What I learnt from four days in France: Cannes Lions Awards 2017 wrap up

Posted on 21/06/2017


Ever since 2009 I’ve wanted to attend the Cannes Lions awards. At first it was for the film – the cinematography and creativity of ads like the Philips Carousel stunned me.

Even today they look fantastic, despite selling legacy products. Creative work like this and pioneering digital campaigns are a big part of what made me switch career tracks from cinema to advertising.

8 years later I finally got the chance to go. Here’s what happened (and what I learnt in the process).

What happened

Over four days I soaked up as much creative, as many talks as possible, hung out with brilliant colleagues I didn’t know I had, and spoke to a fair few strangers (and hassled Oath’s Shingy for answers). I also managed to survive a stomach bug which really cut back on the late night partying. Maybe a blessing in disguise, but it didn’t feel that way.

What I learnt

In the long run, the best experiences are the ones you learn the most from. Always be self improving etc. Thankfully, Cannes was both enjoyable and a real education in the ad and media industries.

What do I mean? I think I’ve a better understanding at a few different levels:

1. Society and change

Advertising and marketing are obsessed with the present, the most up to date. You can infer a lot about the world and the challenges we face from the type of work that was entered and the topics people were talking about:

  • Health and wellness (as an awards category) was big and more competitive than ever. We face huge challenges in how we manage and afford healthcare, so this both reflects the problem and shows the creative and commercial energy being channeled towards solutions.
  • The future will come from everywhere – the festival wasn’t just about the big American or European brands. Teams from all over the world had been shortlisted and in the health and wellness space, a lot of the best work was from other continents. The same is true of participants and speakers – it’s no longer a ‘western’ dominated commercial world.
  • Continued behavioural and technology shifts were evident everywhere: changes in media consumption all over the world, the application of AI, through to the rise of voice assistants.
  • Advertising, as ever, picks up on the cultural zeitgeist (further proof IMHO that it’s an art form / worthy of study). Fake news, refugee crises and the Trump election all appeared within multiple entries and talks

These are just a fraction of the trends – I’ll put more thought to this another time.

2. The industry (and the event)

Listening to people talking at the event, there’s a general consensus that there are multiple ‘Cannes’: the one with media executives and hot tubs filled with pink champagne. And the Cannes of the art director – about the work and the gutterbar. That’s probably true.

But it also struck me that quite a few people I thought might be there weren’t. And it’s not just the extortionate ticket prices – it’s because of what the festival is and isn’t about.

Many of the writers, communicators and thinkers I admire the most wouldn’t come here. This is not the venue for experimental, fringe ideas or emerging talent. It is the venue for emerged talent. For things that already are big, in order to celebrate them. Which means it’s not the place for finding new possibilities – but for understanding the ones that already exist.

I definitely don’t want to devalue the experience or the caliber of the work (both of which were excellent). But the work has been around for at least 6 months. The technologies on show already have been proven to work (if only through the entered project itself) and are already in place elsewhere.

The realization hit me while watching a CNN exec and blogger Casey Neistat. CNN guy and Casey were a bit fractious – you could tell that “old” and “newer” media weren’t totally agreed on why they were working together (Casey because he got to do something new with a bigger media budget; CNN guy because he wanted to monetize a younger audience demographic). But in reality they’re both part of the established mainstream, just different strands of it.

Cannes is a snapshot of the present and recent past. Don’t come to Cannes for the new or to sketch out what the future might look like.

3. Creativity and communications

Inspiration is alive and well. Although opinion will always remain devised over what isn’t and isn’t good work, people are still phenomenal at solving problems in new ways. Whether it’s:

  • NASA pursing space exploration.
  • BIC architectural practice morphing buildings into new forms in order to improve the lives of residents.
  • Using a cultural practice like charm bracelets in Afghanistan to track a child’s immunizations.

People are not short of ideas. The human ability to create new things and adapt our environment never fails to impress.