Amazon and Chinese innovators will be among those stepping up their activity at Cannes Lions 2019, 12 months after the festival underwent a major overhaul. Cannes Lions is gearing up to receive a "breadth of different kinds of companies, which continues to increase", according to chairman Philip Thomas. "That’s what people will notice when they get to Cannes this year."
But there will also be some familiar names as Publicis Groupe returns to the festival after pulling out of all trade shows and awards in 2018. The holding company’s withdrawal, paired with increased industry scrutiny, prompted Cannes Lions’ biggest makeover in recent years. Many critics, including the outspoken former WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell, complained that the event had grown too big, was overly focused on money and had lost its creative heart.
In response, Cannes Lions instituted several changes, including shortening the event from eight days to five, closing some award categories and introducing the rule that each piece of work can only be entered for a maximum of six Lions.
The changes made a financial impact on the business. Festival owner Ascential reported £57.3m of Cannes Lions revenue in 2018, down 9% from the previous year. Revenue from delegate passes dropped by 15.5% to £22.3m (US$28.1 million) and revenue from awards entries fell by 13.6%, also to £22.3m.
This year, entry numbers have declined. Thomas maintains that the entries had become "unwieldy" and "if we have fewer, higher-quality entries, that’s good for the industry’’. Thomas adds: "Overall, from a business point of view, it’s much more positive."
Thomas’ optimism might derive partly from the new players set to join this year’s jamboree. Most significantly, "the Chinese will be coming in even bigger numbers", he says, citing representatives from companies such as TikTok, ByteDance and Tencent.
Cannes Lions has curated a programme for Chinese delegates and translated content from English to Mandarin. It is the first time the festival has dedicated a week-long programme to the country.
"The breadth of different kinds of companies – that's what people will notice when they get to Cannes this year"
—Philip Thomas, chairman, Cannes Lions
China’s participation at Cannes poses an opportunity for the UK, whose government has teamed up with the British ad industry to run its biggest trade mission yet at the festival to promote "the best of UK advertising". Forty small and medium-sized businesses are travelling to Cannes as part of the initiative, which is being led by the Department for International Trade under the banner "Creativity is GREAT".
With Brexit looming and the UK industry looking beyond the European Union for business, the DIT and the Advertising Association are planning events with delegates from countries including China and South Korea.
This is a first for the UK government at Cannes and while Ascential is not officially tied to the trade mission, the company fully supports it. Thomas says: "It’s so timely. I wish it had happened before but I’m glad it’s happening now. The UK is a leader in advertising and creativity but we have no God-given right to be."
Tech companies have increased their presence at the festival in recent years – Snap’s yellow Ferris wheel dominated the Cannes skyline in 2017 – but 2019 marks the first time that Amazon is "really engaging with us", Thomas says. While Amazon was previously on the sidelines, the tech giant has increased its role this year with initiatives including a hackathon, he explains.
But even as Cannes Lions has widened its scope to include different businesses, the continuing lack of diversity at the festival reflects the ad industry itself, Thomas says. However, he adds that tackling this disparity remains high on the agenda. Cannes Lions aims to have a 50:50 gender split on its jury and this year 48% of its jurors are female, he says, up from 40% in 2016. He also claims that the festival will feature more female speakers than ever before.
Of the 27 jury presidents, five are people of colour; in previous years there was only ever one, Thomas notes. At this year’s event, the Cannes Can: Diversity Collective will launch Inkwell Beach, which will host sessions and provide a place for diverse groups from across the creative industries to gather.
"Cannes reflects the industry back at itself. This year there is much more of a feeling of being at ease with itself," Thomas says. "There is a more collaborative feeling." He points to recent developments, such as Accenture Interactive’s purchase of Droga5, as evidence of greater collaboration across the industry.
But the biggest change to the festival has been the increased attendance of brand marketers, Thomas says. According to Cannes Lions data, the people who spend the most time inside the Palais, looking at work and attending awards shows, are marketers. In 2018, 25% of delegates were from the brand side and Thomas predicts that number will grow this year.
"If this were 1990, you and I would be going to Cannes and spending the entire week with advertising agencies talking to themselves," Thomas says. "The fact that there are more than 25% of delegates who work for a brand is very encouraging for the industry as a whole because it means the people who are paying all our wages are really valuing creativity."