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Cannes: the ugly, the bad and the good

20 Jun 2016  |  Dominic Mills 
Cannes: the ugly, the bad and the good

So much of what Cannes has become is an existential parody, writes Dominic Mills - but there is just enough creativity with real purpose at its heart to (almost) balance the books

Over the years I've become a bit of a Cannes basher. It's no doubt partly a mix of envy and FOMO.

But I've come to realise it is more nuanced than that. I'm conflicted: the things I hate about Cannes - the vacuous self-regard, the worship of the shiny new toy, the solipsism - are also the things I secretly enjoy about it.

There's other stuff I like too, but despise myself for: the gossip and the conspicuous consumption.

But what I really like is the work. I came to realise this while editing this year's Cannes edition of The Directory, run by the estimable Patrick Collister, a long-time copywriter and currently with a day job as creative director of Google's creative think tank, The Zoo.

Let's start with the good bit of Cannes. It's the work, unequivocally so. And particularly the way Cannes has become a showcase for work that actually does some good for society.

I have not always been big on this, but I've come round (I'm not becoming less cynical with age, just more rounded). Editing The Directory, there were some fascinating examples of agencies and clients seeking to apply their creativity, their technology (and their budgets) to solving some of the world's problems.

Sometimes these are high-tech. Samsung and Leo Burnett Sydney have combined to create a connected headband that measures the impact of head injuries in contact sports. In the Netherlands, Vodafone and DDB have worked together on a prototype 'smart jacket' to improve safety for cyclists.

Sometimes these are resolutely low-tech, as in Swedish agency Akestam Holst's bid to do something to help Syrian refugees contact their families on Mother's Day (yes, they celebrate it too). It bought up a load of airtime on a commercial Syrian radio station, asked refugees to record messages, and then played them out as ad slots.

Either way, this sort of thing goes well beyond the sort of whitewashing activities, designed to salve troubled consciences and rise the CSR bandwagon, that used to take place. It's genuine, and (I think) has real purpose at its heart.

And the more Cannes showcases it, the more other clients and agencies will want a piece of the action.

Now for the bad. Cannes is not explicitly an effectiveness show, and the awards are primarily for creativity. Nevertheless, most of the agencies submit some form of stats to demonstrate that their work had an impact.

The ones that I have seen are, in nine out of ten cases, an absolute joke. This is especially true in social media-linked activations: likes, tweets, views, shares, reach - actual and potential (now there's a figure open to abuse) are dutifully detailed.

But it's all virtually pointless. Was there a target? Is there a category benchmark? What did it achieve - preference scores, purchase intent, sales even - ?

It's clear to me, that among the many creative agencies who submit the bulk of the Cannes entries, there is little or no effectiveness culture, and they are unable or unwilling to go beyond listing the stuff that can be easily measured. This is a shame and where, I think, the industry lets itself down.

And, at last, to the ugly, best found in the list of 'star' speakers brought in to pat the industry on the back and make it feel better about itself - or in Cannes' words, define the "creative eco-system".

They're the kind who make you go: 'Huh? WTF have they got do with Cannes?'.

I bring you Ban Ki-moon, discussing (Cannes' words) "the UN's commitment to issues confronting humanity in the 21st century; such as peace and security, climate change, sustainable development, human rights, disarmament, terrorism, humanitarian and health emergencies, gender equality, governance, food production and more..."

Do you know what? I'd rather he got on with solving them rather grabbing some down time on the Croisette.

Or David Copperfield, no doubt talking to media agencies about how to make 'rebates' disappear.

Or Gwyneth, on how she used social media to promote her range of vaginal steam cleaners.

Or Ben Johnson, the fastest drugs mule in the world, stripped of his gold at the Seoul Olympics.

Or Iggy Pop, who will no doubt despise himself for selling out, but who has - are you surprised - an album to promote.

I'm particularly pleased, however, to see Rob Delaney, writer and star of Catastrophe, but I worry that he is only there because the organisers mistakenly think he is related to Tim/Barry/Greg/Paul/Sam, adland's #1 creative family.

But I feel Cannes is missing a trick: the festival organisers could have invited Philip Green to sail over from Nice on his new yacht for a chat about reputation management.

And maybe Mike Ashley could have been invited to talk to agency CEOs about how to get the best out of their talent, say by building an in-agency maternity unit to boost productivity.

There's always next year though, when we will again wonder: is this real, or some sort of existential parody?

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bob wootton, principal, deconstruction on 20 Jun 2016
“I thought you rather pulled your punches in this piece. What I think rather disgraces the industry is the endless stream of gratuitous and worryingly unselfconscious Instas, Tweets and Facebook selfies from industry leaders with their chums all gripping fistfuls of Domaine D'Ott. There's not even a pretence that they're they're to see the few very senior clients who do fly in. Darn good fun it might be, but surely it would be wiser to enjoy such good fortune more discreetly and not publish it to those less fortunate, like their clients in their home market, for example?”