Matt Williams: Is Cannes this year going to be re-invention or just recycled bullshit?

It seems that every year, the Cannes Lions event starts earlier and earlier. It seems that every year the festival location and schedule gets bigger and bigger. And yes, it seems that the bars get busier and busier.

Monday used to be the ‘easing in’ day, with most attendees having flown in that morning or, if they really had to, the Sunday night. And whilst there’ll still be a portion of ad execs arriving later in the week – those far more important than you or I and only here for a slap-up lunch at La Colombe D’or and quick glass of rosé – it seems that most people attending the Cannes Lions this year arrived over the weekend (or even Friday), for added sun, sea and celebration.

So the festival was pretty much in full swing when I picked up my pass on Sunday morning. And already by then it was clear of the tone of the festival this year. Some of this was new and exciting; some seems depressingly similar to normal. Let’s take a look at what looks like punctuating the festival this time round.

No ticket, no entry

The official part of the festival is now vast. Like, really, vast. What was once confined to the main area of the Palais and perhaps a couple of boards showing work in the basement, the festival now has various entrances taking you to various themed areas and to various official bars and networking areas. Even a large section of the beach itself is now sectioned off. It used to be that you could come to Cannes without a ticket and not feel like you were missing out on a huge amount. But credit to the organisers, they’ve done a lot to combat this. Whether a lot of the additional content will be worth it (and whether delegates who would have gone anyway want to be paying for it) is something we’ll find out as the week goes on.

What’s an agency nowadays?

Pretty much every year for the past decade, Cannes week starts with a bunch of articles and seminars bemoaning the death of creativity and big ideas. Then someone like Sir John Hegarty or Dave Droga comes on stage and cheers us all up again, making us believe that great ideas are still our domain and with them we can change the world.

But in the themes presented this year and the vast set of new companies in attendance, it does appear that the roles and responsibilities of agencies are changing. Not necessarily in a way that’s requiring less creativity, but in a way that’s requiring a different type of creativity. I’ve seen very little – if any – talks about great advertising campaigns (not just great TV advertising, I mean any typical ‘integrated’ campaigns) but a lot on agencies becoming product developers, consultants and brand strategists. Lofty ambitions from digital upstarts or a genuine focus on where the industry is going? From what I’ve seen so far, I really do think it could be the latter.

The King is dead, long live the King

Whilst agencies around the world are all going in new and exciting directions, the desire for a soundbite is still universal. Every year at Cannes a new discipline or theory is declared the Next Big Thing – we’ve seen content, engagement, VR and experiential all declared ‘King’ in the last five years alone. And this year has been no different. In only the second talk I attended, the phrase ‘Authenticity is King’ was displayed proudly on the big screen above. No doubt something else will replace that before the end of the week too. Of course we should be using weeks like Cannes to discuss the direction of our industry, and the themes that represent that, but just one plea – can we not do it at the expense of everything that’s come before?

Less talk, more action

And here I don’t mean there’s actually less talk. As I proved in the point above, we’ll still have more hyperbole and hot air spoken from baffled celebrities and agency chiefs confused as to what they’re really on stage to speak about. But already I’ve witnessed a couple of talks that have taken recurring themes from the past few years, and shown where and how they’ve taken action.

This is more refreshing than you think – as much as I’ve always loved coming to Cannes, I’ve always come away inspired, motivated, but with a feeling deep down that we’ll all go back to our day jobs and none of the big talk will ever really be followed up with action. Various seminars so far, from Japanese-agency Hakuhodo to global digital beast SapientNitro, have already been testament to how that’s not recently been the case. That’s pretty pleasing to hear. And a positive note to start Cannes week on. Here’s hoping it continues…

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