There Are Two Festivals Going On Here. A View From The Press Room

Julian Hanford, Photographer

Issue 36 | September 2015

There are two distinct Cannes Lions Festival experiences. Both are very different, but both take place at the same time, in the same place – on a narrow strip of over- developed town on the Cote D'Azur in the South of France.

The first is the experience of the paying delegates, usually employees of the larger agencies, client companies, and, increasingly, tech companies with a vested interest in marketing. These folks have tickets to all the talks and seminars in the Palais de Festivals – Cannes main venue complex. They dutifully queue up to see the scheduled shows in the main auditorium throughout the week. They diligently attend the awards ceremonies, particularly if their company is on the receiving end of a Bronze, Silver or Gold Lion – or maybe even a Grand Prix. They are there as representatives of their organisations to pick up the new vibes and latest industry trends for their employers. And their employers pay handsomely for the privilege, too.

The second is the thousands of peripheral folks who make their living in some way supporting the marketing bandwagon – production companies, sound and music companies, reps, digital support companies etc. These guys are there to network, market themselves and hopefully drum up some business – an increasingly difficult task in these scatological times in our industry. They have absolutely no idea what goes on within the hallowed walls of the Palais every day, and don't really care much, either. They hang out on the beaches, in the bars and restaurants, hoping to nail the meetings they've been trying to arrange with agency folk in the weeks running up to the festival. They also pay through the nose to be seen here.

I've been working the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity as a photographer for the last few years and I get to observe the odd interaction of these two distinct groups from a rather detached perspective. It is often hard to see the value in this orgy of excess but the Festival persists, and, if anything, gets bigger every year, much to the delight of the local business people. One only has to spend a late evening on the terrace of the legendary Carlton Hotel to see the excesses of Cannes in full swing – you are literally surrounded by magnum bottles of Provenc¸al Rose´ on ice being liberally quaffed by the mad men and women of the world.

The question is why? What is it that makes the investment of so much business capital worthwhile on an ROI basis, when the only reason the advertising industry exists is to simply shift product for its clients?

I think that possibly the purpose of all this is to maintain some elements of glamour into what is now an increasingly mundane industry. And the more mundane and confused the ad world becomes, the more important the Lions festival becomes to it, as a very visible justification of its worth to the world of business.

Every year the festival organisers make sure they pull in some big celebrity headliners to feed this glamour monster. This year was no exception with the likes of Kim Kardashian, Pharrell Williams and Marilyn Manson heading the bill. You may well be wondering just what these people have to do with the Advertising and Marketing industry, and you would be right to do so. For instance, listening to Kardashian talking about branding and social media was as cringe-worthy as you can imagine. But that's not the point – these star turns help the industry feel that it has a contemporary relevance and underpins its sense of self- worth. You only have to witness Martin Sorrell interviewing Kimmy to see the value they believe it provides for them.

However there is no doubt that Cannes Lions will continue to flourish because everyone plays the game and no one wants to be the one who calls naked on the Emperor. And everyone likes a good party – Cannes is full of them, of course. I don't mind – I get paid well to document it all. But something interesting is happening to the Festival, which is a reflection of the bigger picture in the international comms industry. At lunch one day, I was chatting to some American tourists recently arrived on a cruise ship. They saw my press pass and asked if I was with the 'TECH' festival they'd seen advertised all over the town. 'No, it's an advertising festival' I said. 'Really?' they said – 'it sure doesn't come across that way', they said. Walking back to the Palais and taking a closer look at all the ads and posters from the big players, I could indeed see exactly what they meant...

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