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Cannes Lions: The truth behind advertising's most illustrious awards

It's easy to dismiss the Cannes Lions as a week of company sanctioned debauchery. But if you're from the industry, the charges levied against Cannes Lions, the biggest ad award show on the global circuit, are well known.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Jul 01, 2015, 07.37 AM IST
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It's easy to dismiss the Cannes Lions as a week of company sanctioned debauchery. But if you're from the industry, the charges levied against Cannes Lions, the biggest ad award show on the global circuit, are well known.
It's easy to dismiss the Cannes Lions as a week of company sanctioned debauchery. But if you're from the industry, the charges levied against Cannes Lions, the biggest ad award show on the global circuit, are well known.
It's easy to dismiss the Cannes Lions as a week of company sanctioned debauchery. An excuse to party on the French Riviera with workmates on the agency's tab. God knows the fest gives us ample reason to think so. Because at the annual Festival of Creativity there's indeed a lot of back slapping, snipping, supping and shagging (occasionally, on the Grand Audi red-carpet). Excessive language and alliteration aside, that's a fairly accurate description of goings-on back there. But if you're from the industry, the charges levied against Cannes Lions, the biggest ad award show on the global circuit, are well known.

No Cannes report may go to press or wherever digital versions go to be published without at least a fleeting mention of rosé wine, hangovers and yachts, among other beach-side paraphernalia. But, so what if you missed a few life-altering talks because you knocked back one too many bourbons. (What did you miss? As @eddiemay puts it: "Tweets from people at #CannesLions talks come across like a stream of ancient Chinese proverbs gone badly wrong." Confucius say, ‘The greatest content in the world has no legs unless it has the ability to scale.')

Merriment, however, hardly can be a grievous indictment against a festival set in a veritable party spot. But an insular ad frat's exaggerated sense of self, and the self-serving nature of communication solutions Cannes Lions celebrates abundantly is. Advertising and Cannes Lions, in particular, have no dearth of haters, today, with the proliferation of anti-consumerist sentiments felt across the globe. Some haters are, in fact, invited to speak at the festival. Famous people like actor and musician, Jared Leto, who shared his profound musings on advertising at the 2014 edition: "Tell me the truth! Make my life more interesting, richer, better or leave me the f*** alone!"

But advertising's harshest critics come from within the industry. Tom Goodwin, the senior vice president of strategy and innovation for Havas Media, wrote a fascinating and candid piece titled ‘What if Cannes Lions celebrates the worst, not the best of advertising?' for The Guardian recently. He says, "The last few Cannes Lions festivals show all the signs of the industry unbundling itself further from reality. At a time when businesses face existential challenges, we seem determined to provide silly, self-serving solutions. Fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies face the threats of apathetic audiences, private labels, and the fact that people wouldn't care if 74% of brands disappeared for good. Nivea, in their genius, made a handful of near field communication (NFC) sun bracelets that probably few people have ever touched and it wins countless awards.... The one thing that binds together the more than 200 Cannes winners I've seen, is that they are ads only advertising people have a good chance of seeing. I'm not sure that's what the industry should be about."

Goodwin concluded with; "We need to rethink our concept of advertising and challenge the boundaries of where our good ideas can live. Cannes should reflect these new and exciting times, not celebrate the worst of an industry that's in love with technology and itself, not the people it purports to sell to." Rounding off the criticism leveled at the industry's and Palais' doorstep, is advertising insider, George Parker who writes an expletive-laden blog called AdScam. He said in a post on the first day of Cannes Lions 2015: "It's started, the ever ballooning festival of self congratulation that increasingly has less and less to do with its reason to exist." Nonetheless, communication professionals still fly across continents year after year and pay millions to win trophies which they parade around the Croisette, where global agencies, (including Havas), set up a temporary command central. Lions, after all, look great on the mantle and give you creative cred like no other award.

Despite the festival's shortcomings, lovers, haters, journalists and wide-eyed Cannes Lions virgins flock to the town like bees to a blooming rose. The reasons one attends still, apart from the irresistible allure of recognition and glory in the form of metal lions, opportunities to schmooze with chiefs and clients and free vacation, could be narrowed down to; 1) A self-perpetuating cycle of FOMO (fear of missing out) 2) A genuine, rather earnest desire to be exposed to and learn from the best creative minds in the business 3) Gather with distant comrades. So together we may fret about the slow but certain demise of the industry as we know it, only accelerated by technological disruptors. Partake in the collective obsession with everything tech, Twitter and now, Tinder. And breaking the Internet while we're at it. Adapt or die. The desperation is palpable. Join the revolution or fade into obscurity. The advertising industry, like some other creatively inclined industries, is in a perpetual existential crisis.

What Cannes Lions does is reinforces the belief that you are not alone. That, perhaps, is its reason to be.

Ps: On a personal note, I've enjoyed covering the Cannes Lions for this paper. The temporary loss of luggage on my second outing notwithstanding. (No thanks to the airline that delivered me to Nice but left my suitcase in Mumbai.) And despite acute sleep deprivation, a questionable liquid diet, buzzwords, clichés and general bullpoop oozing out of "storytellers" over seven days and nights of seminars and conversations; I left the French Riviera short on cash but rich in experience. And with an inexplicable void at the end of each Cannes Lions week. (Not snark, that.) Perhaps that's why we go off on European sojourns after the fest, some (mostly journalists) to recover and others to forget that Cannes is a whole year away. But, c'est la vie, non?

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