From a T-Pain show on a yacht for an ad-tech outfit to a giant yellow Ferris wheel/oven on the Palais to promote Snapchat, flamboyant promotions have transformed advertising's largest festival into something more crass than creative, to hear some industry leaders tell it.
The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity is a shell of what it once stood for, they say, rapidly losing what set it apart from the tech-centered experiential marketing extravaganza better known as South by Southwest.
Others suggest giving the Cannes Lions' tech delegations a chance.
"You will always have people that are a bit tone-deaf, that scream louder and make noise for some attention, but for the most part, people who are going will tune that stuff out," says Craig Elimeliah, executive director of creative technology at VML. "There are meaningful parties, and companies like Facebook and Twitter have come to respect the sacred nature of Cannes."
Two to too many
Originally called the International Advertising Film Festival when it made its 1954 debut in Venice, Italy, Cannes began with just two categories: TV and cinema. Today, there are hundreds. E-commerce and creative data are among the new awards up for grabs this year. There are so many categories (if somewhat fewer this year) that organizers built a tool to help companies choose which fit their work best.
Whatever you think of Silicon Valley's takeover of Cannes during the festival itself, however, the actual awards sprawl was fueled by technology, which perhaps more than ever will occupy the heart of this year's discussions in the South of France.
"Last year, I saw some otherwise really smart companies pony up insane buckets of cash—and they simply covered the entrances to many hotels with massive, cheesy, retina-burning vinyl ads," says Brian Collins, chief creative officer of brand experience design company Collins. "Logo-covered plastic barnacles. Everywhere. No imagination. And no savoir faire."
"Whatever lingering illusion I tried to hold on to about the sophistication of Cannes—I mean, Alfred Hitchcock filmed 'To Catch a Thief' here with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly—vanished," Collins says. "Instantly. If they're smart, I hope those brands who want to make an impact bring as much imagination and taste this year as they brought money last year."
To that end, many of the promotions for digital players including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Pandora and Accenture Interactive will attempt to balance the creative spirit of Cannes with technological prowess, without the heavy-handedness found at recent events. Lesser-known outfits, such as MetaX, a blockchain platform with hopes of improving the digital ad ecosystem, will also be in France to try to convince marketers that their technology can add to consumer experiences.
Cannes may have reached its tipping point in 2017, when Publicis CEO Arthur Sadoun unexpectedly announced that his agency holding company would skip the 2018 festival en masse, supposedly to fund—wait for it—its AI system, dubbed Marcel.
"The watershed moment was definitely last year, when Publicis went out and said what a lot of people were feeling around the show," says Susan Panico, senior VP of strategic solutions at Pandora. "Technology is evolving the way that we do our business, but it's also changing the way that we think about how we reach consumers."
It wasn't until last year that the industry finally caught on to how big Cannes had become, she says—"so big that it had all these tentacles around ad tech and data, and many felt the original spirit of Cannes was lost."
Sounds and stories (and tweets)
Two years ago, Snapchat succeeded with its Snapchat House, a private meeting space hidden away behind tall shrubs. Then came last year's Ferris wheel—hard not to notice, and hard to ride (blazing heat and stuck-shut windows meant riders baked inside).
This year, Snapchat will introduce a project more in tune with the spirit of the festival: "Sound Stories," a collaboration with renowned artist Christian Marclay. He is perhaps best known for creating "The Clock," a 24-hour timepiece that was made from thousands of movie excerpts over 70 years of film history. With the help of Snapchat algorithms and engineers, Marclay will draw from hundreds of millions of videos posted to Snapchat's public "Our Story" section to create five immersive, interactive audio-visual installations that experiment with the sound of those videos. Cannes attendees will be able to see it at La Malmaison art gallery.
Pandora says it has no intention of being too loud this year, adding that it will return to its yacht and hold events with 20 or so clients and creatives, a departure from previous years when the company mainly focused on entertainment and client meetings.
The company says that it will invite just 12 to 14 high-level creatives per day from agencies and brands to this year's activation, dubbed Pandora Creative Studio: Six Dimensions of Sound. It aims to show how sound can evoke physical reactions and emotions or create meanings, and what this can achieve for marketers.
Others, such as Facebook, will return to the beaches of the French Riviera to host sessions in areas such as diversity and creativity, as well as brand safety. "From a Facebook perspective, we feel we have a duty to show up in a thoughtful way," says Julie Hogan, Facebook's marketing director and leader of the company's efforts at Cannes this year.
Facebook will also again set up at Hôtel Barrière Le Majestic Cannes, directly across the street from the beach. The company will have a Stories Lounge, meant to teach people how to master Instagram Stories through interactive sessions. Facebook's Analog Research Lab will aim to promote creativity and design on the social network. But unlike previous years, the social media power will also hold events around social good and privacy.
Facebook will not, however, be back in the Palais, the convention center that is the main venue for official Cannes Lions programming. Its Instagram unit had space there last year.
Matthew Derella, global VP of revenue and content partnerships at Twitter, says the infusion of tech and creativity with the social media's platform was on full display last year, when 65 percent of Cannes Lions winners included an element of Twitter. "That's extremely inspiring and humbling for us," he says. "Similar to digital advertising, people have a choice in terms of where they want to put their attention. In order to cut through, you just have to know your audience, and that happens at these industry events too."
Derella says this year the company will take advantage of the global appeal of the World Cup, which is happening at the same time as the festival, by showing as many sides of the World Cup as it can on video screens at Cannes. Official FIFA broadcasters around the globe will be sharing real-time highlight clips of goals and studio shows analyzing match content on Twitter.
"That is a rich opportunity for advertisers looking for quality connections," Derella says, adding that in 2014, during a single match between Brazil and Germany, fans sent nearly 36 million tweets, a record for a single event. "To put that in perspective, there were 25 million tweets sent about the Super Bowl that year," he says.
For the most part, though, Twitter's activations will be similar to last year, the company says. Its regular #SheInspiresMe brunch will include the actress Kerry Washington as a guest.
Don't forget blockchain!
Some companies have established themselves within the creative community without making too much noise, a feat that newcomers such as MetaX hope to achieve.
"This year is extremely important as it will dictate our decision-making for subsequent festival planning," says Alanna Gombert, global chief revenue officer at MetaX. "Cannes needs to find its stride, but creativity and tech can live together and we hope this is illustrated in June."
A main-stage panel about blockchain that will include the musician Akon shows the level of interest in the technology, she adds.
To Anatoly Roytman, managing director of Europe, Africa and Latin America at Accenture Interactive, it's good for the industry when new tech expressions such as blockchain go to Cannes. "It's not just about X or Y, but all of the things combined," Roytman says. "If you attend any of our sessions, it will talk about media and the ability to connect it to other things."
Roytman says the digital agency will "double down" on Cannes this year by increasing its overall presence at the event and mounting more panels. "What we are doing is something very different to the totality of the experience," Roytman says. "Agencies need to be accountable for the business outcome, not just for clicks or views. This is the message we will be pushing at Cannes."
Whether or not digital platforms again change the skyline at Cannes, the tech presence is likely to keep growing. Pinterest is back with its second installation at the festival, including its home base at Pinterest Pier, directly in front of the Carlton hotel.
"We have quadrupled the number of client meetings at Cannes," says Eric Edge, head of global marketing communications at Pinterest. "We expect to have more than a hundred. The ROI is based on conversations and partnerships that we either advance or ink at Cannes."