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Cannes Takeaways: Jason Cobbold – is the festival becoming a bad ad for advertising?

With its imposing Hotel de Ville, its art deco landmarks, the Majestic and Martinez, and the grand old Carlton, Cannes is certainly one of France’s more beautiful and revered towns. What better location for the advertising industry to return year on year to advertise its own worth.

But a stroll down the Croisette invites a different response. The ordered lines of Cannes’ many landmarks are obscured these days by gigantic billboards, huge digital screens and building “takeovers” – you name the format, you’ll find it. And this year seemed to be an even greater assault on the senses, from the garish Snapchat building wrap bustling for space, to the Majestic enjoying an Adobe makeover in font size 10,000.

Seeing this got me thinking about my time back at BMP DDB. I was the account director on TFL (or London Transport as it was back then), and I had the privilege (and occasional challenge) of working with a brilliant, highly opinionated head of art. It was his passionate belief that advertisers, and human beings in general, hold a responsibility to make the world more interesting and beautiful, not less so. This was rather infuriating for me as I was delicately negotiating my tenth round of amends to a London Transport poster (alas seen in Canning Town not Cannes) – but now I kind of get it. We have a duty to enhance the public spaces we share. And it strikes me that this message has not got through to the organisers of the Cannes Lion festival.

Because this is not just an argument for the aesthetically obsessed. The commercial point also needs to be made. After all, the first lesson we learn in advertising, as Bernbach once said, is that “if your advertising goes unnoticed, everything else is academic”. Tell me which brands can really cut through in this environment? If this year is anything to go by, the answer is very few.

Add to this the soaring cost of the space itself. Advertising your business at Cannes will cost you. AdAge reported that billboards and digital screens have gone up from $40,000 to over $200,000. It’s a hefty price tag and prices have risen 25% since 2022. Taking over the Big Screen on the red carpet – the largest digital asset available to purchase at the festival – costs a mere 195,000 euros, according to Ad Age; and one of its new single Villa Denise Banners along the Croisette is reportedly set at 100,000 euros. Brands seem content to pay these prices to sit alongside the myriad other primary-coloured corporate logos without any concern about diminished impact.

Now if you are one of the brands intent on spending sky-high figures on outdoor media, you should be boosting your investment with skyscraper-levels of creativity. Yet so much of this creative just doesn’t cut through. We preach clever, contextually relevant outdoor to our clients and then paint the town red / yellow / blue / green / pink with giant logos and corporate slogans.

At its best, outdoor is interactive, immersive, stylish and clever. Just take a look at the Lions award-winners, and there is some incredible work coming through from brands and agencies. Like the beautifully-crafted Lola MullenLowe ‘Find Your Summer’ campaign for Magnum Ice Cream that took home a Grand Prix for its cool black and white photography and pared-back strapline. The campaign worked both as conventional posters and data-driven billboards pointing people towards areas of sunshine in a wintry London. Or Pedigree’s ‘Adoptable’ campaign by Colenso BBDO, Auckland that used AI to turn dog adoption listings into targeted digital out-of-home ads, also taking home a Grand Prix.

So as the memory of Cannes fades for another year, let’s make the walk down the Croisette next year a bit less hectic, more crafted and more engaging than 2024. And if we do this well, we might just be advertising ourselves a whole lot better.

Jason Cobbold is CEO of BMB.

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