A view from Cannes Lions

15th July 2019

It’s my first time at the Cannes Lions Festival, the annual global gathering for the creative industries. All the big agency networks, brands and media owners are here but what’s striking is the presence of ad tech companies and the size of their wallets. Everywhere you look, technology firms that manage, monitor and measure marketing activity are selling their wares to CMOs and agencies. On big billboards and even bigger yachts.

This no doubt reflects the level of opportunity for technology to drive results from every marketing dollar and I suspect many of the firms are backed by the flow of venture capital that continues to pour into anything tech.

But, strangely, this seems at odds with much of the sentiment I’ve picked up from the conference sessions. Forrester Research claimed yesterday that brands are overfunding technology and underfunding creativity. They back this up with hard facts, suggesting that +19 billion should be shifted from marketing spend on tech, to creativity, and this will generate an ROI of +66bn within six years. You can see the research here.

Perhaps they were playing to the gallery of creatives in the audience, whose business is to sell ideas, but there’s definitely a sense that marketing is becoming commoditised at the expense of inspiring and moving people.

Which brings me to the other big theme of the conference; brand activism and purpose. Unilever-owned Dove has a massive presence here. They have a new collection with Getty Images, created by women and non-binary individuals from 39 countries, which challenges beauty stereotypes and have taken out full-page ads in the conference newspapers calling on advertisers and agencies to stop using beauty stereotypes. A fantastic initiative that’s the latest phase in a long-running commitment to championing real beauty.

The majority of campaigns shortlisted for Lions this year follow similar themes; brands using their influence and reach for human good. Righting wrongs, creating mass movements, breaking taboos. Much of it is inspirational and makes you feel good about the brands involved.

But the phrase ‘trust washing’ is already being used and there’s a sense that some brands are jumping on the latest causes to stay relevant. A session on brand activism involving The Body Shop debated just this and concluded that a company must have purpose in its DNA, from the board level down, to have licence to take action on issues.

There’s also a question of credibility and believability. Tobacco giant Philip Morris has been criticised for its presence here and position on the Cannes Social Good Track. It says it’s committed to ‘designing a smoke-free future’ but it feels a bit of a stretch to me. Maybe some brands think they can slip in and out of purpose like many of the linen suits on display on La Croisette.

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