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Matt Williams: Cannes 2016 – is it time to kill off creative director ‘rock stars?’

The Cannes Lions festival is so much better when it’s not pandering to celebrities and is instead taking a genuine look at the past, present and future of creativity.

That’s why the best session of the week so far has probably been Razorfish and Contagious’ take on ‘The Code of Creativity’. Don’t let the clichéd title fool you – this was a fascinating study on the past 15 years of Cannes winners (that’s 400,000 submissions from 40,000 agencies in 123 different countries) to see if any interesting patterns or developments could be gleaned.


There were numerous intriguing conclusions, but one soundbite I really liked was that we should all ‘Kill the Rock Stars.’

This stemmed from the fact that from the past decade of Cannes winners, the data shows that submissions with a larger share of junior teams are more likely to be successful. Which was interpreted by the speakers on stage as a growing need for agencies to create cultures where creativity is baked into a more open, more diverse and more collaborative environment.

And what does ‘killing the rock stars’ actually mean here? The speakers described it as getting rid of those creative director types – or indeed anyone in a position of power in an agency – who believe their own hype. Who won’t have anything go out the door until they’ve meddled with it in some way. Who actually quite enjoy the younger talent in the agency pandering to them.

This interested me for a couple of reasons. I’ve been lucky enough to see the industry from both sides of the fence – meeting countless creative directors whilst working at Campaign, and being exposed to the intricacies of agency life from working within.

And I think there are two very different types of ‘rock stars.’ Yes, the industry is full of countless egos, big talk from bullshitters (I’ve certainly written up interviews containing enough of it) and department heads who put personal interests over the interests of an agency – leading to a downward spiral of an ever-diminishing body of work.

But I think there’s another level of ‘rock stars’ who are actually very important to this industry. These guys walk the walk. They’re genuinely inspiring. Living proof that barriers can be broken in the industry and that sometimes you really do have to go above and beyond to succeed.

Cannes is great for this – separating that rock star wheat from the rock star chaff. You see creative directors on the Croisette basking in their own self-importance because that stunt idea they demanded to take credit for picked up a Bronze in Promo & Activation. It’ll be enough to make sure production companies still suck up to them and they’ll either get a decent pay rise or a move to a rival agency desperate to boost their reputation by hiring one of the industry’s ‘characters.’

Yet then you go and see a Jeff Goodby or – as I did yesterday – Sir John Hegarty speak, and you realise there are some guys who it’s OK to be genuinely in awe of. These people have jaw-dropping reels, they don’t make lofty demands off the back of a couple of D&ADs, and, crucially, they don’t take the industry too seriously.

Hegarty’s most interesting quote yesterday, for example? “I work in advertising, I don’t live in advertising…bring the outside world in to what you do and don’t live in a bubble. Because our actual part is actually very boring.”

Tell that to the ‘rock stars’ in category number one and see what they say. Particularly this week, when they’re drinking rosé on the Carlton Terrace.

0_282_420_http-offlinehbpl.hbpl_.co_.uk-news-OMC-5002F7E1-D074-B41A-0AEA1E5D26358532-300x200I’ll end with a word on someone closer to home. Robin Wight (left) is the president of my agency’s parent company Engine. You know him as the man in the purple suit. I’d argue that he’s a genuine industry rock star. He’s got a body of work ranging from classic BMW ads to giving Orange a bright future. He’s relentless, has a genuine aura about him and uses his influence to inspire the next generation through great initiatives like the Ideas Foundation.

That’s a genuine industry rock star. Someone who’s spent almost half a century (literally) smashing down doors to get to this point.

Let’s keep those agency leads. And let’s use platforms like Cannes for them to inspire us and share their wisdom.

But the other set of rock stars? The self-proclaimed figureheads who strop, spout cliché after cliché and won’t rest until everyone knows how important they are? Then I agree with Razorfish and Contagious. Great work doesn’t need them.

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About Matt Williams

Matt Williams
Matt Williams is head of content at Partners Andrews Aldridge.
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