A Week of Cannes - 1: Connections

I went to Cannes last week. I was not alone. 

In addition to Magic Johnson, there were about 6,000 delegates. As well as some 2,000 people who attended without seeing the benefit of registering for the seminars, workshops and Awards ceremonies.

At 2,800 Euros it’s been hard to argue with that decision in years past. The downside to missing the seminars and workshops being hard to discern. The results of a 50 year old food-chain that had little new to offer, and conversations each year limited to the debate of whether a Grand Prix would or would not be awarded. Whether the consumer gained any benefit from that discussion is open to debate. Albeit a limited one.

But over the last two years the advertising food chain has been bent out of all recognition. And at Cannes this year, the conversations inside and outside the Palais started to pulse to a different rhythm. That of getting started.

The future of advertising has been debated incessantly over these last couple of years. The tv commercial is dead. Publishing is dead. It’s the web. It’s branded content. It’s apps. It’s geo-locational. TV is back. And is here to stay (this I read on the way to Cannes). It’s digital. It’s integrated. It’s all about brands. It’s all about utility.

For an industry based on subjectivity, the desire of the cognoscenti to define the future in absolute terms is at best confusing. At worst, it’s destructive. And very, very expensive.

The advertising industry is about making connections. Between an advertiser and its customers. Everything else the rest of us do serves only that purpose. 

For fifty years, that relationship was one way. Today, it’s reciprocal. A concept that the industry has more success talking about than doing something about.

The advertising industry typically points to two pieces of work as representative of its ability to evolve. The first, BMW films, contributed to record breaking sales the year after they appeared on the web. That was nine years ago.

The second, Nike ID, is widely touted as the best example of an integrated platform. That work is nearly six years old. 

For an industry based on innovation and creativity, it shows a frustrating paucity of imagination. 

This year the festival awarded its Advertiser of the Year award to Unilever’s CMO, Keith Weed. During the week he described the industry’s attempts at digital evolution as reminiscent of high school sex. “Everyone talks about it, a few do it, no one’s very good at it.”

On Saturday night when he picked up the award he made a wish. “That a year from now, someone will have stopped talking about being integrated and will have done something integrated.” Hard to argue with that.

At best, the advertising industry is engaged in a reluctant revolution, the brakes to which  are being applied by the very DNA on which the industry is based. The vertical hierarchy of the food chain, from advertiser, to agency to supplier, being reflected in the internal structure of most agencies. 

Some mid-sized, creatively renowned agencies have begun to break down those constraints. Other companies, Mekanism and the Barbarian Group among them, have grown up around a horizontal model in which collaboration acts as both the glue and the fuel.

But with these relatively rare exceptions, the companies that deliver most of the industry’s work are still defined by a top-down model in which motivation is guided by winning awards, getting a better title and better clients, and the associated compensation that goes with all of that. 

And at Cannes on Saturday night as the flashbulbs flashed, it was easy to see the mortar being re-applied to the traditional model - virtual tuck-pointing to a tired edifice.

But through the strobe lights it was also possible to just make out the beginnings of a new industry. A horizontal platform. Founded on two traditional strengths. 

  • The power of story.

  • And our species’ limitless capacity for originality when we work together.

Over the rest of this week, I’ll talk about why those characteristics are so important, how to spot the obstacles that slow their growth and how to build them into a business model capable of leading the change. One comfortable with uncertainty. 

In the meantime, I encourage you to watch the Man Who Walked Around The World, provided for your convenience below.

As I said, the power of story, and our limitless capacity for originality.

But great delivery helps as well.