Opinion

Has the Lion finally eaten itself?

Cannes LionsAn agency of the year which admitted to scam, one winner kicked off the app store, judges calling out block voting and that sexist party invite. Mumbrella’s Australia editor Alex Hayes asks is 2016 the year Cannes Lions finally ate itself?

On the face of it it’s been another successful, record breaking year for the Cannes Lions. More than 42,000 entries, 16,000 delegates and no doubt a massive increase in sponsorship revenues from both the stalwarts of the creative industries and those onrushing tech giants looking to usurp them in the race for marketing dollars.

All of that adds up to a tidy little profit for the owners of the Lions festival, the newly listed Ascential which has a market capitalisation of around $1.6bn – even after a Brexit related hit on Friday. Things certainly look rosy.

But scratch beneath the very shiny veneer and even from a distance you can see the gloss has really started to come off global advertising’s biggest week of the year, leading more and more people to question why they are there, and finally a more critical eye being cast on it by delegates and the media.

The first, and probably biggest issue that Cannes needs to fix, is the ease with which scam ads are able to win awards. This year there are two high profile examples which have been called out not just in trade media, but in the global media as a whole, and it’s not helping the credibility of the industry at a volatile time.

Grey Singpore's I Sea app has come under intense scrutiny globally

Grey Singpore’s I Sea app has come under intense scrutiny globally

I Sea was the first major scandal this year. Simply put it was an app by Grey Singapore’s social good department for a refugee charity which purported to allow people to use satellite images to search the Mediterranean sea for refugee boats, potentially helping to save lives. The only problem, it didn’t in any way work. Indeed it was such a bust it was publicly shamed by a tech blogger, kicked off the Apple App Store, and then the supposed client, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, actively distanced themselves from it.

Yet still the app was handed a Bronze in the Mobile category despite these obvious problems, and the Lions organisers now face the awkward issue of an investigation with Grey continuing to insist the app is genuine but just in a testing phase.

The festival actually updated its rules on scam quietly this year, moving the emphasis from company to personal responsibility. It also includes the line “speculative and conceptual advertising are not eligible for entry”, while non-client approved work is also not eligible. It should be fairly easy on those criteria and faced with a non-functioning app for these things to be ruled on by organisers, and yet they’re putting it off until after Cannes has finished.

The fact that this issue has dragged on for a week does the awards no credit. Dealing with these things after the show is over allows them to basically sweep it all under the carpet and not risk upsetting Grey’s parent company WPP, which also happens to be the Holding Company of the Year again at Cannes, and is a massive supporter.

Taken in isolation you could pin it as the annual Mumbrella moans about scam at Cannes piece, and argue it’s not scam, just a highly creative concept entered a little too early. But this year BBDO, one of the biggest creative networks in the world, went so far as to call out one of its own agencies for winning with a scam ad. From the stage. At Cannes.

It made them hand back the trophy for the Outdoor campaign, which had also been called out for promoting rape culture by among others Cindy Gallop.

bayer bbdo brazil rape ad

The ‘scammy’ ad from AlmapBBDO

Cannes organisers have failed to reveal whether they will be taking any action against the individuals involved under that revised scam policy, but I’ll file that possibility under ‘highly unlikely’.

That agency by the way was Sao Paolo based AlmapBBDO, which on Saturday was named Agency of the Year for winning the most Lions and getting the most shortlists at the festival. Having already admitted that one of its ad was scam you’d think Lions organisers will take a good hard look at all of its winning campaigns, given South America is known as a hotbed for this kind of work. Again though, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

We’ve made our position on the whole scam ad debate abundantly clear, and with that comes our stance on not attending Cannes until it takes an actual stand. That means a level playing field for real work which has gone through the various levels of client approvals.

But for the first time it feels like we’re not alone on calling this issue out, and the industry as a whole is starting to take it more seriously. That’s certainly borne out by the column inches which have been dedicated to these two ads. Long may it continue.

Why don’t jurors call this out from the jury room? Well for a start they can have as many as 2,000 entries to plough through in two days at the festival, so there’s not a lot of time to digest, try out the app or ask whether a press ad really ran anywhere other than a local newspaper in space paid for by an agency.

Then when it comes to deciding from a shortlist anything not going for Gold or higher gets just a couple of minutes, and suddenly some incredibly dodgy work picks up Bronze or Silver, and holding groups have more points for the overall awards.

Australian juror Dave King pointed out that block voting was going on in his Direct jury, and also said that they were told not to call out scam, and that organisers put pressure on them to award more work saying they were the toughest jury in that category they had ever had.

Innocean's Dave King wrote about block voting in a column

Innocean’s Dave King wrote about block voting in a column

Given the block voting issues came to a head a few years ago very publicly when James Greet called out the practice on the Media jury, it’s interesting it’s reared its head again. The year after that controversy festival chairman Terry Savage was keen to play down that block voting had happened, saying there was no evidence of it. Despite that they bought in sophisticated systems which were meant to detect it, so if it’s still going on as suggested there’s clearly still an issue.

Then there was the issue of that sexist party invite sent out on behalf of social media guru Gary Vaynerchuk’s Vayner Media inviting “hot women” and models to join a particular list and then asking for pictures of them to prove their attractiveness.

cannes vaynerchuk media invite

That saw the light turned back on the sexist nature of the industry, and in particular Cannes, by the likes of Gallop. While the primary damage was to Vaynerchuk’s brand (despite his heartfelt pieces to camera on Twitter responding to his critics), it was another niggle the Cannes organisers could have done without, and a reminder of quite how much of a throwback to the Mad Men era it can be.

The image of the six heads of the major marketing holding groups outside the Palais was also a reminder of the male domination at the top.

The six leaders of the world's biggest advertising holding groups are all men

The six leaders of the world’s biggest advertising holding groups are all men

Then there’s the celebrity factor – which was eruditely pointed out by UM’s Mat Baxter in his controversial op-ed ahead of Cannes when he described them as people who just don’t know enough about media and marketing to add any value to the ongoing debate.

So what does Cannes stand for? When you’re there it’s very easy to get swept up in the glitz of the event, the $15 bottled beers and $500 bottles of rose. But looking at things from a distance it seems more than ever it’s a group of ad execs holding on to the good old days and celebrating creativity for the sake of creativity, rather than actually doing anything materially useful.

Even Diageo marketing boss Adam Ballesty in one video filmed in front of a bunch of yachts said he would learn more at Austin-based tech, media and future gazing festival SXSW than Cannes.

“I think for education I would say that SXSW is a better education for marketers, really seeing the future,” he said. “But when I come here it completely reminds me that storytelling, emotion, creating connection, that’s our job.” It’s quite a long way to travel for reminders on the basics it would seem. You can see what he says just after the five minute mark of this MCN video.

One great irony about it all is the fact that the beach is filled with elaborate marquees from the likes of Google, Microsoft and Facebook, whose presence can usually be felt throughout the festival like a looming menace.

Those companies which are encroaching on every part of the industry and hoovering up ad dollars as quickly as budgets can be shifted, often at the expense of the traditional agency types found supping that rose on the Carlton Terrace, are hiding in plain sight and wooing the marketers those agencies have paid good money to take along and put up. And none of them seems to notice what’s happening.

Has Cannes eaten itself? I’ll let you make up your own minds after watching this bizarre fake kidnapping video of Aussie creative elder Bob Isherwood to promote a session at the festival.

Cannes might have been able to ignore issues in the past around things like scam, but there’s a smoking gun this year it can’t sweep away. Its growth this year was fuelled by new categories, not major growth in existing areas, and an actual decline of 30% in the terribly named Cyber category, and a flatlining in Mobile, the fastest growing media channel out there.

Savage: Questions to answer

Savage: Questions to answer

There can be no more burying their heads in the sand, Terry Savage and co need to come to the party now and show the industry that they won’t tolerate scam, that they don’t view it as a misdemeanour and something to be quietly swept under the carpet to avoid embarrassing one of their mates.

If this festival is to have as glorious a future as it has a past it’s time to embrace the modern world, and stop hanging on to the good old days.

But as the French say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

I’m certainly not holding my breath.

Alex Hayes in the editor of Mumbrella.com.au.

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