Cannes Festival Name Change Reflects A Bigger, Messier Reality for Ad Industry

Festival semantics get at broader structural issue with advertising

After a week at Cannes, the thing that interests me most is still the first thing that struck me: the name has changed. The Cannes Lions event has been called the International Advertising Festival for ages, but this year’s gathering has a new honorific: the Festival of Creativity. Now on the face of it, Creativity is hard to argue with: at Cannes it struggles for top ranking with clients and rosé on the official List Of Stuff You Just Can’t Disapprove Of. But it reveals an identity crisis.

If we’re serious about the game being Creativity, then we should really be including fashion design, cooking, landscape architecture, and, for that matter, kindergartners armed with crayons in the award categories. What are we ruling out at this point? It’s as though the Detroit Auto Industry hosted a conference and called it the Festival of Moving.

Maybe the fact that we can’t rule anything out IS the point. It’s a truism that making a brand succeed today requires a bazaar-like variety of skills, that go way beyond strategizing, copywriting and art directing. You need product development, coding, social, customer service design, internal culture transformation and a raft of other crafts—including, I’m always surprised to find, ice sculpture. Which means the industry has a problem in its structure, not just its name.

It’s not possible to house all the needed skills under one roof any more, let alone honor them all at the same festival. So clients have to work with an ever-broadening array of agencies and consultancies, often with competing thinking and divergent creative directions. Agency networks encompass many of the needed skills, but most people agree they’re bound together much more by shared ownership than by willingness to collaborate.

All this means that Cannes has an unenviable choice. If Creativity indeed proves too edgeless to understand, the festival can go back to its roots. Before it was called the International Advertising Festival, Cannes was The International Advertising Film Festival. And it celebrated “creativity” because it was just for creatives, with no pesky planners, clients, or media agencies muddying the waters. And at its core it’s still that: TV spots still get the Lion's share of the attention. That would mean neat edges but increasing irrelevance.

The other path is to follow Creativity wherever it leads, extending the festival and the award categories to include everything that makes brands great today – including product development and ice sculpture. That would mean getting even bigger, even more confusing, even more congested, and even less tethered to a clear center. Just like the real world.

Neil Parker (@neilparker) is Chief Strategy Officer and Partner at Co Collective.

[Image: FLickr user blahmni]

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