As Cannes winds down, some marketers say want ‘less pageantry and more substance’ from the festival

Digiday covers that latest from marketing and media at the annual Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. More from the series →

The annual Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity is good for more than a sunburn along the Croisette and exclusive parties. Since its inception, it has been the go-to place for marketers and advertisers to converge and discuss industry issues and make plans for the future — all over a glass of rosé.  

But after two-years of pandemic lockdown, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, pending economic recession and other societal uncertainties (Greenpeace blocked the Croisette with a firetruck right in in front of the Palais yesterday morning to protest the ad industry’s relationship with fossil fuel companies and a previous Cannes Lion winner stormed the stage to give back the prize he won working on campaigns for airlines and car companies), marketers and advertisers at this year’s conference say they expected more answers to big questions, more certainty among their peers.

“I love Cannes,” said Pinterest CMO Andréa Mallard. “But the thing that I’ve noticed is that there’s not that many brands that are coming with a clear point of view, which I was surprised to see.”

It’s worth noting that for the last two years, the industry hasn’t had the opportunity to physically come together in hopes to ink a deal in the near future. This year, much of that has returned along with the wheeling and dealing, pageantry and surface-level conversations. The substance of the festival, however, seems to have marketers wanting something more, calling into question if the hype is still worth it. 

And after the four-day festival in the South of France, marketers say this year, they may walk away with more questions than answers. Especially as no one seems able to agree on what the metaverse is and isn’t, or how to make money out of it; economists are unsure of when, not if, the market will bottom out; and the timeline on cookie depreciation just means more dawdling. Meaning the market is shrouded in uncertainty, yet marketers still need solutions for everything from ad measurement to customer data. To be fair, publishers seem to be in a similar predicament. 

“There’s also a theme of we’re coming back, there’s still some uncertainty. How are you thinking about 2023?” asked Khurrum Malik, head of advertising business marketing at Spotify. “It’s a feeling of humility to see what your partners are thinking about, thinking everybody has all the answers instead of coming in like, I know what’s going to happen next year.”

Malik added that he went into this year’s Cannes with more practicality, intentionally having a lot of discussions with with marketers about measurement as the growth of digital audio continues to boom and access to data becomes increasingly important. 

But what’s been dubbed a timid return, Mallard says may in fact be toothless. “People spent money. People have big things. People have fancy people coming to do fancy things. I don’t mean to be so critical. But I want us to get into the meat of the conversation,” she said. 

It’s not that the conversations aren’t happening. Inside the Palais and along the beaches, this year’s hot topics touched on things like sustainability, Web3, brand purpose and diversity. But these conversations, which tend to be superficial, are happening during a time when marketers have had to rip up their playbooks and start from scratch. The work over the last few years has made the superficiality of conversations just that more obvious and frivolous.

​​For an industry that doesn’t have a lot of humility, this year’s Cannes was a lot more humble after the last two years has taught marketers everything they know – or convinced themselves they know – isn’t true, said Lenny Stern, co-founder of SS+K ad agency and co-chairman of M&C Saatchi U.S. ad agency. “People are like, I’m not sure. I thought to put all the chips here, [now] I’ve got to spread it around,” he said. 

As many talks and initiatives that there are about the metaverse, these last few festival days have reinforced skepticism about the virtual world, marketers say. And that’s in addition to everything from diversifying media spend to keep up with consumers’ quickly changing habits to searching for new ways to leverage data in light of beefed up data privacy initiatives. 

“People are afraid because it’s murky and people don’t know yet. But that’s exactly the moment you should talk out loud,” Pinterest’s Mallard said. “What are the dangers for brands, creators [and] humanity about some of this technology we’re all excited to learn more about. Less pageantry and more substance from the people.”

Still, to some in the industry, it’s worth noting that ten years ago, conversations around things like the future of technology, DE&I and channel diversification weren’t happening. “People are focused on it. Now the question is are we making progress?” said Stern. 

As this year’s event wraps up, Spotify breaks down its stage, attendees pack up for flights home and rain cools down the Croisette, it seems eyes have already started looking toward Cannes 2023, where industry may be hoping to see less talk and more action.

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