5 Takeaways From 2019 Cannes Lions

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Meg Whitman and Jeffrey Katzenberg

Activism and corporate responsibility took center stage at the annual "festival of creativity" that brought together its typically eclectic mix of media execs, tech titans and celebs for a series of panel discussions in the South of France.

Originally an ad festival based in Venice, the 66-year-old Cannes Lions comes just a month after the city's more famous film festival (though Us Weekly seemed to get the two confused in a fashion roundup), hosting an eclectic mix of marketing execs and A-listers. But as has become standard since it launched its entertainment track, the festival was awash in celebrities this year, from Kerry Washington to Jeff Goldblum, and behind-the-screen talent including Kenya Barris, Shonda Rhimes and Lorne Michaels alongside entertainment CEOs like Fox Entertainment's Charlie Collier, WarnerMedia Entertainment's Bob Greenblatt, Univision's Vince Sadusky and Lachlan Murdoch.

Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman came to talk Quibi, announcing they have already sold $100 million worth of ad space on their soon-to-launch streaming platform.

Much of Lions centers on tech now — YouTube, Google, Facebook and Pinterest all had a major presence, with temporary structures on the beach — with plenty of talks ranging from the future of AI to Chrissy Teigen's mastery of Twitter. But the traditional media companies also made their mark, with Comcast putting down stakes right next to Spotify and NBCUniversal sending over more reps than ever.

Below are five takeaways from inside the Palais. 

1. It's All About Activism

There was a wave of inspirational talks in Cannes with titles like “Dreamers With Purpose” and “Storytelling With Impact.” In one of the most popular sessions of the week — with a line wrapping around the Palais — Participant Media's CEO David Linde and Roma director Alfonso Cuarón presented “Defining Art + Activism,” discussing their social impact campaign to change the legal status of domestic workers in the U.S. and Mexico with National Domestic Workers Alliance executive director Ai-jen Poo. 

“It was clear that the conversation around 'cause marketing' was intense among brands as they seek to address an increasingly sophisticated consumer [who] is embracing positive social change, and demanding a path to real, definable social change,” Linde told The Hollywood Reporter. “There's a path to connect our ecosystem of artists, distributors and impact organizations with a brand's network of industry partners, customers, employees, capabilities and technology. It's still early but we see the potential to join our communities to solve problems.”

SAWA, the Global Cinema Advertising Association, even launched a new campaign to support the United Nations World Food Program that will roll out in theaters around the world.

2. But That Activism Has to Be Authentic

Speaking on a panel called “Understanding Culture, Harnessing Perspective,” Sophia Bush railed against companies that exploit causes to burnish their images. “I hope that in the world of these big multimillion- and multibillion-dollar corporations that they get serious about purpose, that it's not a one-month-a-year campaign, where they're selling us something with a rainbow on it or something that's pink,” she said about capitalizing on movements such as Pride. “I think that my hope for the future is that more doors are opened and bigger tables are built.”

John Legend, who announced a partnership with P&G for several ads across brands, said: “Companies have a lot of power. They have, of course, the budgets and the reach so they can put out messages that a lot of people will see and hear and they can decide to use that power for good or not.” Aside from campaigns with Pampers and skin-care brand SK-II, Legend spoke about the forthcoming ad “The Look,” which challenges race and first impressions. “What all of us need to acknowledge is that sometimes implicit bias is there but we can help people by addressing this and being aware that this is how people are feeling. It’s fine to have a conversation without feeling like you’re being attacked.” 

Speaking about Netflix's vow to “rethink” its investment in Georgia if the new anti-abortion law goes into effect in January, Barris said the company needs to stand by its word. “You can't just say, 'I'm gonna stay because of the money,' or 'Oh, I'm gonna do this,' and then say there's a whole other side of your company,” he asserted. “We are at a place right now where you have to stand firmly.” Barris also praised Nike's work with ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, saying they are on the right side of history.

3. Traditional TV is Taking on Digital Platforms

NBCUniversal tripled its presence at Cannes Lions this year — and notably skipped MIPTV in April — with an immersive ground-floor space in the Palais. It brought in Saturday Night Live producer Michaels, who received the fest's inaugural Entertainment Person of the Year award — and premiered Bradley Whitford's new comedy Perfect Harmony featuring a Q&A with the star. WarnerMedia, Comcast and Germany's RTL all built out big beach spaces, touted execs and actors as well as their more data-driven demographic information that will help them compete with platforms. 

But while linear TV and traditional media companies are making moves to be more competitive, there is a feeling that the platforms have to play fair. “We should refer to them as media companies, because that's what they are and they should be subjected, from a regulatory standpoint, to at least the same level of standards and practices that traditional broadcasters are,” said MediaLink CEO Michael Kassan. “If the 'wardrobe malfunction' at the Super Bowl caused CBS to nearly lose their license from the FCC, and you put that up against the hate speech, jihadist videos and beheadings on platforms and they're not subject to scrutiny that doesn't seem like a level playing field.”

4. Regulation Is in the Riviera Air

Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg made a plea for regulation — but there was speculation as to whether it was a genuine cry for help or a marketing tactic along with her mea culpas for misusing user data and not acting on Russian interference in the 2016 election. “We are acknowledging that companies like ours shouldn't make as many decisions as we do, we know that,” she said.

Two years ago at the Lions, everybody was buzzing about the upcoming European privacy regulation GDPR, though it seems to have had little real world impact. But some believe any coming U.S. regulation will be bigger. “I don't think anything has really changed, but I do think regulators are on the one hand licking their lips and on the other hand very nervous they will have to regulate an industry they don't really know enough about ,” said MediaLink's Kassan. “It's scary. I'm afraid of overreaction in regulation.”

5. Social Activism Works, Except When It Doesn't

Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix dropped out of his speaker slot following an onslaught of Twitter outrage over his invitation. Filmmakers Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim scheduled a special screening of their Netflix film The Great Hack, about the role Cambridge Analytica played in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the allegations that the company acquired the Facebook data of millions of users without their consent.  “I think it's silly to give him a podium at a conference like this,” said one upset attendee who works in data analysis. The festival, which had supported the invitation to increase debate, accepted his withdrawal.

But elsewhere, Extinction Rebellion, the environmental and political movement that is protesting climate change and environmental damage caused by consumption and overuse of resources, staged a sit-in on the Palais steps. They were promptly hauled away by police with little fanfare and marketers continued to talk about selling products inside.