thenetworkone Cannes Review 2018: “A la recherche du temps perdu”

This year, we need to spend time talking about Cannes itself, because it is in crisis and cannot continue as before. We’ll explain why, and what is likely to happen in future years.

If you find this a little inward-looking, please feel free to skip on The Awards section, where we will discuss the work, the awards, what the key players in our industry are doing and saying, the ideas being discussed and the trends which are emerging.


Let’s start with the positives:

– It’s always sunny, the Mediterranean is beautiful, and the food is French

– You meet a lot of people you know, but don’t often see

– You meet a lot of interesting people you don’t know

– You get three days (at least) away from the office to recharge your spirits

But aside from this – there was not a lot that the Cannes Festival got right this year. At least they managed their PR better, announcing the bad news in advance, rather than as a mid-festival bombshell. Here’s what Scott Forbes, Chairman of the Festival’s parent company Ascential wrote to shareholders on June 7th:

“Cannes Lions is experiencing a more challenging trading environment with a lower than expected level of spend by the advertising agency holding companies.”

So what’s wrong? The answer is, a lot.

1) The Cannes 2018 ‘more focussed’ promotional offer – five days for the price of eight – fooled no-one. Countries who can’t reclaim VAT tax paid almost €4000 (US$ 5,000) to attend the talks, the award presentations, 5 happy hours and 2 B-List parties. Unsurprisingly, many people in Cannes didn’t pay for a delegate pass. Cannes has not announced delegate numbers, but they were not denying stories of a 25% drop – and a substantial percentage don’t pay, as they are either journalists, or judges, or Ascential employees.

2) Cannes did reveal that the awards entries were down around 20%. Since around half of Cannes’ 2017 income came from awards entries, this was a serious blow to the festival’s budget. Winning a Lion still matters, because there is no other global festival of similar scale and the judging process still maintains its integrity. It just matters less now.

3) Ascential Group’s Cannes pricing strategy seems even more aggressive than previously. The delegate pass costs the same, for a greatly reduced content program. The awards entries cost the same as they did before, when the judging was in Cannes and mountains of paper and cardboard had to be transported and stored – even though almost everything is digital now and most judging is online. The “cabanas” for vendors and sponsors cost a fortune: one organisation who previously paid €55,000 was asked for €90,000 this year. They declined, and their cabana remained unsold.

4) The Festival’s purpose has become confused. Until recently, Cannes was an Advertising Festival and the majority of the attendees were agency people. Then it became a Festival of Creativity. Now, Cannes signals that its priority is tech: software vendors, social media and other platforms and to an extent, media owners. The media and technology platforms want direct access to clients, so Cannes also prioritises clients. One significant element in the content program, the CMO track, specifically excludes agency delegates, even those who have paid for a “complete” festival pass. Demeaning the majority of your loyal customer base is rarely a good marketing strategy.

5) Cannes is no longer global – at least, not as it used to be. Reliance on the American tech platforms has led to a remarkable Anglicisation of the festival. The great majority of the main awards now go to the UK and its former colonies: USA, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and India. (We’ll look at this later, in more depth.) The language on the Croisette is resolutely English: the Europeans are going to DMexco or Vivatech or the Web Summit.


6) The content program is weak. The real power players like Bill Clinton, Kofi Annan, Christine Lagarde and Anna Wintour – or artists like Kanye West or Lou Reed – were absent this year. In 2018, Cannes did not even get the A list business celebrities: Mark Zuckerberg, Eric Schmidt and Dara Khosrowshahi went to Paris for Vivatech (as did France’s President Macron). Cannes got the VP’s of Marketing.

But managing a content program isn’t only about celebrities. It’s about finding new and interesting talent. The few independents who made it to the main stages were largely the same as last year: Venables Bell, Quiet Storm, Rothco. We proposed two brilliant, up-and-coming creative agencies from China as speakers, but they were rejected on the grounds that delegates only wanted to hear from the large tech companies. Really? Here’s what Maurice Levy said to Campaign Asia on 28th June 2017:

I am wondering, is Cannes about the celebration of great work, or is it something else? A few years ago, meeting at Cannes, you and I would have spoken about an interesting new agency from Brazil, Paris, New York or somewhere. Today, rather than keeping our eyes focused on creativity, we see that tech companies are taking over Cannes. This has been one of the reasons why we have decided to pause. I believe it’s right and important to take a bold decision to say, ‘Hey, come on, let’s look at what Cannes should be’. Cannes should be about celebrating great work and creative people. But all we see are the tech companies: IBM, Snapchat, Facebook, Google, and on and on, plus the consulting companies. We should be mindful of the change. The world is changing, and we must recognise the change. But at the same time, we should not shift to a degree that we are in a Cannes that’s dominated by tech. We need balance.”

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook & Maurice Levy, Publicis Groupe at VivaTech

So what will happen in 2019? Here’s our prediction.

The tech companies have the money, so they will dictate the pattern. Together, Google and Facebook are worth around 17 times the value (market cap) of the big six agency holding companies combined.  The Croisette beach is dominated by the vast temporary structures erected for hospitality purposes by those two and others – Twitter, Spotify, Comcast and the rest. The smaller (but still powerful) tech companies and the consultants dominate “Yacht Alley” behind the Palais des Festivals. Most of these are almost completely disengaged from the official festival, but they still dominate the landscape… and dictate the program.


Each of the big players works to a three-day program format, which other tech festivals (and most US business conferences) favour. The three days are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. They build their stands on Monday and demolish them on Friday morning.

This year, Cannes was like a ghost town on Friday. The major players arrived on Tuesday and left town on Thursday evening. That’s how it’s going to be next year, too.

The awards ceremonies are no longer as important as they used to be. These days, Cannes informs the press in the morning and it’s hard to believe the winners don’t find out (but if they really don’t, Cannes phones them and gets them on a plane back, as happened to Adam & Eve DDB).

So move the awards ceremonies to Tuesday (the minor ones) and Thursday (the major ones) – avoiding Wednesday, which is party time from midday to 3am.

Friday is hangover day. Forget it, because everyone else will.


Which leaves Monday… and to some extent, Tuesday.

Cannes could do something really interesting on these days, like other marketing and communications conferences do. The ANA, the 4A’s and the Holmes Global PR Summit all hold smaller “pre-conference” events which either showcase independents or lesser known companies and/or provide a more open discussion environment for people who are there to work and to learn rather than to drink and be seen.

For the last ten years, our preference has always been to work with the Cannes Lions, and this remains the case. But right now, the Lions needs more radical thinking, and this may come more notably from the independent sector. If anyone is interested to discuss this further, we would love to talk to you. Cannes is a great institution that has taken a seriously wrong turn, but it’s worth saving.

Let’s get back to 2018. There is still plenty to learn from this year’s Cannes.

The Awards

Let’s start with the awards.

The top prizes are known as the Grand Prix’s. This year, Cannes awarded 31 of these, in categories ranging from the traditional, like “Film” and “Outdoor”; to the modish, like “Creative Data” and “Social Development Goals.”

Taken as a whole, they give a useful indication each year of how the creative communications industry sees itself – a little like the Oscars in the movie world.

In 2016, when Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning were the big talking points of the festival, a lot of prizes went to very clever technology. Think of Google’s Jacquard, or the Rembrandt Project.

This year, there was no “sweep the board” winner – partly because sensible new rules limited the number of categories which any one idea could be entered into.

Instead, the winners were split down the middle: we counted 16 whose principal theme was social good; and 13, whose principal theme was (shock, horror!) commercial brand advertising.

Favoured social causes mostly revolved around ecology (Trash Isles, The Palau Pledge, Kingo Energy) or health (Corazon, Blink to Speak, JFK Unsilenced, Chalk Sticks). A few were social or political; standouts were Reclame Aqui from Brazil, which linked photo-recognition of politicians to corruption allegations (are there really that many corrupt politicians?) and AB Inbev’s Soccer Songs for Change in South Africa, urging men not to get drunk when their football team loses and then beat up their partners (can it really be true that “40% of South African men assault their partners daily”, as apparently claimed by the South African Medical Research Council in 2017?) There is a need for these campaigns.


Some of the more commercially driven ads were really marketing promos: Apple’s instore experience is terrific, but the film about it is just a promotion. Others were redeemed by brilliant execution, like Apple’s Home Pod video with FKA Twigs and Nike’s reportage of kids and sports stars with impeccably observed street language and gestures.

We ran all the Grand Prix winners past the millennials in our office. They were quick to pick out the flawed ideas. The dirt-poor people in rural Colombia who have no internet access but can now dial in to Google’s voice assistant with their ‘legacy phones’, still have to pay for the calls… and shouldn’t the Colombian government be doing more to extend rural internet access, rather than creating a second-class internet substitute for poor people? Do the Budweiser outdoor ads explaining how to Google-search pictures of ageing or dead rock stars drinking Budweiser, assume anyone other than Budweiser employees or Cannes judges would actually do this? And the ads which won for the wrong reasons, like BBH’s charmingly empathetic creative cameos for Tesco which somehow won a media GP for Mediacom, who had the less than original idea of placing them on TV and in store.


Our millennials’ favourites included LadBible’s and AMV BBDO’s, The Trash Isles, P&G’s “Talk (about racial inequality) and Savlon India’s antibacterial chalk sticks; as well as the empathetic Nike (W+K) and Apple films. Reassuringly, they also liked “It’s a Tide Ad” – a simple, well-branded product story film that makes you smile and is not ashamed to be an ad – perhaps there is hope for our business.

But the one which caught their imagination the most was “Blood Normal”. How indeed are we going to achieve gender equality and understanding, if men determine that women’s menstrual blood must be depicted as blue…in 2018? Apparently, that is still the case, and that is disgraceful. So yes, there is a role for advertising, as well as a purpose.    

There are some concerns, though. Our analysis shows that 24 out of 30 Grand Prix’s are from UK or former UK colonies, i.e. Anglophone countries. Two came from Brazil, two from Colombia, one from Spain and one from Netherlands and all these were in minor categories. For a global festival, this is disappointing. Where are the countries who are really setting the pace in world economic development: China, Japan, Korea, South East Asia? Where are the Islamic countries? What about West and East Africa?

We looked at the GP winners. Campaign Asia has analysed all the 2018 Lions winners awarded to AsiaPac countries. In 2018, 82 Lions went to Australia and New Zealand. Japan won 21, China won 9, Korea won 2, Singapore won 2, Indonesia won none at all…in all, just 71 went to all other Asia Pacific countries, outside English-speaking Australia and New Zealand. In the mobile category, a sector dominated by Asian innovation, just 2 out of 90 shortlisted entries were from Asia. Perhaps it’s not so surprising: half the world’s population lives in Asia, but only 15% of Cannes Jurors (about the same as come from the USA). Sorry Cannes, you must do better.

The Content program

The other aspect of ‘traditional Cannes’ is the content program. We’ve already commented on its relative weakness this year, but there were still some highlights. My favourites were:

David Droga: once a rebel, now an elder statesman, Droga’s armchair monologue kicked off the festival with a nostalgic personal retrospective. Yes, he really did start in the mailroom. He looked back at some great campaigns and finished with a brilliant new film, 4 minutes of hidden camera work for Christie’s, simply recording people’s reactions to a rarely seen picture by Leonardo da Vinci. Brilliant and unforgettable. And yes, he took a little pop at what Cannes has become: “why do people hate advertising? Look at that f*****g billboard strung up across the Carlton Hotel.”


But mostly, he set the tone for the festival: nostalgic and backward-looking. ‘A la recherche du temps perdu.’ In search of lost time… or wasted time? The French allows both interpretations.

david droga

Apple – Tor Myrhen interviewing Angela Ahrendts. Yes, this fell into the default pattern of much of the content, a senior person interviewed by a more junior person from their own company, which made so many of this year’s seminars flat and uninspiring. (The alternative was to be interviewed by Phil Thomas, ‘nuff said.) But Angela and Tor are stars and redeemed themselves. OK, the promo for the new Apple in-store experience ‘Today at Apple’ was over-long, but it was beautifully executed, showing the new “stores which open out into the community” and provide tech and cultural education for all. We had a nice soundbite from Angela, “I don’t think creativity is driven by data, but by informed instinct” and a trenchant throwaway from Tor “There is a crisis of creativity in the world. We just heard that the top ten grossing movies in the world are all sequels films” – this is EXACTLY what happens when data drives creativity, you get more of the same! Data is history, right?

angela ahrendts

The Economist interviews: consistently the best interviews of the festival, with a well-informed journalist, willing to ask uncomfortable questions with impeccable respect and able to extract real insight. I wish I’d seen all of them, but some highlights for me were:

o    Marc Pritchard of P&G, admitting that his holy grail really is to link advertising directly to sales – as opposed to building brands? This is the sad truth in publicly quoted companies, where quarterly results and analysts’ reports drive corporate policy

o    Alison Lewis of J&J, mandating her agencies to create “our [J&J’s] own brand agencies with their own P&L’s… we feel like we have everything in-house but with multiple disciplines sitting together” … “we feel are building more in-house studios where we can test and learn – well, out of house because they are in our agencies”. This reveals a) the client’s insecurity and need for control and b) how the network agencies have surrendered the initiative and value they used to have.


o    And last but not least, the main-stage Economist debate, kicked off with an audience vote on whether technology platforms like Facebook were  threat or an opportunity  (the audience voted ‘opportunity’), followed by 40 minutes probing Facebook’s VP of Marketing Carolyn Everson’s corporate-speak defence of this position, supported by an increasingly uncomfortable Keith Weed of Unilever, and culminating in a new vote where the audience now voted that Facebook et al were more of a threat than an opportunity! Wicked, but riveting.

“Are the big tech platforms a threat or an opportunity for the creative industry?”




Opportunity: 68%

Threat 21%






Opportunity: 44%

Threat: 53%



Samsung: Great to see YH Lee, the first Korean woman in a senior role at Samsung, command the stage with aplomb, despite a meltdown on her PowerPoint slides. Pity about the clichés – “being a human brand is part of Samsung’s DNA, yada yada.” Great to see the amazing applied science with which Samsung is benefiting humanity – the Ncuatro app which detects dyslexia in 15 minutes, the headset which uses a mobile phone camera that helps people with almost no vision to see normally, the Goodvibes ap which helps deaf-blind people communicate haptically  – but a pity to see Malcolm Poynton, one of the world’s leading Creative Directors, talking about science but not creativity. Bitter-sweet.

Sir Martin Sorrell and Ken Auletta, New Yorker journalist and writer of the book Frenemies, about the ad industry and the tech companies. Great to hear Ken’s reductive but knockout formula for successful journalism – “Follow the money. Add Characters.” Sad to hear one of the leaders of our industry for so many years, being asked in public whether he abused company funds with “prostitutes.” (He denied it.) Enough said.


RG/A: always a seminar not to be missed. This time I caught them introducing the winners of their “best start-up” competition. Personally, when I see the hundreds of start-up booths at tech shows, I never know where to start. RG/A have done the hard work for us. Online promotional marketing platform Perksy, made an observation about language: “Members are cold. Friends are warm” and Enter Five, a Nigerian company that is taking mobile phone surveys and social listening out across sub-Saharan Africa, providing rapid and credible consumer insights which today simply don’t exist.

Kevin Costner: As a soundbite of the week, you could not do much better than Costner’s weary response to yet another sycophantic Cannes interviewer – to quote KC directly: “What the movies teach you is the need to stand for something, not necessarily to win… now what the f**k was your question?”

So, who really nailed it?

1) L’Oréal

Tucked away down in the ground floor of Palais 2, on Monday morning when most people had not yet arrived, was an exemplary seminar led by Lubomira Rochet, a Bulgarian from L’Oréal. No, I hadn’t heard of her either, but we will.

lubomira rochet

L’Oréal used to be a classic Publicis Paris account, reputedly managed by a small number of well-connected seniors and a large number of stunningly beautiful juniors (male and female). They ran a brilliant and provocative ad campaign for a couple of years “L’Oréal – because I’m worth it” which they watered down to a forgettable, conventional ad promise (“Because you’re worth it”) which presumably offended nobody but had no impact except by expensive repetition in prime-time TV. The worst kind of advertising. Then presumably they realised this – because L’Oréal today is a transformed business and a case history for anyone interested in marketing today.

First, it’s an e-commerce business. E-commerce is now 80% of their sales. 48% of their media spend is digital and 60% of that is programmatic. They were the first company in their sector to partner with Ali Baba in China and 40% of their China sales are now e-commerce.

They have systematically evolved their marketing playbook: TV, to search, to YouTube video, to Facebook ads – and now to AR and conversational commerce.

First, AR. As Lubomira explained to the slow learners (that’s most of us), AR can be headset based or mirror based (the mirror is your phone, think selfie.) For a beauty company, the mirror is obviously more interesting. See your face on the phone and try out new looks, colours and shades, textures, highlights.

A few companies now do this with static images – take a selfie and modify the still picture. L’Oréal’s acquisition strategy focusses on niche app companies like Modiface, to accelerate their technical expertise in a digital consumer experience context relevant to their business. This app modifies your appearance in real time, on video… how do you look when you change your expression, look sad, laugh, cry talk, etc.

l'oreal ar digital assistant

Next, conversational commerce. Everyone needs a knowledgeable friend to check out how they look with a darker eyeshadow or little more blush on the cheeks. Those glamorous, under-employed beauty advisors you used to see in department stores, were there for a reason. So now, L’Oréal has real time beauty advisers on your phone. Are they real people, or video chatbots? Who knows, but they feel real and have lots of useful tips. And when you like a look, they’ll tell you how to achieve it and sell you the products to deliver it. Delivered to your apartment this afternoon, for your night out this evening.

So, is this tech for tech’s sake? No, it’s strategic. L’Oréal’s internal mantra (so much more practical than a purpose) is “Saisir ce qui commence” – “grab hold of what’s starting to happen”. It drives them to stay in the forefront of fashion and technology, to spot trends early and act on them fast.

Is it insight-based? Yes, it is. L’Oréal’s approach is transformed from the traditional top-down vision of beauty (the need to ‘look right’) to a more democratic vision, encompassing diversity, personal preference and difference – from beauty experts to beauty hackers.

Does L’Oréal need agencies, and if so, why? As Lubomira says, yes… they need them to be chief organisers, to be the voice of the consumer but in a more agile way than before, to ensure that tech and creativity don’t get separated. Did she mean it, or was she just being polite? Either way, there’s your challenge, agencies.

1) Tencent

Other than the USA, the major global influence on the future of marketing and communications is China.

Cannes has short-changed China on their willingness to participate, learn and contribute. Sure, they give them a ‘China Day’, well away from the main action. But the content team, who are supposed to help presenters give a good account of themselves, don’t.

After several presentation fiascos last year, this year started promisingly with a senior person from JD.Com, the other big e-commerce player after Ali Baba. It seemed like a good choice, but… they guy did not speak English (triggering a rush to the back of the auditorium to pick up the translation headsets). A polite man, he had learned a few words of French – but no-one had told him, the French don’t go to the Cannes Lions Festival. Worse still, his presentation consisted mainly of a series of licensing deals which has struck to market western entertainment properties from companies like Disney. I’m sure this is important for their business, but it is of no interest whatsoever to an audience hoping to learn what China has to offer the west, OR how to engage with Chinese citizens, other than by bombarding them with back catalogue content.

Fortunately, there was a shining exception: the brilliant, insightful, polished and totally impressive SY Lau of Tencent. Tencent is the owner of WeChat.


His first question: WeChat already has over a billion users. How did they achieve this? He cites four factors:

– A founder’s spirit

– An open platform mindset

– Digital leverage (ride on the back of government policy initiatives)

– Craftsmanship (basically, a focus on UX becoming a way of life).

And how does WeChat maintain the loyalty of a billion users? WeChat moves from offering a good experience, to offering an exceptional experience, via the idea of “belonging.” SY Lau’s concept of belonging embraces individuality but contextualises it – “being different is the only thing we have in common.” Technology serves culture – providing access to the culture of shared memories, the song we all know… cue the emotive video.

Now read this in Mark Zuckerberg’s voice… five years ago, he would have said the same, wouldn’t he?

But we quickly return to the commercial business.

We skate effortlessly across new consumer tech. Frequent flyer programs for shopping malls provide free parking. (No wasteful paper fliers, of course: everything is on your phone). The digitization of the traditional red envelope, the application of e-commerce to bike sharing. 30-minute home delivery. E-payments in hypermarkets through your phone, authenticated by facial recognition technology (no checkout queues!).

Facial recognition ensures the sales people in apparel stores know the preferences of people they’ve never met, as soon as they walk in the store. Member is cold, friends are warm… the manager of the local store is your friend.

Consumers check into WeChat moments 40 times a day and click through on 17.1% of offers.

What are people most likely to order at 10pm? Condoms! The app knows what you do… and who you are…

And there is more. WeChat has developed a new kind of software called a mini program, “something between an app and an HTML page.” Mini programs integrate external e-commerce activities – anything from a pair of shoes to a new passport or driving licence – within the WeChat app. So, WeChat doesn’t lose its customers or their data when the customer moves to a third-party site or app. Wow. (Cool or creepy? as Alan VanderMolen asked in WE Communications’ brilliant game-show seminar.)


But now the narrative changes.

What is the role of Tencent in society? Well, bike-sharing is part of a bigger responsibility, to create a “digital welfare culture.” We see a public restroom facility in Hainan, with cubicles mapped in red (occupied) and green (unoccupied) – not just to help the poor traveller who may be caught short, but also to monitor usage levels and help social planners build the right number of toilets.

As SY puts it: companies must participate in society, support cultural history and help to build the digital silk road. (Digital Silk Road? What is that? Is it a part of Xi Jinping’s global “one belt, one road strategy?”)

SY’s confidence is infectious and we are sold.

In summary:

Is the nostalgia-filled Cannes experience simply an exercise “al la recherche du temps perdu”? or did we learn something more?

At least, it made us think. About the balance between data (=history) and creativity (=innovation). But perhaps, in the end, the big question is about the big players.

Who will really win the battle for the world’s hearts, minds and pockets? Will it be Google, Facebook and Amazon, continually at odds with their governments and societies, hauled up before Congress and the EU to defend their actions and issue public apologies? Or Ali Baba and WeChat, innovators to the core, but marching in step with the world’s most populous nation and the world’s second most powerful government?

Come back next year and find out.


Julian Boulding

President, thenetworkone

5th July 2018