When my boss told me I was going to Cannes this year, I did what I assume everyone who goes to Cannes for the first time does: I looked for advice from more experienced festival goers, hoping to pick up some useful local knowledge on what to do, where to go and what to see while in La Croissette.
A few hours later, I had a decent list of both useful insider tips and blog posts calling into question the relevance and purpose of Cannes Lions. From Dave Trott and Tom Goodwin to John Owen and John Kovacevich, there were plenty of people in Adland that seemed to think the festival was somewhat anachronistic, out of touch and in desperate need of a reform.
It was then when I realised that my trip to Cannes could be the perfect opportunity for me to further explore the idea behind a series of handmade collages I have been working on since early this year, partly inspired by “A Short Lesson in Perspective,” the heartfelt 3,000-word essay written by late adman Linds Redding (RIP) back in 2012.
This sobering piece finds Redding questioning, among other things, whether the long hours, the tight deadlines, the blatant talent exploitation and the endless pursuit for validation from the industry, best represented by shiny, golden trophies, are really worth the effort.
“Well of course not,” he concludes. “It’s a fucking TV commercial. Nobody gives a shit.”
The less cynical amongst you may argue that not everyone feels the same way about advertising, that many people in the business actually love what they do and believe in the power of creativity to bring positive change to the industry and to the world around us. I know a few of them myself. They get as much of a kick out creating great ideas as they do fighting to make them happen.
However, I always wondered if they would battle yearlong shitstorms so passionately if the promise of a little gold statuette didn’t exist at all. I’m sure some of them would but I also know the only reason many of them are still happy to work days, nights and weekends is awards. That’s all they can think of and all they care about. So, what is it about awards and awards shows that creative folks find so exciting? What’s the point?
I wanted to find out.
Originally, my plan was to make prints of the first piece I did for my series Madland, which I thought embodied the sentiment behind Redding’s “A Short Lesson in Perspective” and leave them in key places along La Croissette with short handwritten notes calling into question Adland’s collective narcissism and false sense of success.
“Sometimes” (30x20 cm) — handmade collage part of the series Madland
I thought that was a great idea until I realised how utterly foolish and arrogant it was, not to mention the fact that it would have been a pain in the arse to carry a bunch of A3 prints around for an entire week. Following a friend’s advice, I decided to print postcards instead, not only because they were easy to handle but also because I could use the reverse to write or draw some bonus content that could complement the image on the front.
In the end, I decided to include a list of arguments I thought represented different views on the notion of success and the importance of awards shows on the back of each postcard, hoping people would engage with it. Instead of just barking at them, I was now giving them a chance to express their point of view, even though I was fully aware I was somehow hijacking their minds by giving them a menu of choices I was in total control of.
I printed one hundred postcards, packed my bags and set off to the South of France with six of my colleagues. A couple of hours later, we were checking into our hotel on the Boulevard de la Croisette, just a few blocks away from the Palais des Festivals.
The day after, I took 20 postcards with me and went to collect my credentials. As soon as I was handed my goodie bag, I realised how difficult it was going to be for my little postcards to stand out. There was just way too much crap lying around. For an industry that prides itself of understanding the rising cost of consumer attention and often brags about how much more savvy they have become at appealing to their target audience, they did a pretty shit job at overcoming avoidance.
There were dozens of flyers advertising the same talks I could easily find out about through the Cannes Lions app, a tasteless hand fan, a VR cardboard set, magazines, notepads, branded crayons, a tote bag (within a tote bag, wtf?) and a bunch of useless trinkets I didn’t even look at. Straight into the bin it went. Why they think anyone would like to carry around a heavy bag full of this crap is beyond me.
Although I knew it was going to be nearly impossible to capture anyone’s interest with a postcard, I still dropped a few at key places; some on the Cannes Lions Beach, a couple near the YouTube stage, one or two inside the Lumiere Theatre, some more near the Work and Awards hub, and the last ones at the rooftop. Apart from a guy sitting next to me at one of the talks, who found a postcard I had cheekily placed on the empty seat and was ready to throw it away but then changed his mind and finally decided to keep it (a beautiful moment), most people just ignored them.
My conversion rate was minuscule. I had to improvise. I quickly gave up on the idea of using the postcards as some sort of pseudo-subversive piece of art and decided to use them as a conversation starter. Instead of hoping a hungover passerby would notice one of them, react to it, tick the boxes, take a picture of it and upload it to Instagram (what was I thinking?), I encouraged that interaction myself. It was the best thing I could have done.
From Sunday until Friday, I approached eighty attendees chosen at random and asked them to give me their honest opinion on the importance of awards shows and what they represent. From students to members of the jury; from Chief Marketing Officers to film producers, festival staff, creative directors, brand managers, start-up founders, photographers, digital prophets (whatever that means), account managers, young creatives, entrepreneurs, record label agents, strategists, festival speakers and everything in between, I did my best to talk to as many people as possible.
And the effort paid off.
Along the way, not only did I get a better sense of what awards (Cannes Lions in particular, I guess) mean to different creative folks but I also got to meet some wonderful people who told me stories of personal success and growth; stories of why they got into advertising and what they expect from it. I even got interviewed by a lovely TV journalist who promised I’d become a celebrity in India once the show aired. I can’t wait for the whole thing to blow up.
Whenever I approached someone and asked them to tick as many boxes as they wanted to on the back of the postcard, I made sure they knew their contribution was anonymous (although I did write down the company they worked for, just to have an idea of how they were connected to the festival), hoping their answers would be as sincere as possible. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes the postcard exercise led to very interesting discussions and other times it resulted in me being politely shut down by someone who had taken offence in what I was trying to do.
“Deadlines” (15x19cm) — handmade collage part of the series Madland
“Promoted” (15x12cm) — handmade collage part of the series Madland
For the most part, though, it was a genuinely positive experience. One of the highlights was meeting a girl from a biotech company whose husband works in advertising. As she read the options on the postcard, a smile lit up her face and she told me: “This is so funny. My husband is always upset about some project at work and I sometimes pat him on the head and tell him “let it go, darling. It’s really not that important (eye roll).”
The only downside was missing the chance to ask Stefan Sagmeister to fill in a postcard when I bumped into him walking along La Croissette. I only managed to say hi and congratulated him for calling out Cannes Lions for their ugly logo on stage during his Experience keynote in the Lumiere Theatre (“If my intern would design a logo that is half a lion, he’d be fired! I mean, what the fuck is this?” — well said). I also missed the chance to ask John Hegarty, whom I also ran into one morning on my way to the Palais; and Dave Grohl, who gave an acoustic show to a handful of people, myself not included.
Anyway, what was the collective consensus, you ask? As I mentioned, I gave away some of the postcards so I don’t have all of the answers but out of a sample of eighty cards, these were the results:
Award shows. Pink bubbles aside, what’s the point?
To be inspired 89%
Ass-kissing networking 42%
To highlight the extraordinary 39%
To measure our creative dicks 36%
To get shitfaced in an exotic location 36%
To give ourselves a self-congratulatory pat on the back 31%
To revel in our well-deserved success 29%
Yacht parties 26%
Celebrity spotting 23%
To celebrate work that is totally detached from reality 18%
To impress a small group of people in a room 18%
To get high 15%
To make a few wealthy men even wealthier 13%
To collect more entry fee money 13%
To set ourselves impossibly high standards 13%
Fame and fortune 13%
There is no fucking point 10%
To get depressed 8%
To avoid the issue 5%
To take pride in stuff we shouldn’t be proud of 5%
To get laid as much as possible 5%
I know 80 people out of 15,000 is far from a significant representation of the general sentiment of the attendees but hey, there’s only so much a hungover man can do in a few days.
Also, as you can see on some of the postcards featured here, I actually didn’t manipulate people’s choices as much as I feared. Many of them scratched and rewrote things; some actually added new options to the existing menu. A few even asked a spare postcard to keep. To me, that was the ultimate proof of success.
For those who are curious, I talked to people working for Adweek, YouTube, SapientNitro, Business Insider, Havas Worldwide, Brand Union, Cannes Lions, AlmapBBDO, Woltti Group, Accenture, Prime, The Mill, Dentsu, PepsiCo, Jung von Matt, DDB New York, UKTV, TBWA Japan, Tribe Italy, 15MIN, TBWA Amsterdam, Cordww, Vimeo, Interscope Records, Samsung, Leo Burnett Australia, Facebook, Grey, Hackeragency, and AOL, which I think is an interesting mix. Try guessing which of the postcards above belongs to which company — it’s a fun exercise.
Now, some of my friends have asked what I think about Cannes and after the hundreds of conversations, dozens of keynotes and lightning talks, a handful of parties, and countless glasses of rosé, I still cannot make up my mind. I certainly enjoyed my time there and I consider myself privileged for actually having the chance to experience it first hand (I looked and questioned the work; I talked to people; I listened and learned from them; I drank everything that stood in my path) but on the other hand, I can’t help but feel that all that money could have been put to much better use.
As many before me have pointed out, Cannes Lions epitomises the best and the worst of the advertising industry. They set the benchmark for creative brilliance and have the potential to launch a creative’s career, but by doing so, they help feed the misguided desire for acknowledgement and appreciation that often leads to the vicious cycle Linds referred to. They reassert the role of creativity as a force for good and draw to your attention outstanding work that can inspire you do better, but then reward an opportunistic agency for putting out a shameful piece of scam work (again) that makes you wonder why the fuck would anyone bother. They bring together the world’s brightest minds yet they can’t get the damn goodie bags right. It’s just one big paradox, isn’t it?
In any case, I’m glad I made it to the festival this year and I certainly hope I can go back at some point because, despite it having some serious issues that need urgent fixing, my visit to Cannes Lions reminded me why I got into advertising in the first place and offered some perspective as to when it would be prudent to walk away from it.
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