Opinion

Why the Cannes revamp is just a sticking plaster solution

As ad land’s biggest festival get cheaper, shorter and allegedly more ‘simple’, Mumbrella Asia’s editor Eleanor Dickinson argues that the Cannes Lions’ makeover is little more than a half-hearted gesture that fails to address the industry’s real issues

When Cannes Lions announced the arrival of its new, “streamlined and focused” festival, my colleague next to me blithely remarked how it felt more like Cannes 1.5, rather than 2.0, or an entirely new chapter in the event’s history.

On the surface, all the changes proclaimed by festival organiser Ascential Events appeared to be reasonable enough: a slightly shorter event – five days instead of eight – and fewer awards plus a cheaper ticket price.

At the heart of the announced changes was the “refocus” towards the festival’s “core value” of creativity. And that is where I feel the Lions organisers have missed a trick.

The advertising and creative industry is undergoing one of the most transformative periods in its 150-year history. To give you a sense of the industry instability, the phrase “the ad agency is dead” brings up more than 96 million search results on Google.

While creative and media agency leaders continue to bang their heads together on how to reach an increasingly apathetic audience – who would much rather watch their Kanye West videos uninterrupted by Lynx ads – the writing would seem to be on the wall if you look at the gloomy holding company financial results of late.

We have witnessed either falling or flatlining revenue for all the major players. Meanwhile, share prices for WPP, Publicis, Omnicom and Interpublic Group have all sunk over the past 12 months. Added to that, the consultancy firms are looming large as either competitors or buyers. With that in mind, surely Cannes needs a complete reboot – not tinkering at the edges

In fact, for some time now, criticism and concern has been directed at the festival for its skyrocketing costs – €1.15 million before anyone gets on a plane, as Business Insider reported in 2016.  

We saw the results of that frustration when Publicis Groupe made a very public withdrawal from 2018’s event. In addition, Ascential had to contend with fierce criticism from WPP’s leader Sir Martin Sorrell, who told Business Insider in June that attendees felt like they were being “ripped off”. He said: “They feel it’s very expensive… It may have passed its sell-by date.”

Holding companies are not the only parties Ascential will be under pressure to appease. As a publicly-listed company, the firm must also think of its shareholders. Right now, it hardly feels like there is long-game strategy at work.

But with agencies – and their award entries – providing the bulk of Cannes Lions’ revenue, it is no wonder that the organisers chose measures that would keep the likes of Publicis and WPP in the tent – for now at least. The decision to cut the delegate entry ticket by €900 (S$1,400) will no doubt go down well with agency finance departments for the next 12 months. But then what?  

Looking ahead, if the holding companies continue to see their bottom lines hit with every passing quarter, in time this reduction may seem far from enough. Cannes has so far chosen not to address the issue of award entry fees – which account for a huge proportion of agency expenditure.

So in reality the Cannes Lions changes are just a sticking plaster: and there is only so long a plaster can hold together. Will anyone be surprised if in two years, the holding company heads get together and demand their award fees be slashed? And will Ascential be so ready to appease them this time around?

Perhaps the organisers should have paid closer heed to Martin Sorrell’s words earlier this year about holding Cannes Lions somewhere else other than Cannes, somewhere cheaper and more practical. Although efforts have been made to minimise the additional expenses through restaurant vouchers and a hotel price freeze, the French Riviera localtion hardly helps fight against the image of excess and frivolity.

My colleague Tim Burrowes mentioned a telling moment from his Cannes experience in his ‘Best of the Week’ newsletter. He said: “I remember bumping into a young Australian team who’d had their place at the event funded by winning some sort of competition. What sessions had they enjoyed hearing that day, I naively asked. The duo thought my question was hilarious. They’d been on the beach.”

Meanwhile, on the subject of awards, many regular readers will be familiar with Mumbrella’s investigation over recent years into scam entries –  work created solely for awards, not to solve real client problems. Last year’s I-Sea app scandal reinforced Mumbrella’s belief that scam is a plague on the creative industry.

To be fair, following the I-Sea debacle, Cannes quietly updated its rules on scam – moving the emphasis from company to personal responsibility. It has also drafted some minor changes to its award line-up, meaning a single piece of work can be entered in no more than six Lions ‘contests’, which includes Spikes Asia. However, it has yet to take a firm enough stance on the issue. This year’s slew of questionable work from the festival demonstrated just that. And while the organisers decided to cut 120 sub-categories from the awards line-up, there are still way to many.

Moreover, rather than simply axing categories like ‘Integrated’ – because who isn’t talking about doing integrated work these days – it may be more in the Lions’ interests to reconsider the ‘media’ platforms themselves as categories. No creative director today worth their salt would admit to creating an ad only for TV or print, for example. So why does Cannes still have awards for them?

If a Cannes Lion is to reward work that has had a measurable impact on a client problem, it is unlikely that campaign will have run on only one medium. By keeping these outdated categories, Ascential is merely encouraging agencies to enter more and more awards, which helps neither the festival’s credibility nor the agency coffers.

For now though, Ascential’s short-termist tactics seem for the most part to have succeeded. Nearly all the big holding companies and their leaders have publicly reaffirmed their support for the festival – if not until 2019 for Publicis Groupe.

However, a gaping hole remains among these pledges of support. WPP, the largest and most critical of Cannes among the holding groups, has so far failed to comment publicly on the latest developments. I imagine it will soon come around and all will be fine and dandy – at least for another year or so.

So for now those in attendance at Cannes will still be able to game the system with questionable, but crucially winning, work. Those looking forward to some sunshine will still be able to frolic on the beach. But in the background, the industry will continue to change rapidly. And zero-based budgeting will make things even tougher. So you have to ask, is such a excessive celebration appropriate anymore?

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