WTF is Cannes Lions?

I thought the Lions were in New Zealand at the moment.

That’s rugby’s British and Irish Lions, who are playing a three-test series against the All Blacks at the moment. Cannes Lions has nothing to do with sport, although there will be a bit of a scrum in the south of France, all the same.

No, The International Festival of Creativity, to give it its proper title, is the advertising industry’s annual shindig, where agencies and brands show off their best works, hear speeches and do back-room deals in the small town by the sea.


Are there any real lions?

No, but other industry animals have tickets – the 2017 speaker line-up includes names like DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katz-enberg and a woman called Madonna Badger, chief creative officer of her own agency.

With the festival touting speakers including Sir Ian McKellan, Dame Helen Mirren, Rev. Jessie Jackson and the president of Colombia, these days Cannes Lions likes to lob in some A-list thinkers and doers to delight and inspire the hordes of advertising executives. Oh, and Kanye West, too, who appeared in a rather hackneyed panel in 2014 to cite Steve Jobs as his muse.

In fact, Cannes is no longer just advertisers’ annual trade show. It has become one of a handful of global super-conferences – along with the likes of Davos and the Consumer Electronics Show – that big hitters from all industries like to visit, to check the pulse of “disruption” and “innovation”.


So what happens?

Imagine Don Draper and the cast of Mad Men taking over Eastbourne for the weekend, knocking back cocktails until 2am and grumbling about their jobs back at home.

Most of the official activity takes place in the Palais des Festivals, a prison ship-like mega-fortress that is Cannes’ gravitational epicentre, whose one side faces out to the yachts in the harbour and whose other gazes back at swanky hotels like Le Majestic, which all get overrun by businessfolk hosting rooftop side events and peeling off for private chats in bustling lobbies.

In recent years, the spectrum of conversation has broadened from just creative ad campaigns to encompass the distinctly uncreative-sounding “programmatic” advertising technology, content marketing and all manner of new strategies. But, with ad-land growing restless at the apparent duopoly of Google and Facebook, along with a growing imbalance perceived in ad-tech, this year is shaping up to be a tense one.


So it’s just schmoozing in the sunshine?

No, there is also deal-making, learning, debating and competing – in the sunshine. Cannes does sunshine well. Once upon a time, someone posted a plea to TripAdvisor for rainy-day tips whilst in Cannes – the thread was closed a year later due to inactivity.

Let’s not forget about the yachts. Cannes is tiny, so those boats help multiply the floor space available for chatter. A yacht pass costs €25,000 and, to tell us who is spending, ad industry expert Terence Kawaja has provided this helpful yacht map by company.

Cannes Lions
Cannes Lions

Note, the Daily Mail has two yachts moored, and none are operated by any of the agencies which make advertising tick. Rather, Cannes is the place where technology companies and other intermediaries and publishers spend big to secure big agency spending.





How do I get a ticket?

Tickets cost between €3,115 and €5,215 for the full programme but, if you’re going to Cannes, chances are it is your employer paying.

And that raises an interesting point. Word on the street is, those vital agencies want to trim their Cannes budget this year.

Festival organisers made £42.5 million in revenue in 2015. But, with agencies sending perhaps 100 or 200 staff, it is estimated combined entry and award submission can cost an agency about £1.1 million, before travel and accommodation. Now the Wall Street Journal reports most agency owners want to trim 10% to 25% from their outlay, facing political and economic uncertainties, soft first-quarter earnings and reduced spending by their own clients.


Sounds like hell.

If listening to ad-tech execs pitch you with tools for boosting “yield optimisation” and “price floors” is not your thing, beware the new wave of modern Cannes attendee. But, if you are seeking inspiration for creating the most impactful, emotional advertising messaging, the Croisette – Cannes’ famous seaside strip – is a great place to be in June.

You might want to consider booking work off for the Monday after the festival, however.

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