WPP boss threatens to pull out of Cannes as doubts over ‘value’ and relevance grow

WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell has threatened to pull out of Cannes as the cost and complexity of the festival grows and questions continue about the ease of scams winning awards.

sir martin sorrell - wpp

Sorrell used an interview with Advertising Age, the most influential marketing trade publication in the US, to fire a warning shot at Cannes’ organisers, by claiming the world’s largest marketing communications company and a major financial contributor to Cannes, needed to rethink its involvement.

“I think there are some arguments that it’s got too big and it’s got too sort of hectic, and maybe has got oversized,” Sorrell said.

“Maybe because in the drive to cram revenue in the organisers have broadened it too far.

“Maybe we take a breath and a pause, maybe stimulated by the results of the (Brexit) referendum, to think again, you know, what we do here and how we do it and, dare I say, whether we do participate or not. I mean, because, it has become a very big exercise – a very expensive exercise.”

Sorrell said as the festival has grown, with the expansion of categories and the arrival of the adtech companies led by Google and Facebook, it had become compromised.

“I’m saying it’s broadened and I welcome that broadening, but I think it’s lost, at the same time, a little bit of its focus. I think that’s one of the questions about Cannes; it becomes a mass networking event.”

He admitted that some clients did not see the value in the awards. “Some clients don’t like it. Some client’s don’t believe in awards. I think the bulk of clients find the awards stimulating, energising, encouraging.”

Sorrell played down the impact of the “duopoly” of Facebook and Google which had taken over Cannes.

‘The simple fact of the matter is whether you or  like or not – or the creative community likes it or not, our business has become more technologically relative.”

He noted that 75% of WPP revenues come from media, data and digital and that people complaining about the influence of the tech giants were “harking back to the days of Roger Hatchuel… and the parochial French exhibition here in Cannes”.

Despite a record number of entries, 2016 proved a difficult year for organisers with some attendees saying that the festival had lost its relevance, and that events such as SXWS were now more important to the industry trying to get a handle on the future.

Cannes was also rocked by the awarding of Lions to two scam ads, including a controversial ad for Bayer by BBDO Brazil which the network itself ordered be handed back. Despite the scandal, the agency, Sao Paolo based AlmapBBDO, went on to be named Agency of the Year.


An entry by Grey for Good Singapore, part of WPP, claiming to be an app that would help people use their phones to spot refugees in distress, was panned by the tech community, pulled from the Apple Store and renounced by the rescue group the agency Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) had claimed to be a client.

Grey admitted the app was in “test mode” but Cannes organisers said they would not investigate the validity of the entry until after the festival, despite it clearly breaching newly-adopted rules against scam.

Australian Direct juror, Innocean’s Dave King, wrote in a column for Campaign Brief that he had been told not to call out scam ads and the jury had been pressured to elevate work, while at the same time saying that the workload made it impossible to fairly judge the thousands of entries jurors had to look at.

King also highlighted block voting, despite Cannes organisers having claimed to have solved the issue.


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