Cannes 2018: Advertising becomes sadvertising

Karen Howe on how the importance of creativity shone through as the ills of the world weighed on this year's festival.
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By Karen Howe

Attending the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity is like taking a global pulse check. Beyond the work, if you attend the speaker sessions, workshops, panels and make time to talk with attendees, it offers a crash course on global zeitgeist.

This year, the world is a place of collective uncertainty. There is an overarching sombreness to much of the work. Humour took a back seat – except for rare welcome moments (see anything from Burger King or Tide). I checked my theory of gloom with one of the judges. She agreed and said her jury actually went back and deliberately included some lighter work to lift what had become a bleak category selection.

As we all know, creative has the ability to create, shape and shift culture, not merely serve as its mirror. It also has the power to heal. As a result, big themes were dominant this year: gun control, LGBT acceptance, domestic violence, our dying oceans, our failing environment, Trump-shame, #MeToo, #NeverAgain, autism, Down Syndrome, global famine, net neutrality and our increasing fear of artificial intelligence. We are in a time of cultural awakening and a welcome rebirth of protest. Former hippies must raising a grateful peace sign across the world…it’s about time, they’re thinking.

A glance at the cluster of branded yachts and cabanas suggests that media and analytics companies continue to dominate the event. Show categories have become increasingly data and results-driven. Cannes continues to actively push and reward CMO-endorsement.

And yet.

Little winds of change are fluttering. I hear increasing whispers of the reluctant acknowledgment of the importance of creative spark over data. I believe the art got lost in the science for a while. We lost our creative way in the wilds of big data. Maybe, just maybe, data-mania has grown up, and we can get back to the beauty and power of unique creative bravery and original thought and have it link arms with data instead of being forced to sit in its shadow. Thus our thirst to hear wisdom from creative icons from before the age of data, like David Droga and Sir John Hegarty.

This year Publicis was openly mocked for its deeply involved “non-involvement” in Cannes 2018 – which included judging positions, speeches on Marcel and awards entered, as well as won.

As an industry, we have always hacked culture. This year hacking in all forms was celebrated, and in fact elevated by Burger King who took it to entirely new heights with their “Hackvertising” approach to creative. Consider McMansions – the hacking of real estate listings of former McDonalds execs to show they all owned grills. Or its net neutrality stunt where they delivered “Whopper neutrality” on unsuspected customers. They hacked McDonald’s McHappy Day by refusing to server Whoppers and sending business to McD. Then they unleashed the Hallowe’en Scary Clown campaign to troll McDonalds. Burger King topped it with the Romanian airport security hack. They take a no-prisoners approach to all they do, and many paddle in their wake.

Technology continues to skyrocket in importance, particularly artificial intelligence. Sessions at Cannes explored the ethics of AI and if we have created the very thing that will destroy us. What will happen to us when it takes over labour, what do we do, who do we become? Nervous themes include what AI does to creativity. We are exploring the ethics of AI which leaned into humanity’s quest for immortality. Rebecca Minkoff stressed the need to start using data like a butler instead of a stalker – and deliver a superior customer experience instead.

One of the most exciting themes this year the increasing domination of voice. Beyond the talking rice maker (it’s a thing), by 2020 most search will be done by voice. Keyboards are becoming a relic. As a result, sonic branding will become the defining feature in all touchpoints of a brand.

Advertising is that utterly unusual alchemy of business and art. I was so glad to see ad heroes like David Droga and Sir John Hegarty sharing wisdom. “Be nosy”, offered David Droga, “…never lose the awe. Earn every meeting. And don’t shape shift – figure out who you are, stay the course”. He urged creatives not to be bought by awards alone, and to make sure they were being properly compensated by their agencies. Which leads me to the return of Martin Sorrell, flying solo on the Croisette.
The Sorrell ouster could lead to the reclamation of the power of the role of creative over the balance sheet.

The lifeblood of our business is ideas. Powerful, unique, wonderful ideas. And let’s never forget it. Thanks Cannes 2018 for reminding us of that.

Karen Howe is president and CD at The Township.