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The Cannes Lions festival, and much of the industry, received a shock at the start of last week when Arthur Sadoun, Publicis Groupe’s CEO, announced that no Publicis agencies would be entering work for Cannes in 2018 – or indeed any awards in the upcoming 12 months. Publicis withdrawal caused a tidal wave effect which saw others leap to criticise Cannes. No longer about advertising; too tech-focussed, too data-driven; too brash but, most commonly, it was criticised for being too expensive, with Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of the WPP network, stating that it was “too much of a money-making exercise”. With Sorrell also sitting on the fence about his network’s participation at future Lions, the festival had to act.


It did so by announcing that a committee was to be set up which would “help shape the future of the festival”. The announcement came with a list of names of people who had made a commitment to be in on the talks, but even that caused some consternation because all of the names listed were those of clients, with agencies and other media outlet participants yet to be announced.


What this means for Cannes 2018 and beyond is hard to fathom. Certainly, if Publicis sticks to its guns, which seems likely, then revenues for Ascential, owner of the Lions, could be sorely hit as Publicis is the third biggest entrant at the festival, behind Omnicom and WPP. AdAge reported that one executive estimated Publicis spends about $2.2 million a year on award entries, with about 25 percent of that going to Cannes, with others saying the total is much higher. When the announcement by Publicis was made last week, Ascential's stock went down 3.8 per cent.


Beyond the financial implications though, there could be an impact on Publicis itself. Awards are advertising currency, both in terms of profile and actual currency in the form of salary. More than one senior creative told me in Cannes that they had been sounded out by headhunters or approached directly by disgruntled Publicis staff who don’t want to work for a network at which they can’t win awards. Clients, too, seem shaken by the news, with many stating that they value Cannes and other similar events to quantify the effects of creative advertising and brand building.


There can be no argument that Cannes is at a crossroads. It is the industry’s biggest and most closely watched awards festival but its traditional audience of agencies, creative thinkers and, latterly, clients, is being threatened by the influx of technology companies and data-crunchers and Cannes needs to try to appeal to both sides to create a harmonious working relationship. How they do that remains to be seen but if Ascential CEO Philip Thomas’ speech at the opening of Saturday night’s awards is anything to go, at which he told the audience that with all the talk around Cannes’ future he felt he needed to address it, but then didn’t, pointedly saying that they should just get on with watching some great work, it might be less than harmonious road to resolution.


On a more positive note, let’s talk about the power of advertising. Sure, you might say, we all know that advertising is a powerful force, one that has a vice-like grip on vast swathes of the globe. But, of late, I’m not sure many in the industry have believed this. With the constant talk of platform proliferation, audience behaviour, ad fatigue and the breakdown of traditional advertising structures, it feels like advertising, at times, lost its self-confidence and has been vying to get itself back in the game. The way it seems to have done that is by turning itself, broadly, into a force for good.


Cynics, and at times I include myself in that, might roll their eyes and say to themselves that advertising’s a global business built on selling stuff, pure and simple. Even the most naively optimistic person wouldn’t normally argue that the industry’s main aim is to improve the lives of people, not by selling them pasta sauce or new trainers, but by giving them clean water, or promoting diversity, or enabling them to vote. But after this year’s festival there was a real sense that a corner had been turned and that advertising is not only important to the world financially but is once again important culturally and politically.


It’s not only this year that the industry has created interesting, important and clever socially-minded campaigns but it’s this year that socially-minded work dominated the prize-giving ceremonies. McCann’s Fearless Girl, the beautiful and powerful campaign to promote gender diversity, won four Grands Prix (Titanium, PR, Outdoor and Glass); Boost Mobile’s Boost Your Voice, which aided with voting in the US election by turning their stores into voting booths, won Grands Prix in Integrated and Promo & Activation; a male fertility checker for Seem won in Mobile while Payphone Bank for Tigo-Une turned Colombian payphones into banks for the country’s poorest workers and picked up a Product Design Grand Prix. And there was Channel 4’s We’re the Superhumans, a brilliant and influential campaign focused on disability, which won the Film Grand Prix.


So while the Cannes Lions festival wrestles with its place in the industry and how it appeals to both its audience and its shareholders, it seems that the advertising industry has already redefined itself, or at least started to. As David Droga, who collected the Lion of St Mark, to celebrate his achievements in and influence on the advertising industry, told the crowd: if his kids asked him how they could help do good in the world he wouldn’t suggest they join Oxfam or Greenpeace or other charitable causes, but instead get into advertising, from where, he said, you can really make change, now more than ever.


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