Nick Vale of Maxus: why Cannes needs to strike a balance between ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Math Men’


As Cannes Lions prepares to welcome 16,000 delegates this month, and introduces two new Lions to celebrate creativity in entertainment, onlookers and Cannes veterans will again be asking whether the festival has become too large, losing its original focus on creativity.

Purists will bemoan the fact that the festival has changed vastly from yesteryear, when the world’s top advertising creatives gathered to discuss their craft, with elements like media bolted on at the fringes.

Yes, the festival is getting significantly bigger, with a growing presence of ad tech vendors. The new guy in town is American, suited and not to be found staggering around the Gutter Bar come 2am.

But bigger does not necessarily mean badder. Indeed, as our industry evolves far beyond pieces of advertising created for a TV, poster or website and as the definition of creativity grows broader than ever before, Cannes has no choice but to grow and diversify.

Any growth that invites unusual and surprising things to come from unusual and surprising places is, in my view, excellent. Our industry is in a massive state of change and flux, and so anything that helps us to see the way forward is good.

Cannes is, however, treading a tricky line this year. To remain relevant, it has no choice but to grow. Yet to expand too far risks becoming an all–inclusive, all-encompassing maze that becomes very tricky to navigate.

All too often, that sense of ‘messiness’ is reflected in entries that feel over-engineered, over-complicated and cumbersome; trying to be all things at once and in so doing, becoming void.

Cannes organisers face the unenviable task of neatly segmenting today’s work and the agencies that produce it. Rather them than me.
In fact, that massive grey area which doesn’t fall between traditional disciplines is where most of the interesting stuff is happening. The temptation, therefore, is to create evermore categories in the hope of catching as much of it as possible.

It would be easy to say we must just let the work lead the way, the best examples leading us into clearly definable focus points ready to be packaged up and labelled. The truth is that we are still a long way from that point and that the best pieces of work remain undefinable, defying segmentation to blaze a triumphant silver and golden trail across categories.

We are now at an absolute tipping point between ‘old’ approaches (brand building, building long term favourability, serendipity and the like) and an emerging data-driven world (that offers precision, targeting to individuals and short-term sales deliverability). The worst thing we could do would be to put the new on a pedestal, thus dismissing the value of a longer-term view.

In a polarised ‘Adscape’ now at peak complexity, we need to be better at defining what the emerging world looks like, and what the way forward is.

Definitions enable us to focus on what we need to be doing, what our product is and how to monetize it. To defy categorisation risks treading on each other’s toes and worse, having clients who are unsure of exactly what their agencies’ roles are.

The primary purpose of strategic planning today is to bridge the gap between the old and new so they can cohabit and build off each other to create something more exciting that propels us into the future.

So this year, I hope to see work that demonstrates the clarity of thinking and vision needed to deliver in our dizzyingly complex world. I’m not holding my breath, but the work that eventually achieves this will help us forge new models that will vastly benefit our industry and its future.

unnamedNick Vale is worldwide head of planning at WPP media agency Maxus.

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  1. And the Cannes Dylithium Lion for “Bloat” goes to… Cannes. As for the CLIO’s, they have turned into “Bloaty McBloat.”