Shade along the Croisette: Has Cannes become a corrupt plumber’s union instead of a brilliant ideas festival?

July 7, 2015

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Lion gets drunk jumps shark…

In a funky, charmingly meandering essay for the Wall Street Journal, the legendary San Francisco adman, Jeff Goodby takes the Cannes Advertising Festival to the woodshed, albeit the long way, calling it more of a “plumber’s or industrial roofing convention” than a celebration of the “big and famous and mind blowing.” He acknowledges that he is a “willing junkie for ingenious content delivery systems” (really, Jeff?) but clearly misses the good old days when ‘everyone knew who was doing the greatest shit in the world.’

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Ad Lion, Jeff Goodby rattles his cage…

His point is a valid one, which can be gotten to through many doors. Let me take a crack at a few. First off, about 10 or 15 years ago, in a vainglorious attempt to be modern (aka digital & social) and (obviously) to make tons more money, Cannes began adding myriad technical categories some so intricate they defy explanation. Applications. Emojis. Banners. Widgets. Tools. The kitchen sink. All of it, said Cannes, has the possibility of winning a Lion –be it bronze, silver, gold, glass or titanium. In addition, the festival created massive new groups, including public relations, healthcare and social causes. The advertising categories were still there, of course, and you could enter them six ways to Sunday, depending on budgets and other criteria.

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Your Titanium Grand Prix winner at Cannes: an emoji

For agencies and the like, entries became an advanced class in spending money. Take a look at these numbers, made even more conspicuous because they were tallied during the recession.

While this was going on the typically blatant corruption bloomed like algae. After all, all these new categories required evermore judges. Most if not every judge also has stuff in the show. So many shoulders rubbing together is bound to create mutual back scratching. And stabbing. It got so bad a couple years ago the creative leader of one holding company accused another holding company of “killing” the competition, among other voter schemes.

In the end, you get a bouillabaisse so big, deep and full of oddities one wonders if it means anything to anyone. Anyway, Jeff wonders. How can you not? Let’s look at some of the biggest prizes awarded in 2015. A fish-shaped lead sinker is deemed the greatest design in the world. A slew of iPhone pictures garner the Lion for best outdoor advertising in the world. A pizza-shaped emoji wins for best whatever-it-is in the world.

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The winner for best design: a lead fish

Funny. Folks used to joke that WPP’s big boss, Martin Sorrell got his start, not making ads, but selling widgets. Well, he gets the last laugh. Because it now appears that’s what this festival is all about.

(Full disclosure: Every agency I’ve ever worked at has participated in Cannes. I’ve been to Cannes seven times, four drunk, three sober. I’ve entered a bunch of work at Cannes. I’ve even won a few Lions. Twice, I’ve given speeches at Cannes. So, yes, I’ve bowed before the Golden Lion. I’ve played his Game of Thrones.)

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