Arun Sudhaman 26 Jun 2017 // 4:03PM GMT
"So what do you think?"
This question is posed of me with alarming regularity during the Cannes Lions Festival, so much so that by the end of the week its arrival is indistinguishable from the interminable background hubbub of another round of panel discussions, receptions and queues. My apologies to anyone who directed these words to me during the ever-lengthened week that comprises Cannes; in truth, my reaction is as much down to the nature of the event — and the sensory overload it represents — as it is to the vague nature of the query itself.
Most of us have little time to think much at all at Cannes. There is simply far too much going on, from events (including our own), to official sessions, interviews, press conferences, meetings, endless trudges in the searing heat of the Croisette and — yes — parties. Once all of that is accounted for, most journalists I know represent a frazzled breed at Cannes, forever wondering if they have missed the big story while being lured into yet another aimless interview with an ad tech company.
Not that we are alone in the hyperactivity stakes. Industry pontification takes on a currency of its own, often reflected by a kind of FOMO-fuelled frenzy for the nearest video camera. This thirst for content at all costs might operate like a kind of irresistible tractor beam, but it also underlines the very nature of the issue that now confronts the Festival — where the breathless, realtime media landscape clashes with the stately pace at which creativity has traditionally unfolded in the big, award-winning campaigns.
Indeed, it may sound churlish to make these observations, so beautiful is the Cote d'Azur and so well appointed are the events at the Festival. There are celebrities aplenty, some of whom actually have meaningful opinions on the evolution of creativity. But the Festival’s excesses now loom as an existential challenge, amid high-profile announcements from agency giants Publicis and WPP about their involvement in future editions.
Publicis plans to sit out all award shows and marketing efforts next year, a curious move for the holding group and a potentially destabilising one for the industry media that covers it. Regardless, new CEO Arthur Sadoun is convinced that the huge sums of money spent on Cannes could be better invested elsewhere, notably in a somewhat enigmatic virtual assistant called Marcel, which aims to bolster collaboration across the group’s various agencies.
WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell was not slow to pounce on the Publicis news, dismissing it as a cost-cutting exercise that will alienate the French group’s creatives. And while there is more than a grain of truth to his comments, Sorrell’s own views on Cannes are not markedly more favourable. This year featured the WPP chief's most unequivocal pronouncements yet — decrying the Festival’s "inappropriate" focus on money-making at a time when clients are asking their agencies to do much more than less.
My first of nine consecutive Cannes, in 2009, was perhaps the only time when the Festival made any concessions to the era of austerity in which many countries have now taken up a kind of semi-permanent residence. Attendance levels plunged amid the global financial crisis, an apt backdrop, perhaps, for the first edition of the PR Lions. Since then though, the Festival has bounced back — as Sorrell might put it, bigger and brasher than ever — a tradeshow that is as oiled by deals as it is by epic levels of rosé consumption.
Meanwhile, the biggest ad agency customers, including such behemoths as P&G and Unilever, are busy slashing their marketing budgets. It is a simple equation, but a critically important one. Because while ad agencies rethink their involvement in Cannes, the digital platforms have no such qualms.
It is telling that the Croisette is dominated by flags bearing the logos of Google, YouTube, Facebook and Spotify — at a small media briefing with Facebook Messenger, for example, I learned of the platform's plans to continue colonising the digital consumer experience, via the expansion of its AI-powered marketing and customer services functionality. Elsewhere, Sadoun bemoaned the Snapchat Ferris Wheel which, to the Frenchman, represents how the marketing industry has abdicated its thought leadership position to the digital giants.
With all of this in mind, it should be clear that these questions are less about the future of the Festival than about the very nature of creativity itself. An ephemeral commodity at the best of times, much of what has traditionally driven agency creativity is now under siege from digital platforms touting data, algorithms and artificial intelligence to a client community that is itchy for real-time validation.
Sorrell may be quick to extol the benefits of long-term branding and marketing innovation, and we would certainly agree with his perspective. But that argument is like a fading lighthouse in a sea of short-termism, underscored by the attention-deprived nature of Cannes itself. It is no coincidence that the CMO role is the shortest-tenured among the C-suite. The temptation for the quick hit is irresistible and Facebook, with its bevy of instant advertising solutions, understands this better than most.
For the PR industry, still grappling with becoming a more central creative resource for its clients, this trend represents as much of an opportunity as a challenge. Its inherent agility and facility with social platforms can only help and — even if it might bemoan its characterisation as a lower-cost option — that is no bad thing either under the circumstances.
Yet that will still require the industry to make a more lasting commitment to the notion of brand-building rather than just executing and amplifying, particularly in front of the budget-holders that matter. In this regard, Cannes — the largest concentration of senior marketing executives in the world — remains critical. I have never quite understood the jaundiced view that large swathes of the PR industry adopt towards the Festival, especially at a time when the public relations discipline (if not its agencies) can be seen as a driving force behind so many transformative campaigns.
So what do I think? I think that, like any industry, Cannes itself — and the traditional notions of creativity that it represents — is being disrupted by technological forces at a time of rampant short-termism. Whether the PR industry is ready to capitalise on this is another question altogether, as Paul Holmes’ analysis makes clear. While Cannes is undoubtedly bringing PR firms more fame; the hope remains that it will fundamentally improve their fortunes too.