The eurozone is in crisis and Britain is back in recession, but you wouldn’t know it at the Cannes Lions festival where the bars, private beaches and yachts were heaving.
The annual, week-long pow-wow for the advertising industry — a mixture of speeches, parties and awards — was full of paradoxes.
One ad agency flew in actor John Hamm, aka Don Draper from TV drama Mad Men, a fictional ad man from a bygone era. Then there was internet firm Yahoo, on its third chief executive in just three years, which felt that having a big yacht sent out a positive message. Meanwhile, The Guardian deservedly won a prestigious Gold Lion after splashing out on its “Three Little Pigs” TV ad, even though the paper continues to lose £40 million a year.
Cannes matters because advertising generates £320 billion in annual revenues worldwide, up 4% on last year, despite economic jitters, according to Zenith Optimedia. The UK market is worth about £16 billion.
This is a rare opportunity for face-to-face contact for ad folk from around the globe, who meet in search of that magical, elusive quality: creativity. As WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell likes to say: “We know it exists. We usually know it when we see it. We know that our future prosperity depends on it... But we can’t put a number to it.”
One of the best ways to seek inspiration is to look at the thousands of pieces of work on display. The talk in recent years has been about the rise of Asia and Latin America. However, this year, Western markets, including the UK, did well.
The top Grand Prix awards in film and press went to agencies in the US, Italy and France. The US-based Mexican restaurant chain Chipotle triumphed with a gentle animated film telling the tale of a farmer trying unhealthy industrial methods before returning to natural ways. French channel Canal+ also won for its hilarious TV ad about a film director called The Bear. Both were proof that story-telling counts.
Press ads also performed strongly. Clothing chain Benetton won for its striking “Unhate” campaign, which imagined political rivals such as Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy kissing.
If this was the year that the West bounced back creatively, it was also a year when old-media firms — particularly those from London — regained some swagger. In addition to The Guardian’s success, The Sunday Times won Gold for its poster ads for the Rich List and Channel 4 took a design Gold for its More4 branding.
Digital innovation was oddly lacking. Even the smartest piece of work, Nike Fuel Band, which measures how much energy you’ve expended, is more of a physical than a virtual creation.
On the basis of awards won, emerging markets such as India, China and Russia lack creative clout. “There isn’t yet the work which is of a quality to win,” believes Miles Young, worldwide chief executive of Ogilvy & Mather.
He is well qualified to judge as his agency was the most-awarded, bagging a record 83 Lions. Domestic politics doesn’t explain fully the lack of strong work. “China is much more creatively led than Russia, even though you might argue China is less democratic,” says Young, whose Shanghai office won a Grand Prix for a Coca-Cola poster.
It’s not just agencies that come to Cannes seeking inspiration. Clients attended in record numbers — all the better to keep an eye on their agencies.
A quarter of the 11,000 delegates, or nearly 3000, came from brands, according to Britain’s Top Right Group, formerly Emap, which runs the Lions.
Drinks company Diageo had around 17 staff — double last year. Energy giant Shell, which barely sent anyone previously, had 20. “The primary purpose of being here is following through on a belief that brilliance in creativity drives a disproportionate economic return,” explains Diageo chief marketing officer Andy Fennell.
“It’s a really cluttered media world — with social and search on top of TV and magazines — so creativity is at a premium,” believes Keith Weed, the top marketer at consumer goods giant Unilever.
Some fun-loving ad folk grumble that Cannes has become more sombre with so many clients. For Unilever's Weed, “this is a business conference”.
Most Brits were surprisingly upbeat, even allowing for the sunshine and rosé wine. WPP’s £350 million deal to buy digital agency AKQA, announced at the festival, showed London is still a fertile breeding-ground for world-class talent.
Sir John Hegarty, whose Bartle Bogle Hegarty agency was behind The Guardian ad and Grand Prix-winning work for Lynx deodorant, says: “I think London is producing better work than last year — but you get ups and downs.”
Hegarty has the benefit of the long view, founding BBH in 1982 and keeping it independent. “One of the problems in the UK is that there aren’t enough people starting agencies with passionate beliefs,” he warns. “I think there are lots of people who are starting agencies who are desperate to make money. But money is a tool, not a philosophy. Consequently, you don’t get that commitment to creativity.”
Cannes could do with more of Hegarty’s passion.