Decoding Cannes Lions 2019

The Township's Karen Howe on some of the 'unsettling undercurrents' on display at this year's festival, and how to address them at home.
Cannes Lions 2019 : Day Three

By Karen Howe

Distilling the Cannes Festival of Creativity is a challenge, kind of like fitting the ocean into a shot glass. Beyond the awards shows themselves, it is five days jammed with over 600 speakers leading hundreds of panels, product demonstrations, speeches and workshops. The speakers include the who’s who of advertising, entertainment, and technology. As a result, attendees live in a frenzied state of perpetual FOMO.

I find Cannes remarkable for taking the pulse of the world. It offers insights on several fronts beyond creative and business, because advertising doesn’t just reflect culture, it often shapes it. It provides priceless intel on how to make the most of the year ahead.

This year was more upbeat in some ways than last, despite being a leaner Cannes in both submissions and attendance. The opening party was stripped away, and the closing was more restrained. The focus was on big ideas, and there was extraordinary work to be celebrated. This year a number of campaigns did very well, as opposed to one cleaning up across the board. It made for a more interesting festival. But there were also few unsettling undercurrents.

Creative agencies under siege

More CMOs attended this year. And while agencies are busy eyeing consultancies and procurement departments with concern, they should take stock of the increasing tendency for clients to “in-house” their creative. Flanking that, we have P&G proudly adopting and “fixed and flow” model. Translated: a fixed number of agencies who have to compete on a project-by-project basis. So one lives in a state of perpetual jump ball with agencies unable to staff properly for the long term. It’s such a perfect example of clients shooting themselves in the foot. When your agency is your business partner, they have the advantage of brand shorthand, live your pain points and have your back when trouble hits. It all adds up to better work. Just ask Apple or KFC, companies that proudly stick with one agency and consider them a deeply valued member of the team.

“Purposewashing” in an era of mistrust

Several excellent campaigns used the power of creativity to tackle the world’s problems, from anti-immigration sentiment mushrooming around the world to driving greater acceptance for transgender people. Deforestation. Species extinction. Single-use plastics. Online predators. Now more than ever we need to harness the power of creativity to change the world and fix some profound issues.

But on the heels of greenwashing and pinkwashing, we have “purposewashing.” Brands are expected to have a social conscience; 64% of us choose a brand based on social stands, while 91% of millennials will switch to one aligned with their beliefs. Brands with purpose grow twice as fast as those without. However, never purposewash. Forget make them cry, make them buy, because consumers will call bullshit. Edelman’s Trust Barometer shows that 84% don’t trust advertising as a profession, and six in 10 don’t trust a brand to keep their promise. Therefore, the commitment to a cause must be legit, long term, internal and external.

How artificial is AI?

Concerns about AI and “deep fakes” continue to percolate. While “Dali Comes Alive” did a remarkable job of inviting gallery attendees into Dali’s orbit, we remain concerned about how governments around the world are abusing facial recognition for surveillance, or the abuse of this technology in a year when many winning campaigns touched on worries about fake news and the global muzzling of the free press. This creative director turned pale at the demonstration of the first “AI CD.”

Renaissance of creativity

With ad-blocking and streaming continuing to rise, and TV viewing on the decline, advertising is at a fascinating crossroads. Many brands are choosing to swap DNA with film, music and journalism to create content that is far more engaging, and “sonic branding” is on the rise. I am also seeing brands like Lego use tech like AR for a far better retail experience and to bring a boxed toy to life.

Many speakers also talked about the ongoing tension between data and creative. A number of companies admit that they have been “over reliant” on data, coming to the realization that while data can supercharge creative, a solid creative idea must come first.

I walk away from Cannes 2019 exhausted, but also exhilarated. It underscored that in our business, the speed of change is accelerating. But unlike those gloomy doomsday predictors in the industry, I see creativity’s super power as being continues to be its ability to transform problems into opportunities. That is the magic alchemy we need to continue to champion and to celebrate. After all, isn’t that what we signed on for?

Karen Howe runs The Township and is a member of the Cannes Lions Advisory Board.