If Cannes hosts Lions, will the industry come?

Organizers are confident about an in-person festival this June, but many Canadian agency execs doubt they can send anyone safely.
Cannes Lions 2019 : Day Three

Eyebrows across the industry were raised on Wednesday when Cannes Lions confirmed something that was first reported by AdWeek the day before – an in-person festival and conference is still planned for the third week of June 2021.

In the announcement, Phillip Thomas, chairman of Cannes Lions, said that even though travel is currently constrained, multiple vaccination efforts underway gave “hope that we can be together in June.” Thomas also noted that many other large, international events are planning for the same timeline, though the festival would continue to “monitor the situation.”

Current estimates on vaccine rollouts, however, cast doubt on the idea that the international festival will be safe to attend by June 21.

Both versions of the vaccine available to Canadians, for one, require two doses, delivered roughly 21 days apart, and it takes several weeks after receiving it for the body to fully build its immunity. This means someone travelling to Cannes would need to be fully vaccinated by the end of May or early June in order to be immune in time to travel to France.

The federal government said it plans to have enough doses available to vaccinate up to half the country’s population by the end of June, with immunization of the whole population possible by September – and anyone who doesn’t work in healthcare, an essential service or is part of a vulnerable population is likely at the back of that line.

But whether full immunization will happen also depends on the provinces’ ability to vaccinate people at a steady rate, and, as of Wednesday, only 1.1% of Canadians had received their first dose of the vaccine. While provinces have been working to increase that rate after stumbling out of the gate, if it were to continue at the current rate, it would take just over 11 years to vaccinate enough Canadians to break the 70% coverage many experts believe is the minimum threshold necessary for herd immunity, and 16 years to immunize the entirety of the population.

Other countries that may send delegates to Cannes are not faring much better. In the U.S., just over 3% of the population has received its first dose. Across countries in Europe, the number is just under 1%, while in Asia, the number is under 0.3%. Most countries in Africa have yet to receive the vaccine, with only a handful in South America having begun their efforts. The UN previously said global herd immunity is “unlikely” to occur any time in 2021.

Also, while both vaccines have been proven to keep people from getting sick from the virus, there is not yet conclusive proof that it will prevent its spread – even if someone travelling to Cannes may be safe themselves, they could be at risk of spreading it between attendees, or bringing it back to Canada.

Andrew Saunders, CRO at The Globe and Mail, the Canadian partner of Cannes Lions, said in an email that while the Globe is “thrilled to finally see a light at the end of the tunnel” when it comes to the pandemic, it also realizes the need for flexibility and adherence to public health guidelines still exists. It will be evaluating options with the Canadian Cannes Board and will communicate to the country’s creative community soon.

Strategy spoke with leaders from several Canadian agencies that have had a presence at the festival in past years, most of whom were surprised that the festival would host an in-person event, let alone consider if they should send staff to attend.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” said one exec, who asked to speak on background only. Another exec referred to an in-person Lions as “ill-conceived,” and didn’t see any way their agency would be able to send staff if it wanted to keep them safe. An ECD said going would be completely out of line with all of the work they had put into prioritizing employee health in the last year, with another adding it would be tantamount to throwing those efforts “out the window.”

Others said they’ll be playing it by ear, like much of the last nine months, and that they would make their decision based on public health guidelines and their ability to keep staff healthy.

“If the Canadian government is still pushing to minimize travel we’ll respect that and stay put,” says Ryan Timms, president of McCann Canada. However, getting the all-clear to hop on a plane doesn’t necessarily mean it will satisfy the agency’s own stance on employee safety. “Even if travel restrictions are lifted by the Feds by June, if there is still notable risk, whether it be rates of infection or limited access to the vaccine, we won’t send anyone.” Matt Lewis, president of Momentum, echoed Timms’ thoughts, adding that his agency wouldn’t send anyone “unless the situation dramatically changes.”

Ben Tarr, president of Leo Burnett Canada, says he is still thinking about the mental health and safety of his team, and the idea of jumping on a plane in the summer seems very distant – but did say it looked like “it would take a miracle” for attending in-person to be realistic.

The festival – which opened registration yesterday – may consider limiting the amount of delegates able to attend in person and will also “continue to have a significant digital element.” Over 80,000 people participated in digital elements of the festival last year, something Tarr described as “amazing” and a worthwhile alternative to attending in person. Even though Lions Live didn’t allow people to travel and meet with the broader advertising community, it did help “democratize” content that is typically accessible only to senior staff.

Tarr did say, however, that he was excited to enter the awards this year, which will cover two years worth of work after the cancellation of the 2020 festival. Leo Burnett was among the many agencies that suspended award show entries last year as part of cost-cutting measures in order to invest in its people and save jobs.

“But others who did enter were benefitting massively from the exposure and recognition, so it was done through somewhat gritted teeth,” Tarr says. “We’re looking forward to getting back to it. It recognizes the work our people have done, and it’s an important part of our profile-building strategy.”