French film and TV advertising fete opens

More than 12,000 expected at Cannes celebration

CANNES -- This week, more than 12,000 members of the ad industry will descend on the South of France in their yearly pilgrimage to honor the craft and celebrate the importance of advertising on TV and film.

In many ways, Cannes is a perfect reflection of the ad industry. The city itself is glamorous and beautiful yet downright gauche and a little scruffy at times. The week of seemingly nonstop events and parties is inspiring and fun while at the same time depressing in its ephemeral hedonism.

It is tempting, even easy, to say that Cannes is an anachronism, a bit of "Mad Men" nostalgia for a once-raffish industry losing its sexy allure. But the truth is more complicated. Cannes, like the industry it celebrates, continues to change, with its far greater emphasis on digital and integration, an influx of clients and agency executives, and the creeping in of success metrics as judging criteria.

The conundrum for Cannes is the same for the industry, says Ty Montague, co-president and chief creative officer of JWT New York: It needs new blood. "Our business is upside down these days," he says. "The people with the most experience and most seniority are the people least qualified to lead the business forward."

For all its warts, he notes, Cannes also represents something more.

"Paying attention to telling the story through every conceivable medium and most particularly through the actual physical experience of using the product is more important than before," Montague says. "The future is bright for our business."

For now, however, Cannes, like the industry, is an old institution struggling to reinvent itself in a new-media environment, not to mention in an economic downturn. When it was first dreamed up in 1954, the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival was unabashedly modeled on the more famous film festival that precedes it. The idea of the festival is squarely centered around "the work," the art side of the art and science that is advertising. It's no coincidence that the crescendo of the week is the film awards, drawing rowdy crowds that start lining up hours in advance for a shot at getting a seat inside the Palais des Festivals.

The push and pull between traditional creativity -- centered on the big idea and storytelling -- and the disruption caused by digital technology has only just begun to play out in advertising. "Your Internet technology person will be as important as your creative person," predicts Mark Kvamme, a venture capitalist at Sequoia Capital, the Google backer, and founder of an early Web agency. "It's a data game, a speed game."

On the other hand, there are some who believe that technology has received too much attention lately when it comes to advertising. Machines won't rule the future, the argument goes, but will amplify the same creativity that's made all great advertising great. "Advertising is the art of persuasion," says Wenda Harris Millard, the newly named co-CEO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and former Yahoo ad sales head. "Technology is a great facilitator, but that's all it is. Technology isn't what advertising is."

At the heart of the problem is the award show focus on craft. In days when campaigns were distinct, it was easier to look at work in isolation. Yet now, digital is cutting across many channels, as ideas live in many forms of media.

Stengel's presence, along with a 40-deep delegation from the world's largest advertiser, is a further symbol of how much Cannes has changed. Once a refuge for creative directors to admire one another's work, even if that work wasn't a client success, Cannes has now become the Woodstock of advertising. Kraft, Unilever and Johnson & Johnson will all have delegations in town.

"Clients come to Cannes looking for a signpost to the future, looking to be inspired," says Mark Tutssel, CCO of Leo Burnett Worldwide and president of the 2008 Titanium & Integrated Lions jury.

Another uncomfortable truth for Cannes is how digital media is driving the desire for better metrics. Cannes always has stood staunchly on the side of evaluating work on its own rather than looking to results. This has fed a feeling of disconnect between the high-mindedness of the award show culture and the gritty realities of art in the service of commerce: Advertising is about getting people to buy stuff. Yet that stance, the commercial as pure art, has started to break down. It began to crumble nine years ago, when the festival added the Media Lions, judged in part (20%) on the basis of an entry's effectiveness. The introduction in 1998 of an award in interactive, where metrics are more common, has further blurred the line, though technically only the media competition considers results.

Perhaps subconsciously, Cannes juries have made moves to recognize this. Take Dove "Evolution," last year's Grand Prix for Film. By any creative measure, the Ogilvy & Mather video is impressive. But it is more so because the work captured the imagination of millions of people with its message of authenticity in the face of a superficial culture. The judges knew "Evolution" was a YouTube sensation. How could that not factor into their decisions?

"I wouldn't be able to judge a creative campaign without the metrics," says Sarah Fay, CEO of Aegis North America.

Cannes won't die, just as the ad industry won't die. As R/GA CCO Nick Law puts it, it "is first and foremost a business. It will do what it has to do to survive."