Cannes Lions: Key Take-Aways From the Annual "Festival of Creativity"

Dominique Charriau/Getty Images for Cannes Lions
Conan O'Brien

Despite plenty of Trump talk and an array of speakers that included everyone from Shaquille O'Neal to the Parkland survivors, the eclectic event suffered from a noticeable lack of buzz this year.

While the Cannes Lions annual “festival of creativity” can usually be counted on to generate interest by bringing together an eclectic mix of marketers, filmmakers and creatives from around the globe, the mood at this year's event was noticeably muted compared to previous, more star-studded editions.

French media major Publicis very publicly took a year off, and after global ad giant WPP unceremoniously ousted founder Sir Martin Sorrell in April and reduced its presence, two big players were off the roster. For many attendees, that void became a vacuum that sucked a lot of energy out of this year’s fest. There was a notable lack of A-listers — gone were stars like Gwyneth Paltrow, Ron Howard and Kim Kardashian of years past — leaving Conan O’Brien and Kevin Costner as the biggest names. Attendance at some talks was sparse, with #MeToo founder Tarana Burke and even Emmy winner Lena Waithe facing plenty of empty chairs. Big stars spent their time outside of the Palais, with Kerry Washington attending a Twitter breakfast and Samira Wiley a cocktail party hosted by Hulu.

The shortened festival (down from eight days to five) also led to brands throwing their big parties early in the week, with Jon Bon Jovi performing at the IHeartMedia executive dinner at the Hotel du Cap the same night The Killers played on the beach, and Kylie Minogue, Duran Duran, Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong, Chvrches and Travis Scott appearing at various venues around town Wednesday. But that meant an early exit for some, as Spotify and other brands were pulling up stakes by Thursday morning, leaving two days of conferences to come while beach buildouts were already being dismantled.

There was a lot of talk about "moral center" as companies try to find their place in a troubled media landscape made all the worse by recent reports of data breaches at Facebook and consumers battling the mysteries of ever-changing algorithms. “Consumers want to renegotiate the deal,” said Edelman CEO Richard Edelman. "There’s an explicit protest that [says], 'I didn’t give you permission for this.'"

The festival was the place that the United Nations chose to launch its new The Lion’s Share initiative to raise $100 million for wildlife and conservation charities, and several panels were devoted to diversity, equality and environmental problems. Among attendees, there was skepticism that it was too little, too late: "Why didn’t they have these panels 20 years ago?" asked one young account manager, who felt that speakers of color were relegated to panels about diversity. Finnish director Aku Louhimies was on hand even as he is embroiled in a scandal in his native country, with a series of actresses accusing him of abusive behavior on past productions. Still, he was given the Spotlight Stage to talk about his current hit film — a move that was called “tone deaf” by one attendee. And when Gail Gaille took the stage to host a panel with Duran Duran's Simon Le Bon and ITV CEO Jeremy Darroch on ocean conservation and plastic pollution, the conversation got off to an awkward start: "Do you see any recycling bins here? No. Black mark to Cannes Lions. Don’t buy a ticket next year until they have recycling," said Gaille.

While the fest is trying to balance after being wildly thrown off, there were still lessons to be learned. Here are five key take-aways from the week.

Donald Trump Was the Elephant in the Room

MediaLink’s Michael Kassan said it best: "He is the greatest marketer in the world, and he did exactly what we are talking about in our industry: He went over the top, he went directly to the consumer and he gave them a skinny bundle." The president also bookended talk of the future of media, with Monday’s Michael Wolff and Friday’s Ken Auletta saying the constant coverage is damaging the business by taking up air time and sapping viewers' attention. It's hard to compete with the biggest ongoing ad campaign on the globe.

The Parkland Survivors Call for Change

Much of the talk both in and outside of the Palais was focused on "finding your moral center," from Ellen Pompeo urging individuals to find causes to work for to the Parkland survivors taking the stage as the final act on Friday to implore the ad execs to take action. “When it comes to advertising, impact is way easier to deliver than comfort. I don’t want a sign that says, 'Please vote now so we can stop school shootings.' I want a big billboard with a picture of my friend’s face that says, ‘I was murdered 20 minutes from here, what are you going to do about it?" said voting advocacy group Change the Ref spokesperson and survivor Sam Zeif. Survivor Madison Leal added: “Many businesses cut ties with the NRA, and it's so important to keep your causes [aligned] with the business that you have. You have to really stand with the people, whether you lose money in the process, maybe you gain more supporters."

Mega-Merger Mania in Media

Sorrell said we're on the brink of “Mediapalooza 2." The future of big business buys was a hot topic, what with the 21st Century Fox and Disney deal happening during the week and AT&T and TimeWarner just a week before. "People are celebrating" the news of the AT&T decision, said MediaLink vice chair Wenda Harris Millard, and it will pave way for more. "Like in any other historical moment of mergers and acquisitions, you see a lot of follow on. There will be many others that will allow businesses to stay competitive, especially with Amazon.” Or Netflix, if it ever decides to allow ads on the platform. "I’m an old man, I’ve seen this happen before,” joked IHeartMedia CEO Bob Pittman, whose own company rebuffed a cash equity deal with Liberty Media during the week. "There’s a realization once again that value is shifting to the people that make the content. The value of the platform is shifting, because at the end of the day, the consumer doesn’t buy the platform, they buy the content that enables it."

Social Media Needs to Win Back Wary Consumers

Consumers are looking for comfort in legacy brands as they turn a skeptical eye at social media in a post-Cambridge Analytica world, where Facebook left the data of 87 million users available for political manipulation. "There’s a flight to safety, not only associated with data breaches, but overall trust issues that are associated with that on safety and consumer privacy. There’s some excitement around that on the TV side," said MediaLink’s Harris Millard, noting that traditional media pillars are back in play. "We’ve always had the consumer’s trust," said IHeartMedia's Pittman. "What we’re seeing is a transition in the business to measurement in a different way. Radio is companionship and conversation."

Influencers Need to Change Their Game

Even as Instagram announced its YouTube challenger IGTV for longform content from its users (though that news came out of San Francisco because the live link-up to Cannes failed), massive international conglomerate Unilever said it is working with Edelman to create a pilot project to bring transparency to the Instagram. Unilever owns brands worldwide from Axe to Zest and about 400 in-between. CMO Keith Weed announced the mega-company will change its practices to, well, weed out people with fake followers or that use other means to boost their numbers. “Brands have an incredible opportunity to say to influencers, show me the numbers,” said Edelman. Harry Hugo, co-founder of U.K.’s The Goat Agency, which works with high street fashion brands such as New Look, said: “We’ve been telling our clients not to look at reach, follower numbers and even engagement to an extent.” He added that having a few thousand dedicated followers is often more powerful than millions. “If you have to say you are an ‘influencer,’ it kind of defeats the purpose." HP global head of media Dan Salzman called it "a natural shaking out."