Robert Sawatzky
Jun 23, 2017

In Cannes, the second-guessing begins

Festival organisers form committee in response to Publicis’ move to pull out of awards next year.

In Cannes, the second-guessing begins

This story has been updated at 4:00pm Friday, June 23 (Cannes time)

The shock is over, and a new debate has begun.

In response to Publicis' decision to pull out of all awards marketing in the coming year, Cannes Lions has announced it will launch an advisory committee "to help shape the future of the festival" in response to criticism that the festival has become too big, too expensive and has lost its creative heart.

Significantly, the festival has first  asked a number of top brands to join the committee with Unilever, P&G, Burger King, AT&T and Heineken all giving "committments" to be involved. 

Many festival delegates this year say the writing has been on the wall.

Humberto Polar, a Cannes creative data juror and chief creative officer at FCB Mexico said “I think this has been on the mind of some of the big networks for a long time…pondering the return on investment of the festival.”

“There is definitely an excess in the cost of being part of this,” Pelle Sjoenell, global chief creative officer at Publicis agency BBH told Campaign. “We have to be careful as an industry that we do not over-do our hubris.“

“I totally get the rationale,” added Annette Male, APAC CEO of DigitasLBi, pointing out that the investment into Marcel, Publicis’ new AI matching talent with client briefs, had to come from somewhere.

What better source for funding to come from than expenses that appear lavish and unnecessary?  Already some brands, which love winning awards but love ROI even more, are backing Sadoun’s move.  

“[They] are recognising the environment of change that we’re in, and that’s to be admired because we all, agency or brand, are trying to reduce non-working dollars, the things that aren’t adding enough value, and putting dollars against the things that add a lot of value,” said Alison Lewis, global CMO at Johnson & Johnson. “Publicis are being good, rational business leaders, and I respect them for that.”

No question, Sadoun is sending a strong signal about priorities. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be strong disappointment internally.

What creatives think

“There are pluses and minuses on all counts,” Male admitted.  “No one can say there’s not going to be any negative impact,” she said, noting how agency juniors especially love the awards and being part of an agency that wins them.

“The challenge will come from whether their creatives still [want to] enter,” Lewis told Campaign. “Because the creative industry is such that, like it or not, winning Cannes awards is really important to those creatives’ careers. I would imagine that it creates some questions around retention and attracting talent.”

Indeed the rumblings and unease among creatives at Cannes is already being heard.

An act of protest at Leo Burnett's Chicago office; Burnett himself said upon retirement that his name should be removed if ever the agency lost sight of its ideals.

“For us, awards are very important to improve our skills,” Yasuharo Sasaki, head of digital creative at Dentsu Inc, told a forum of chief creatives at Cannes moderated by Campaign. “It’s great for us to see great ideas as a source of creativity and to be jealous of others’ work.”

“We need the benchmark,” added Robin Fitzgerald, chief creative officer at BBDO Atlanta.

This is a shift from the usual complaints about the overabundance of award shows and why awards don’t matter.

Those arguments are unlikely to disappear, especially now from those within Publicis like Joakim Borgstrom, executive creative director at BBH Singapore.

“I’m more interested in being recognised outside the industry,” he told Campaign. “I think we’re sometimes a little too worried about what the juries think about our work instead of what our neighbours think about our work.”

Out of touch?

On many levels, Cannes appears out of touch with everyday industry concerns, and those in the business see this as a wakeup call.

“It’s a good correction in the industry for agencies to really focus on clients’ ROI, and making sure all the work they do is in the best interest of the clients,” said Matt Sutton, APAC CEO of AdParlor.

“Really, you’ve got agencies working super hard and spending money to try to win an award and make themselves look good, but it’s not necessarily in the best interests of the client.”

Cannes might certainly be judged differently if it were a business ROI awards, but it’s not, and many hope it never will be.

But Cannes has also been changing, reflected by the signage that now covers the Palais from IBM and Accenture, the beach cabanas owned by social-media platforms and the yachts rented by programmatic and ad-tech firms, all of whom must also be judged on excesses. It may not be long before business strategy becomes a bigger part of the Cannes equation.

As FCB’s Polar told a group of Cannes creatives, “I’ve been coming here 20 years and the best work is work that…inspires to be a better business builder. If it was my decision… probably I would debate about making [the awards] more relevant for the clients’ business, for example, but not supersede them all. I don’t think we should [demonise] award shows.”

Faaez Samadi and Gideon Spanier contributed reporting to this article.

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