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Cannes: the whisper of discontent

06 Jul 2015  |  Dominic Mills 
Cannes: the whisper of discontent

As some big industry names pour scorn on the festival of creativity, Dominic Mills assesses whether Cannes Lions has lost its soul.

Ok, I promise: this will be the last word from me on the subject of Cannes. For this year, anyway.

Normally, in the immediate aftermath of Cannes, there is a great deal of chatter about the winners. Did they deserve it? What does it mean for the industry? Is there a new paradigm about blah blah blah?

Who's up, who's down...all that entertaining but harmless stuff.

This year, it's not the same. Have you had a conversation with anyone about what actually won at Cannes? There was a time when everyone knew and talked of nothing else (for a week at any rate).

Try googling 'Cannes Lions Winners 2015' and all you get is the standard lists of winners. No earnest, passionate, analysis of the winners.

There's hardly any controversy either. Try 'Cannes Lions Winners 2015 controversy' and all you get is some trivial row about an entry from Dubai in design (two things no-one cares about).

What do we conclude?

One, that the winners achieved universal approbation? Unlikely. That's never happened before.

Two, that there are so many awards handed out - over 1,100 - that no-one can keep track of who's won. Quite possible.

Three, that no-one's heard of most of the winners, has never - despite YouTube - seen them, and therefore has no opinion on them. Also quite possible.

But what I am really sensing is a steady whisper of discontent about Cannes, the main thrust of which is that it has lost its soul and its purpose.

Instead, in one memorable phrase, it has become a vehicle for "conspicuous consumption" - a term coined by Thorstein Veblen and something all adland's wannabe behavioural economists will recognise. We'll come back to this subject later.

Normally, one can ignore the Cannes critics. They're hacks like me taking potshots, they're bitter losers, or they're nobodies (or sometimes any combination of the two).

But this time they should be listened to. They're people with gravitas, people with reputations, people who think before they pronounce.

You can take this splendid piece of vitriol by US creative James Cooper in which he compares Cannes to FIFA.

Here's #7 of his ten reasons why Cannes is like FIFA:

"You Win. So What? Take a look at some of the Grand Prix winners over the last five years - especially in the newer categories like Innovation and Titanium. Most of these products or services don't even exist any more. I know this because two of the Gold Lions I have won are for products that don't exist. And a recent Grand Prix for Innovation is for a product that I was an investor in that barely exists today. They are like the billion dollar empty stadia in Brazil and South Africa; beautifully useless graveyards."

They're people like Jeff Goodby, the G in Goodby Silverstein and Partners, a US agency famed both for its creative output and its intellectual rigour.

Goodby - a former president of the judges at Cannes, and many times a juror - wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Cannes more and more resembled a "plumbers' or industrial roofing convention."

As a result, he said, he was unlikely to go back.

He compares Cannes to Bunuel's film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeousie, a ferocious satirical indictment of middle-class norms.

Goodby writes: "In 'The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,' Luis Bunuel has a scene in which well-dressed people sit around a dining room table on toilets, then individually excuse themselves to go into a lavatory to secretly eat a lovely dinner. Cannes is when we hit the loo. It's great in there, but it's something we kind of do by ourselves and don't talk about later."

They're people like futurist and ex-head of strategy for JWT, Tracey Follows, writing perceptively in the Guardian last week.

She says Cannes no longer celebrates advertising for consumers. Instead, it celebrates technology applied to advertising. Follows wrote: "The advertising industry must embrace new technologies as much as consumers have done, and weave them into its world. But it is kidding itself if it thinks advertising and technology approach creativity in the same way. Technology is creative because it originates: it invents and it brings completely new processes and services to our daily lives.

"Advertising is creative because it familiarises; it normalises, it habitualises, it reinforces our existing attitudes and beliefs."

She adds: "Can we really say that this year's winning campaigns at Cannes were created to serve the people they supposedly speak to?"

The answer, for the most part, is that we can't. As I wrote previously Cannes is now a reflection of the industry's obsession with itself, not with the people it is supposed to be reaching.

The legendary Dave Trott summarises this with great pith in this interview: "[With Cannes] you're not doing advertising for 6 million people anymore, but for 10 people on the jury. Advertising has gone back to being dead stuff for people in art galleries."

If there's a pattern here, it's this: one, Cannes is no longer about advertising that speaks to the masses, but about technology-driven ideas that may - but most likely won't - ever achieve anything in the real world; two, it has become inward-looking.

Large-ing it up on the Croisette

Still, if one thing hasn't changed it's that Cannes remains resolutely committed to conspicuous consumption.

Affidavit 1 is a conversation that was related to me about a British media executive who joined one of the big US tech giants that now swarm all over Cannes like a painful rash.

The phone rings..."Hello, I'm your Cannes rep at MegaTech Corp."

Media Executive: "Er...great, what does that mean?"

Helper: "Well, whatever you want for Cannes, I make it happen. I hear you want to take eight visitors with you. Is that all? Do you have any activities you want to do?"

Media Executive: "Well...yes. I was thinking we might play golf one day. But we'd need transport..."

Helper: "Ok, no problem. Helicopters OK?"

Media Executive (thinking he needed a mini-van, but warming to the idea): "Er, maybe we could have a speedboat to come back in..."

Affidavit 2 is a full page ad in Saturday's Guardian featuring star columnist Polly Toynbee. The Grande Dame of the Left effectively holds out the begging bowl, encouraging readers to sign up for Guardian Membership at £60 a month to support the paper's "free, fearless and independent journalism."

Ok, I understand the Guardian has to find extra dosh, but I wonder how many of the people signing up - or indeed Polly Toynbee herself - are aware that the Guardian spends (and I'm going to estimate conservatively) £100,000 (all-in, including travel) a year to sponsor Cannes.

I don't imagine they'd be too pleased. Why, the first month's subs from 1,000 new members probably wouldn't even cover the Guardian's booze bill in Cannes.

But at Cannes you've got to be seen to spend it, right?

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Drayton Bird, Copywriter, Drayton Bird Associates on 6 Jul 2015
“The problem is simple,

Advertising is sold first to the client, who pays the agency's bills but rarely knows much, if anything about what sells.

Then to Awards juries who haven't the slightest interest in selling. And lastly, if at all, to the people who pay everyone's bills: the customers.

A friend who was at Cannes wrote to me the other day saying "Almost all the Direct winners here would bring you out in apoplexy".

He is a former Creative Director at Ogilvy, who win more awards than anyone else.

David Ogilvy would not be impressed. He hated them. His mentor, Raymond Rubicam, said "The aim of advertising is to sell. It has no other objective worth mentioning.

Bill Bernbach - the creatives' God - said "All this talk of creativity worries me. I fear lest we keep the creativity and lose the sell."”