Cannes Lions 2022: A welcome return carries the weight of the world

Karen Howe reflects on a festival where the enormity of current events permeated conversations in the Palais and the most-awarded work.

Climbing Action during the Cannes Lions

By Karen Howe

The attendance may have been down at Cannes Lions, but spirits were decidedly up. Everyone was hungry to talk about creative again instead of viral load. Even the notoriously hard-bitten Palais staff had a cheery disposition.

As is tradition, celebrities were brought to bear: Ryan Reynolds, Sir Patrick Stewart and Paris Hilton graced the stage, while Dua Lipa held sway over Spotify beach.

But it was President Zelenskyy that electrified the Palais. He appeared via video link and made his appeal for the most creative minds in the world to come together to help the Ukrainian cause.

Yep, things were different this year.

War and climate change dominated the headlines and the work. Greenpeace scaled the front of the Palais, one of several protests geared towards getting agencies to drop fossil fuel clients, which also included a former Lion winner crashing the first gala to return his award and a group of protesters storming the WPP beach in canoes and kayaks. A large dinosaur with a sign that said “Don’t choose extinction” made daily appearances. Ryan Reynolds said it best, “We’re all carrying around a big bag of rocks these days.”

So it’s a small wonder that purpose is perking along.

One contrarian session tried to make the case for brands to rethink purpose-driven stances, but that point of view occupies a lonely perch. Our collective expectation is that brands will champion social change, and it showed in the work. The issues were heavy, and they were many; from climate change, dying coral reefs and depleting rain forest to plastic in oceans, domestic violence and child marriage. Accessibility-driven ideas also harvested Lions.

The brilliance of the work was inspiring but emotionally draining in equal measure.

Perhaps that’s why I was so ready for Skittles, and their 10-hour personalized apology for switching lime-flavoured Skittles to green apple. It was a rare laugh when it was needed most. The cleverness of personalization being deployed on a mass scale made it truly Lions-worthy

Other changes afoot at the Lions included the pavilions. Social players like Meta, Twitter, Google and TikTok jostled the media giants for cabana real estate as they made pitches to advertisers.

Session-driven FOMO abounded. There was the requisite quiet grumbling that too many sessions orbited around data, analytics and performance rather than creative, but that’s an annual tradition to claim that we’ve gotten away from our creative roots. I was surprised that David Droga’s session was less the hoped-for master class in creativity and more of a science lecture.

In fairness, tech talk was rampant. For some, the white-hot buzzwords included NFTs, metaverse and Web3, while others just rolled their eyes.

The final speech I attended was Empathy, Emotional Data and Creativity by Josy Paul of BBDO India. Paul is a multi-Lion winner. His approach to creating work is to think of it as emotional archeology, and think of himself an antennae to pick up needs and thoughts and feelings. He finds the formal briefing structure too transactional and, instead, Paul espouses talking. Employing deep listening skills to find empathy – he refers to it as emotional data. We should strive to be a DJ of thoughts, and instead of pushing to sell someone, look for truth, which sells itself. Paul’s thought is we are all human and our universal currency is feeling.

Cannes Lions managed to lurch to its feet after a two-year hiatus. Attendance was a little soft, but inspiration flourished. I am so glad to be back to celebrating big, beautiful ideas.

“Bittersweet Symphony” was the closing song of the Lions Festival, a perfect summation of the last two years for all of us. COVID-19 was surprisingly unrepresented in the work, as were masks in the Palais (it will be interesting to see if the Lions ends up being a 12,000-person global super spreader). It was a tough slog and it’s still going be tough – who’s kidding who – but the Lions are roaring again, and they remind us of the power of creativity.

KAREN-HOWE-PIC-higher-rez-300x263Karen Howe is a Canadian Cannes Advisory Board Member and Founder of The Township Group.

Featured image courtesy Theo Giacometti/Greenpeace.