Cannes Lions: Hot or Shark-Jumping?

As the buzz from this year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity continues to wind down, one thing is very clear: ad-tech was omnipresent. Is Cannes Lions in danger of becoming just another tech conference?

Categories keep expanding. This year, the show added a product design category and three subsections to its Cyber Lions category, for branded games, social, and branded technology. It also added Media Network of the Year and Regional Network of the Year.

Andrew Morse, creative director at Isobar, notes that digital work has become a core focus at Cannes Lions, with close to a 40 percent increase in entries this year. “The competition has greatly increased,” he says, “and the bar is raised higher every year for work to break through.”

Part of the difficulty in breaking through was that this year, due to the prevalence of cross-platform campaigns, a few campaigns swept multiple awards. Notably, Adam&EveDDB’s “Sorry I Spent It on Myself” Christmas campaign for Harvey Nichols won Gran Prix in four categories: Film, Integrated, Press, and Promo & Activation, while the agency got Agency of the Year.

Forsman & Bodenfors’ ads for Volvo Trucks won a Gran Prix in Film and another in Cyber, as well as a gold in Film Craft. It’s inevitable, in this cross-channel world, says Abbie Walker, senior vice president of strategy for Jack Morton New York. She says, “The best ideas are platform-agnostic, and are centered around the true needs of people.”

The categories could use some tweaking to reflect this, says François Petavy, chief executive (CEO) of online creative crowdsourcing platform eYeka. “There’s a growing realization that brands now get built through the experience they provide – through all consumer touch points. This year saw yet more awards categories introduced, but campaigns have become more and more integrated. They’re built around a core idea but delivered across multiple channels. So there is a need to reinvent the competition formats in the near future to close that disconnect.”

Or, as Niall Hogan, U.K. managing director of Integral Ad Science, put it more bluntly, “Our message to the organizers: Come on, how about a Cannes Lions award for ad-tech!?”

With such a high concentration of brands and agencies, it’s inevitable that the vendors who love them will show up to schmooze – and participate. “Cannes tilted toward technology this year – ad-tech, media tech, creative tech. The hot discussions were less about true creativity, but more so about data, programmatic media, and how marketers and agencies need to align,” says David Cooperstein, chief marketing officer (CMO) of Simulmedia.

But this can take the focus off creativity, according to Vilma Vale-Brennan, managing partner in MEC Bravo. As digital companies are having a stronger presence, the presence of creative agencies and campaigns is getting diluted. “It’s the technology that’s taking over,” she says.

As the event grows and more vendors show up to network, there was tension about how broadly to expand the concept of creativity within the awards categories. Advised Rikki Webster, international marketing director for digital video advertising platform Videology, “Don’t shy away from the rich creative direction that Cannes was built upon – and by creative in this sense, I mean writing, art direction, and production that is usually bucketed as the ‘creative’ realm. But, also embrace the new ways of being creative through technology, math, better connections through targeting, etc. It’s one of the few conferences where the best and brightest from both sides can sit together at the same table, so to speak.”

Perhaps one indication of a shifting focus away from pure creativity is that ideas and issues generated the most social buzz, according to Salesforce ExactTarget. Of the 29,468 social media conversations on Friday and Saturday, the top topics were a debate between Philippe Dauman, CEO of Viacom; Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter; and Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP. The other big topic was Bono, specifically his receipt of the first Cannes Lionheart Award for RED, the AIDS organization he founded. And when it comes to celebrities, Jon Ives of Apple beat Kim Kardashian for mentions.

One category that’s done a good job of reinforcing the creativity aspect, Vale-Brennan thinks, is Creative Effectiveness, where a campaign has to have won a Lion in a creative category before it can be entered in this one. “If you compare the Lions to the Effies, you’ll see that the Effies show campaigns that are tremendously successful in the marketplace but don’t necessarily have a creative edge.” The Lions’ system, she says, is a good way to honor campaigns that do both.

Although there’s no Distribution category, Martin Harrison, planning director at Huge London, saw a lot of focus on distributing content effectively. He says, “The most interesting and powerful work happens when brands play with culture – which of course requires a powerful idea, powerful execution, and cultural immersion.”

Brian Wong, CEO of digital rewards provider Kiip, schmoozed a lot, but also served as a juror for the Innovation category and spoke during the conference.

“The Innovation category is ambitious for them,” Wong says, noting that, in this category, submissions did not need to have a client or a brand attached. “So, marketing was not necessarily among the criteria. We got submissions that could never have submitted to [any other category].”

And, after all, most of the revenue for the event comes from the hefty submission fees. Therefore, it’s to the benefit of the organizers to encourage multiple submissions and submissions to multiple categories. The 2014 Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity received more than 37,400 entries from 97 countries.

Not everyone minded the expanded focus. Catherine Davis, president of Vizeum US, says, “There was a strong mix of content and distribution on the agenda, and the quality of the speakers was excellent. Given the increasing convergence of content and distribution, I think it is important to immerse yourself in what is defined as the world’s best work. Not only is it inspiring, but this is what is redefining the marketplace.”

Besides, what’s wrong with parties, asks Aron Hjartarson, executive creative director of Framestore, a visual effects production company. “A huge number of movers and shakers in our industry are there, and the unique thing about it compared to other festivals, trade shows, and conferences that I’ve attended, is that people are there to have a good time as well. The social networking is completely different in that regard,” he says.

“I’m actually smiling at the experiences I had there, so the takeaway is a lot of fond memories, many involving people I had never met before. And they are all potential clients and colleagues.”

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