What Cannes Lions 2018 will tell us about the attention industry

Top ad execs on why the industry’s biggest conference and awards show matters, and how it will point the way forward for the world’s attention merchants.

What Cannes Lions 2018 will tell us about the attention industry
[Photo: courtesy of Cannes Lions]

For the longest time Cannes Lions was the advertising industry’s biggest party of the year. Sure, there were some talks and seminars, but the real focus was the ratio between number of lion-shaped baubles won to how many hours spent teetering outside the Gutter Bar along La Croisette, the main drag of this French Riviera town.


But over the last decade, the festival has evolved to include not only more brand clients but also, as media fragmentation has forced the change of some and the birth of others, the festival has expanded to include tech companies, social media platforms, consultancies, entertainment and media companies–essentially the entire attention ecosystem. The film Grand Prix, awarding the top video ad of the year, is still a big deal, but less platform defined, more creatively comprehensive pieces of work like REI’s #OptOutside or State Street’s Fearless Girl have become the real rock stars. Estimates peg global ad spending to hit $628 billion in 2018, and a good portion of the people involved in that cash flow will be in Cannes next week making new deals, awarding work, and trying to figure out where the industry is headed over the next 12 months.

Cannes 2017 Grand Prix winner: Fearless Girl, State Street:

Last year the big story was holding company Publicis’s decision to pull out of all awards to focus attention on its new AI platform. This year there will undoubtedly be plenty of chatter around Sir Martin Sorrell’s abrupt departure from WPP and subsequent jump back into another venture. The ad industry’s own reckoning with the #MeToo and #TimesUp will be a big topic, as will Cambridge Analytica, public trust, and the continued growth of consultancies in the ad business. I talked to nine ad execs about why Cannes still matters, what everyone will be talking about there, and the most important insight into this business that next week will provide the rest of the world. Pour yourself a glass of rosé and dive in.

Why does Cannes matter?

Colleen DeCourcy, partner and chief creative officer at Wieden + Kennedy: “Cannes is arguably our industry’s biggest celebration of creativity and its biggest stage. I think we always hope that Cannes winners push both clients and agencies to higher heights, to bigger ideas, to better craft and execution. Right now, when extreme targeting and programmatic advertising are clogging the ‘share of brain’ drain, we need to remember that advertising has succeeded for so long because it’s part of culture. If we’re going to walk away from that, we should just keep walking.”


Jon Haber, cofounder of Giant Spoon: “A big contingent of people in advertising seem to secretly wish they were making films or TV, and I get that urge. However, I think when it comes to innovation of format, technological experimentation, and sheer inventiveness to get a message across, Cannes Lions is a showcase more unique than the film festival. I’m not deluded enough to think we do story better than the film industry, but we do invent a lot more ways to break through.”

Brian Whipple, CEO of Accenture Interactive: “Cannes is a barometer of the state of the industry, which is under pressure to dramatically transform in response to market forces. In fact, I’m not even sure what ‘industry’ we’re referring to because this space has been disrupted beyond traditional definitions. Cannes will tell us if the industry has successfully realigned around the opportunities that transformation has created, or if risk aversion still prevails.”

Katy Alonzo, Group Strategy Director at Droga5: “In the wake of Cambridge Analytica, it’s critical to remind the rest of the world that, as an industry, we strive to earn consumers’ attention, admiration, and spend, and that we don’t believe we are entitled to it.”


Jaime Robinson, chief creative officer and cofounder of Joan Creative: “Cannes is more than an awards show; it’s really our industry’s convention. Dentists have them, cops have them, movie stars have them, and advertising has them too. As our industry evolves at an increasingly rapid pace, the need for our convention gets more and more important. As an industry, we have some stuff to figure out.”

Cannes 2017 Integrated Grand Prix winner: Boost Your Voice, Boost Mobile:

What will be the main topic of discussion at Cannes this year?

Perry Nightingale, executive creative technologist at Grey London: “I think we can all feel the disruption in the industry. There are generational shifts in the way we consume and create communication, and it’s also been a milestone year for data privacy, gender equality, global trade, and the retail landscape. Any and all of those will rightly be discussed. They all impact what we do.”

DeCourcy: “People will be talking about how hard the business seems right now. Our client’s traditional businesses are being disrupted and it’s having a knock-on effect. The role of the CMO is in flux. Media is in flux. The economy is in flux. Cannes is one of the few opportunities we have to compare notes with other people.”


John Matejczyk, creative director and cofounder of Muh-tay-zik Hof-ferI would love to see more discussion around fixing the awards end of Cannes. It’s just madness that one piece of work can sweep every category. They need to re-do the categories, likely moving back to vertical markets so work is honored by its industry rather than its form factor. As far as media goes, everything is everything these days–activation, promo, film, digital–great projects touch all the categories, which render the categories moot. Unfortunately, I fear the biggest topic on the Croisette will be Martin Sorrell.”

Haber: “Diversity and inclusion, topics wherein our industry continues to struggle. And as someone running an agency, I’ve learned that this has to be on the top of your mind every single day. I think the festival will show that we have increased our awareness and sense of urgency but have only made small strides.”

Margaret Johnson, partner and chief creative officer at Goodby Silverstein & Partners: “Given the current political climate, gun control and Trump will no doubt be hot topics. Also, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, which have impacted so many agencies at the leadership level this year. In the last six months, our industry has gone through a major transformation. It’s been painful, but it’s making the industry better not just for women but for all of us.”


Robinson: “Looking at the panel topics, I see a lot of soul searching about our future as an industry. It’s time. The past few years have been a circus of neon colors and tech buzzwords competing for everyone’s dollars and building a false prestige.  Now is the time for real talk.  I won’t be alone in suggesting in Cannes that we need the focus back on creativity and real problem solving on behalf of our clients.”

Chris Uettwiller, CEO of Dirty Robber: “We’re finally seeing substantive emphasis on the importance of equality and inclusion in the workplace. Cannes should continue to leverage its position in the industry to drive discussions and solutions that aim to give access and opportunities to a greater variety of voices.”

Cannes 2017 Integrated Grand Prix winner: Beyond Money, Santander Bank:

Most important insight into the ad business?

Alonzo: “In a year with so much about our industry in question, it will be incredibly insightful to see what is awarded, especially since there are fewer awards to win this year. Cannes sets the tone for what we value in creativity. The work that wins will reflect where the leaders of the industry believe the industry should be going.”


Whipple: “The most important insight is that the distinction between ‘agency’ and ‘consultancy’ is no longer relevant and that the whole dialogue on the subject is tired. We should stop worrying about such arbitrary distinctions and labels and embrace the ambiguity. Are we an agency or a consultancy? It doesn’t matter. What matters is: Are we working in partnership with clients to create meaningful experiences that make lives better? It’s time to break through the permission barrier and reorient around purpose.”

Uettwiller: “We talk a lot about why and how the advertising industry needs to change, especially when it comes to future of client-agency partnerships. It will be interesting to hear CMOs and marketers talk solutions.”

DeCourcy: “Awarded creative work that says, ‘This is what great advertising can do for business’ and have everyone realize that data and targeting on its own only gets you a short-term win. It can influence minds in the moment but not hearts for the long term.”


Nightingale: “I think the world will be looking sadistically for a total implosion and they will be disappointed. If the public wants six-second fairy tales or cool technology headlines, we can make those. We are brave creative people with blank pages in every corner of the planet and we’re never going to be replaced by AI or cat memes.”

Haber: “It’s a nuanced process to explore what work is winning and why. There is usually a theme to be uncovered. I think it’s incumbent on us to see through the hype and determine if the coolest work—that work that is cleaning up—also actually drove business results.”

Johnson: “I look forward to discussing Publicis’s bold decision not to participate in Cannes this year with some of the 86 Publicis staffers who will be attending Cannes to support the company’s 400 entries.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity.