Philip Thomas
Jul 10, 2015

Cannes is bigger but also more important, says Lions Festival chief

Philip Thomas, the chief executive of Lions Festival, responds to criticism that the Cannes Lions festival has become too big.

Philip Thomas: the chief executive of the Lions
Philip Thomas: the chief executive of the Lions

When I first went to Cannes Lions, before I got the job as chief executive, people told me how huge it was, but I had spent 10 years attending the film festival as a journalist on Empire, and it didn’t seem that big to me.

I wondered what it would be like if it were really big, but more than that, what if it were really important? It seemed to be vital to marketing and advertising people, but it felt like the rest of the world didn’t really take much notice.

The growth of Cannes Lions is down to only one thing – the seismic changes in the industry. Historically, clients and advertising agencies attended and entered, but the industry now is so much more complex.

This year, a hugely influential Hollywood producer told me Cannes Lions was now more important than the Cannes Film Festival. Music people have blogged that it is more important than their own industry event, Midem, and TV networks have said that it is their only must-attend event of the year.

They are there because of the changes in the industry, which Cannes Lions adapts to, and tries to reflect.

Most people in marketing and advertising, I believe, welcome the new breadth of the festival, while understandably regretting the negative aspects of the growth.

It has become bigger, yes, but it has also become more important, which means our industry has become more important.

Everyone from the UN to The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to the 3,200 client delegates, to governments from around the world, attend and discuss their challenges.

I understand why some people want it to go back to the intimacy and exclusivity of the old days, but the industry just isn’t like that anymore.

When it comes to the awards categories, it’s the same story. Take mobile. We resisted splitting mobile out from Cyber for years, fearful of the complaints that it would be merely a move to make money.

But the time came when we would just look hopelessly out of date if we didn’t accept that mobile was a critical area in its own right.

It’s same with Creative Data this year. The industry has been asking us to acknowledge its existence for three years; our challenge was how to ensure it had creativity at its heart. 

Because Cannes Lions is a festival of creativity. It’s a constant mantra of ours, internally and externally, but we can only control what we can control. Short of putting armed guards on the road into Cannes, we can’t control who chooses to come to the city and hire a villa or a yacht.

All we can do is hero the work in the Palais, make the award shows world-class spectacles, and keep creativity at the heart of the seminars, workshops and forums.

We could of course cap the size by massively increasing the cost of a delegate pass, but that would force people outside of the Palais, and make the event unaffordable for young people, new businesses and emerging nations. If we did that, it would make the situation worse, not better.

And when it comes to creativity, just think: nothing that will win next year has yet been created. For us it is all about the work, because we know that’s what makes Cannes Lions different from any other event.

And by the way, winning a Lion is exactly as hard now as it was in 1990, or 1980 – you have a three per cent chance of success.

You can make a deal anywhere, but only at Cannes Lions can you celebrate the creativity that changes the face of businesses all over the world.

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