-to-back meetings and showings.

Cannes is the bonus of 'Cannes', no matter how much you try to downplay this aspect. It is hard to put into words what exactly makes the difference between attending the Lions festival in Cannes or the exact same event in Trondheim. But that there is a difference is clear. Cannes has developed a virtually unbeatable brand proposition, pushing a visit to this particular festival to the top of the list of 'must-go' events in the creative business.

Cannes brand value

Conferences, award festivals, trade fairs, much of their value lies at bringing together a crowd of like-minded business professionals. Physical meeting points where business gurus, influencers, salespeople, clients and other interested parties mix and mingle to further their business. All involved in more or less the same trade, dealing with more or less the same problems and solutions as anyone else they meet, either by appointment or by casual encounter. There is a lot of value in casual and informal encounters and this is exactly how places like Cannes or Bali or Las Vegas earn their extra points.

The atmosphere these places contribute to the venue and the event cannot be underestimated as an unspoken USP. Talking to peers and prospects while lounging on a yacht anchored just outside Cannes creates a mood that makes many people more susceptible to new ideas and receptive to proposals to “get back together after Cannes”. There is no doubt in my mind that it is easier for bosses of global agencies to successfully invite their top clients to fly to Cannes for meetings and partying than it is to meet up during a similar event in Sarajevo or Tallinn. It just isn’t the same. It is that undeniably alluring element that makes the difference between a wildly attractive, widely attended international 'must-go' event and other, perhaps just as interesting events around the world.

Global inspiration

Is a Cannes-like location key to carrying a festival to the top of the list for creative industry professionals to attend? It may seem crazy to say it, but it does add just enough edge over similar creative award festivals or conferences for the creative community. Of course, it will always be about the creative work being produced around the world. The festival draws entries from the very best in the business and seeing it there is an inspiration. However, as a festival, Cannes Lions has adapted to the diversity that is now part and parcel of producing creative solutions for brands.

It has also changed from being an advertising festival to an all-round creative one. The festival is still centered on the application of creativity to marketing and advertising demands, but the ad industry has become a hugely diverse creative marketplace. This is reflected in everything from the type of keynote speakers to talks and panel discussions as well as the way it is now being reported on: it appears anywhere and everywhere, from Facebook to BuzzFeed and other social media platforms. Blog, vlogs, podcasts, live streams and daily update videos... it really isn’t hard not to miss one minute of what’s going on.

Global online coverage of the event is prodigious and, ironically, suggests that you don’t actually have to be there to be there. Why spend the money on attendance, travel and hotels when you could just as easily follow what is happening, what is said by whom, what is discussed and what has won which category from the comfort of your own Mac? There are enough online ways to see the award-winning work without having to queue up for it outside the festival hall in the hot Cannes sun. Just as there are enough ways to chat about it with the people you know who did go there and share it with anyone else, just as you are accustomed to doing at any other time.

So why go there, really?

There is only one answer to that question: it’s because you can’t beat being there. It’s like the difference between watching the Champions League final at home on TV and actually being inside the stadium, either as a fan, an interested observer, a guest or a member of the media. Cannes is only Cannes when you’re in Cannes. The buzz of the event merges with the buzz of its surroundings, the zillion cocktail parties, the beachside lunches, the still unbeatable experience of watching hours of commercials cinematised on the big screen, the agency rooftop soirees and the unexpected invitation to join the crowd on board the yacht of a friend of a friend of a friend.

Being there is what takes you away from the fixed pattern of everyday life and the deadlines and challenges it brings. It’s still about what you love most, being a creative, but in a way that lifts your spirit more than anything you could do back at the ranch.

Ideas and inspiration float around in the casual natter of people having a beer in swimming trunks more than in the structured discourse of people talking to each other on Skype. Being there means unexpectedly meeting this great graphic designer from Denmark on Tuesday, bumping into this amazing young director on Wednesday and on Thursday having a relaxed drink with the chief executive of a brand you actually work for but have never met. It’s all the informal stuff – being and feeling part of this incredible concentration of kindred creative minds – that makes it very much worthwhile. And while you could argue that all this could just as well happen anywhere else in the world, it is still somehow Cannes that makes it special – more special than anywhere else.

The week of the Cannes Lions is, in that respect, a brand experience. For anyone involved in branding and marketing, it is worth taking some time to reflect on what makes 'Cannes' such a great brand. It must be, because you have been there. If you are going to Cannes this year, you’ll be doing it because of the great brand that 'Cannes' represents. It is because you care about what you do, and because you want to be up there with the best to learn, to get inspired, to move yourself to the next level. This is what the Cannes festival brand does.

Going there on holiday, maybe not such a great an idea. For that, how about Trondheim this year?

Erik Saelens is founder & executive strategic director of Belgium's Brandhome group.

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