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Don't woke me up, Cannes

24 Jun 2019  |  Dominic Mills 
Don't woke me up, Cannes

From adland's rather anti-progressive reaction to Alexander Nix's invitation, to Unilever's woke-washing and the self-fulfilling spin cycle, Dominic Mills witnessed missed opportunities at Cannes Lions 2019

Cast your mind back to the autumn of 2016. As a Trump victory becomes possible some of the US’s most woke citizens (i.e. Hollywood literati, musicians, TV stars etc) claimed that they would be moving far away, with New Zealand an early favourite.

Four years on, they haven’t moved. Maybe they couldn’t find Auckland on the map. Maybe they realised same-day delivery of Goop’s shamanic energy crystals was not possible. Maybe their public expression of 'wokeness’ was enough to assuage their need for a bit of virtue signalling.

The reaction last week of some of Cannes’ finest to the billed appearance of demon-figure, disgraced, Alexander Nix, he of Cambridge Analytica infamy, reminded me of the Trump effect. The outcry was such that Nix pulled out.

Nix was due to appear on a five-person panel discussing, among other things, morality and data. His fellow panellists included Professor Steven Pinker, Unilever’s Susan Ren and an ex-Amazon exec now with Wunderman.

Tom Denford of ID Comms offered one of the milder criticisms. “I find it appalling that the organisers were giving him [Nix] a stage and a spotlight intended to for celebrating the best of the industry, and that as a result, the assembled audience would be unintentionally applauding him on to that stage for the outside world to see.” You can read Denford’s comments in full at the bottom of this piece.

Well, no. First, they might boo him rather than applaud. Second, how do you unintentionally applaud someone? And third, Cannes is about the industry talking to itself in the mirror — a subject in which the rest of the world has no interest.

Carole Cadwalladr, the Guardian/Observer journalist who broke the Cambridge Analytica story, saw Nix’s presence “as a metaphor for where the ad industry is currently at and its refusal to examine its own involvement in ongoing global shittery.”

Well, no. Actually the industry is torturing itself (OK, parts of it are) for its role in ongoing global shittery. The fact that it hasn’t done much about it is another matter.

And most entertainingly of all — it’s worth the read — a former Cannes winner wrote a letter of protest to the organisers explaining why they cut their Lion in half (with a chainsaw, I presume) and sent it back. At one point I thought it might have been a joke, but...

Here’s a sample of the letter.

“So respectfully, on behalf of advertising professionals everywhere. On behalf of the millions about to have their European status revoked. On behalf of the people fighting to regain control of their democracies. For the victims of rape who can no longer legally have an abortion. For those having their lives upended by a rising tide of nationalism. On behalf of my Bulgarian friend who had his kidneys kicked in during a racist attack in North London.

"We invite you to act.

"Get on the right side of history.

"Remove Alexander Nix from the lineup.”

The letter was anonymous, by the way. Why, you wonder.

In effect, Nix was no-platformed.

I have no idea what Nix would have said. He may have defended his actions. He may have been contrite, perhaps on a ‘Repentance Tour’. But, either way I would have liked to have heard what he said. Given that the panel was to have been chaired by Gillian Tett, a senior FT journalist renowned for her tenacity, the idea that Nix would have got a free pass is laughable.

The industry prides itself on its commitment to progression, never more than now, but progression means being open-minded, open to debate and disagreement. It doesn’t mean shutting down people whose views or actions, past or present, you may loathe. Nor, as the letter writer has it, does it mean appropriating the views of others to advance your argument. It’s about being brave enough, big enough, to take on opposing views.

Usually the thing that pisses me off about Cannes is that it invites celebs who come to shamelessly flatter the industry (usually to extract money from brand budgets) and tell it what it wants to hear. The one time Cannes tries to change blows up in its face.

And let’s be honest. If you really don’t want to hear what Nix has to say, you don’t have to go to the debate. There’s plenty of other ‘woke’ things to do in free-loading off Accenture/Google/Facebook etc or spanking the expenses budget.

Perhaps next year Cannes will invite Nigel Farage.

‘Woke-washing’ and the self-fulfilling spin cycle

I must confess that my first, somewhat sceptical reaction, to Unilever CEO Alan Jope’s warning about the perils of ‘woke-washing’ (hat tip to his PR people for that soundbite term) was that it was a speech of great cunning designed to pull up the purpose ladder so that rival brands couldn’t climb it.

Reading between the lines, this I how I saw what he said: “Look, we at Unilever got into purpose way before you. If you think you can jump on this bandwagon now, forget it. We got there first, you’ll never be as good as us, and if you try you’ll just look like copycats.”

Perhaps that is mean. After all, he cited evidence from Unilever’s own brand portfolio to claim that in 2018 28 of those it classifies as ‘Sustainable Living Brands’ (including Dove, Knorr, Rexona and Persil) grew 69% faster than those without purpose.

To reinforce this, Jope threw in third-party evidence in the form of surveys by Edelman which purports to demonstrate that consumers prefer purpose-driven brands.

Hmm. Well, the trouble with these surveys is that they represent claimed behaviour and who, faced with a clipboard-wielding researcher or an online questionnaire, isn’t going to say that? I would.

Indeed, if you examined the contents of my fridge/under-the-sink cupboard/bathroom cabinet you would find some purpose brands there. But usually I buy them because I believe they’re the best at what they do and because I’m familiar with them. By the by, I have no idea what Knorr’s purpose is, and nor (no pun intended) can I be bothered to find out.

And this is where I think it gets interesting. In the same speech, Jope said that Unilever would ‘disproportionately resource’ its purpose brands and, by extension I assume, under-resource those without one.

Of course from Unilever’s point of view, the logic of that is unassailable.

But it stands to reason then, assuming Unilever’s creative and media budgets are deployed effectively, that they are likely to outperform those brands in its portfolio as yet without a purpose and less resource.

So we have the classic cause-and-effect issue here. Are Unilever’s purpose brands outperforming because they have a purpose, or because they get bigger marketing budgets?

Perhaps Jope knows, but if he is really serious about the business value of purpose, he should have explained that.

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RachaelS, Marketing Consultant, Various on 28 Jun 2019
“Really enjoyed this article. TBH I was expecting a continuation of the self-satisfied, smug drivel one always hears post Cannes so I'm glad to see someone pointing out the hypocrisy in adland. Totally agree that Nix shouldn't have been no-platformed. He has a right to speak as much as anyone else and I would've also been really interested to hear his thoughts on data ethics. It really does highlight the narrow-mindedness of the people within the industry, which I'm ashamed at times to say I'm a part of. It's a drone mentality and one that reduces freedom and diverse opinions.”
NickDrew, CEO, Fuse Insights on 26 Jun 2019
“Great column on both themes. First up, kudos to the Cannes organisers for *trying* to include Nix on a panel. Listening to voices we may not like is part of being an adult; it's also a core part of taking stock of our own world view and rethinking our opinions. Seemingly neither of which the ad industry wants to do while caning rose wine on the most obvious excuse for a jolly since Davos.
Secondly, you mention Unilever's citation of Edelman research to support its claim that consumers back brands with purpose. The issue with that use is that the research deals very much in principles and generalities: "do you in general like the idea of a non-specific brand that has a purpose" is rather different from "do you want your razor company to fixate on and lecture you about the idea of toxic masculinity as a purpose, rather than just selling you better cheaper razors?". And the answer to the second is rather less clear-cut.
And Persil has a purpose? Who knew?!”


05 Aug 2020 

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