Cannes Lions 2019: in review

Walking the Croisette during Cannes Lions is a strange experience. There’s all the sincere, focused effort of industry professionals determined to have a good time, or possibly even learn something. In the background is the impossibly blue Mediterranean Sea, with a fleet of yachts and floating mega-cruise ships in the luxury brutalist style, looking for all the world like an invasion fleet. Of course, Cannes isn’t being invaded, it is a beach length al fresco conference centre that doesn’t bat an eyelid at the global marketing horde, having already welcomed the world’s film industry, TV and technology sectors of all stripes. 

Take half a step back from the rosé tinted celebrations, questionable fashion choices, gossip and the swapping of invitations to parties at any given moment and you can see patterns. Subtle shifts in the direction of travel, trends emerging or – in the case of “authenticity” and “purpose”, coming round for another pass. 

Underneath the thick surface layer, business is being done, careers are being made, reputations forged, broken or politely cleared away by one of the discrete but serious security personnel. Listen carefully and you can hear the marketing world shifting in new directions. 

Here are some of the themes our intrepid on-the-ground team extracted.


Antony Mayfield, CEO and founding partner, Brilliant Noise

Bad ads 

“If people hate seven in ten ads, where did it all go wrong?”, asked an Economist journalist to the CMOs of Lego, P&G and Taco Bell. (Cannes tip: Go to panels chaired by serious journalists and you get better questions.)

Marc Pritchard, CMO of P&G, says that the reason people hate ads is that they see the same ads again and again, but that this an outcome of the system for buying media. Brands are forced into processes by media owners into buying more than they need. A less is more approach would irritate consumers less and give ads a better chance of being successful. 

Pritchard’s answer points us to our next theme from the conference – creative’s great, but you have to pay attention to the system it’s working within. 

Systems thinking required

Throughout Pritchard’s presentation, you will hear the words “ecosystem” and “system” every few minutes. This view cuts through the panel-fodder non-questions of “TV vs digital”, “data vs creative” and all the other lazy-thinking, false dichotomy softballs that get thrown at speakers. 

Think about this not as a zero-sum game, but an ecosystem that is going to be a great renaissance of creativity.

At The Economist breakfast briefing, Pritchard talked about the breakdown of the advertising and marketing ecosystem, building new ones and the need for a complete a system change. He is uncompromising in his view that the “job of marketing leaders is to reinvent the marketing ecosystem. 

Taking a systems-focused approach to the complex challenges of the digital age is essential for leaders who want to actually get things done. Digital is disrupting everything, not just ads, and so we need to consider the whole way that communicating with customers is done, not just focus on fixing an obsolete machine. 

What’s the purpose of purpose?

Purpose was everywhere at Cannes as a theme, as it has been for a few years. The major problem with purpose, like many of the zeitgeist themes in marketing is it means different things to different people.

There are two schools on this: pro-purpose, let’s call them Pro-Purpose, and Purpose-Denier. Pro-Purpose, led by Unilever’s CEO on the main stage, don’t see this as just an issue for what brands say, but what they do. It’s a case of a moral imperative and of consumers increasingly demanding that they take action. Purpose-Deniers seem to just be bored with the idea of brands doing good. For instance, I’ve heard creatives discussing framing purpose to clients as a guiding idea that has had its time, urging others to move on to fresher ideas (see “Authentic, whatever that means” below).

For many though, it is a more urgent theme, it is about companies doing good, not just talking about it. Meanwhile outside on the steps of the Palais de Cannes, activists were being arrested on mass while trying to underline the urgency of addressing environmental issues – a case of survivability, rather than sustainability… 

Authentic. Whatever that means…

One theme that speakers and panellists were keen to push was authenticity, a concept that last did the rounds about ten years ago, when brands were learning to communicate in social media and learned that ad-copy wouldn’t cut it on Facebook and Twitter. 

This time around authenticity was presented as brand voice being connected to what any given company was really about. Speaking from the heart, as it were, about things that really matter to it. This is an idea that makes it very hard for anyone to attach real meaning to it –think of it as a placeholder theme for conversations and conference sessions which don’t want the audience to be troubled by engaging critical thinking. 

Coincidentally the morning before I first heard the earnest discussions around this theme, there was an article in the Scientific American being shared on Twitter about scientific research into how we think about authenticity on an individual level. The upshot is that no one really agrees on what we mean by being authentic, or staying true to ourselves. Indeed, the sub-headline to the article reads: “Researchers are calling into question authenticity as a scientifically viable concept”. It goes on to say:

‘Once you take a closer scientific examination, it seems that what people refer to as their “true self” really is just the aspects of themselves that make them feel the best about themselves.’

Well. Maybe that does work after all. 


Gareth James, Creative Director, Brilliant Noise

Woke wash or Wake up?

There’s a tension in the air about the festival this year. On the tip of everyone’s tongues (still) is ‘purpose’ – the quest for it and the seemingly unending desire for brands to find their purpose and do good.

But purpose is being tempered with caution this year – many voices are calling for care to be taken when brands decide to wade into social conversations with a shiny new purpose. Ultimately, if you’re going to talk the talk as a brand, you’d better make sure you walk the walk.

Inside the Palais, Unilever warned of the challenges they face, landing on the phrase ‘Woke-washing’. And the big question is, will big brands be able to actually be a force for good in our society when their principal aim is growth and sales? Can tacked-on conscience make the changes that the world needs? As gongs go to Nike and An-Nahar for their ‘activism’ is this truly a force for good or is it a way to feel better about the status quo? Will brands stop the ’trend’ of purpose if it becomes too fraught by criticism? 

Meanwhile, step outside the Palais on this Wednesday afternoon, you see the scene of protesters from Extinction Rebellion. Handcuffed and dragged from the red-carpeted steps, calling out our industry over blatant over-consumption and empty promises. Frustrated by the lack of worthwhile action from some of the cleverest, most creative minds and biggest, richest brands to actively solve our worlds big problems.

And while the average CMO tenure is only 43 months, is there any wonder that we are operating in an industry prone to attention deficit and shiny new quick wins. The time must come to think longer term and genuinely implement purpose.

Accessibility on the Croisette 

Accessibility was on the agenda this year, with the Grand Prix for health and wellbeing going to IKEA for their 3D printable ThisAbles project that brings add-on devices to furniture to help people with all kinds of motor impairment. Whilst the design Grand Prix goes to Google’s “Creatability,” – a project that is a set of experiments designed to make creative tools accessible for those with disabilities.

My scepticism about these kinds of projects is that they fall into the category of ‘vaporware’ – created to grab attention at awards bashes and generate headlines in the marketing press whilst not being set up as ongoing products to address the design need long-term. 

Take for example, The Xbox Adaptive Controller, by Microsoft – also in the running this year for the design award – that is designed to meet the needs of gamers with limited mobility. A real product you can actually buy online.

Reassuringly, the Google project is open source – hopefully this will mean it can gain momentum among the design and dev communities and grow beyond being merely ‘experiments’. 

And, even if there is a faint whiff of vaporware, it must be a good thing to have the less visible and underrepresented in society getting some necessary attention from mass-producers of products. And bravo to the festival judges for looking beyond the short-termist shock tactics the industry is accustomed to in order to push for innovations in technology and design being used for transformational uses and not solely for marketing headlines.


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