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Was 2018 the Year Cannes Got Crunchy About Gender and Diversity?

London, UK
LBB’s Laura Swinton looks back on a week coloured by #MeToo and #TimesUp
For years diversity has been an easy win for Cannes panels. Heads nodding sympathetically, everyone agreeing how jolly important diversity is and off to the Majestic for a rosé and some post-session mutual backslapping. This year, however, the content and tone of events and conversation was markedly different, dare we say it, even substantive. 

The events of the past year, both within the industry and in wider society – Weinstein, #MeToo, #TimesUp – set the scene for a somewhat more sombre and crunchy discussion.

Tackling #MeToo

Hats off to IPG for tackling #MeToo and Weinstein head on. The headline act at the IPG Women’s Breakfast was #MeToo founder Tarana Burke and iconic feminist activist and journalist Gloria Steinem. In their discussion with BBC journalist Zeinab Badawi, things got crunchy as Tarana questioned whether the #MeToo movement was in risk of losing focus as being directed beyond sexual violence. They also talked about the ways that sexism and racism were intertwined and also about how equality in the domestic sphere was necessary to ensure equality in the workplace.

On the idea that there was a ‘backlash’ against #MetToo and #TimesUp and that some men in power were restricting time with female employees and colleagues and therefore freezing them out (as at least one powerful holding company CEO is known to do), Tarana had a powerful rejoinder.

“I think men should be appalled at the idea that they can’t be in a situation with women without acting like that. That’s not my experience all the time with men,” Tarana said.

“Men should stand up – as opposed to this more cowardly, for lack of a better way to put it, response of ‘oh well, we just won’t say anything’. ‘If I can’t compliment you on your dress or say, “how you doing”, I just won’t have any women in the room’. That’s a cowardly way of looking at things. Don’t allow this narrative to exist that says men and women can’t co-exist.”

The breakfast hosted NY Times Gender Editor Jessica Bennett to talk about both the newspaper’s role in taking down Harvey Weinstein and the progress made (and still to be made) in the mainstream cultural narrative. 

Pragmatism not Platitudes

Panel discussions on diversity and gender are nothing new to Cannes, but this year there seemed to be more of a focus on substantial facts and solutions, rather than platitudes.  
HP took to the Palais stage with Thandie Newton and British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful to talk real experiences – and also to launch their findings that work created by more diverse teams had a greater impact in terms of revenue per impression.

And speaking to agencies, global leaders were keen to talk about the practical steps taken to change things internally, tackling everything from sexual harassment to unconscious bias. J. Walter Thompson’s Tamara Ingram spoke to LBB about the concrete steps taken across the network since she joined in 2016, following the Gustavo Martinez scandal.

“We’ve done the obvious thing like ensuring there’s a safe line, so if there are any worries [people know who they can talk to],” she said. “How we recruit people is different. Instead of CVs, where you see what university people went to, we have much more blind recruiting, trying to get much more diverse candidates into interview to stop people recruiting in their own image. You have to think about that. And then  there are all the programmes we have to make a better culture and also to enable people to flourish. So, it’s how you get people in, how you promote them up.”

And the discussion had also moved on from the ‘why’ of diversity and the obstacles different people face in terms of employment in the industry but to issues around inclusion. After all, if people are ‘set up to fail’ from the beginning, employers can’t help them fulfil their potential. 

At the Clear Channel panel on diversity, Spotify’s Kerri Steib, Director of Social Impact, detailed the internal programmes designed to make sure that employees had a voice and that underrepresented artists were celebrated on the platform. One example of the kind of practical solutions that had emerged from their internal programmes was that one employee questioned the decision to place advertising in African American publications during Black History Month – to truly, authentically support them.  She noted that, as a global brand, they were also carrying out research to find out how barriers to diversity and inclusion differ for employees, listeners and artists across markets.

In a conversation at McCann’s terrace, Chief Client Officer Nanette Lafond-Dufour said to Little Black Book. “I think we have to do much more to make sure it’s not just about getting people ‘in’ but it’s a constant day to day approach to make sure that they’re able to bring their best and that they feel good. Because when people feel good I think they do much better work - they want to contribute more. We need to create an environment where people can bring their best and they’re appreciated for their authentic self. Because there’s many aspects to people. We tend to look at people very narrowly but everything we do in our life affects how we work.”

Even Sir Martin Sorrell couldn’t escape the topic of toxic or non-inclusive workplace culture as accusations of bullying levied in the Financial Times came back to haunt him at his Croisette appearances where he argued that he was ‘difficult, with justification’. 

The D-Word

But outside of the earnest debates and Palais panels there was also much – far more off-the-record – chat about the discomfort around some developments. Well-known perps who continue to evade public outing, thanks to a little thing called media law and, on the other hand, concern about how easy it is to pile in on and ruin the careers of men tried in the court of public opinion. A certain popular Instagram account currently facing a $10m lawsuit came up a lot during the week – some supportive, but others concerned that unsourced accusations were counter-productive.  We couldn’t persuade anyone to go on the record about their thoughts on Diet Madison Avenue – positive or negative – though everyone had an opinion on it.

And, yes, there were the usual, familiar complaints of ‘I’m so bored of all of this diversity stuff’ – largely, though not exclusively, from older, white women. So, the idea that there is an industry-wide consensus on diversity, gender, inclusion and sexual harassment is a bit of a fantasy. 

Elsewhere, a different anonymous group which proved to have less breakthrough were the #WomenCannes movement, who called on Cannes attendees to wear black. Highs of 32° will do that, mind you.

Wild agency parties were noticeably absent from the Croisette – though things definitely got crazy up at some of the villa parties. But one could put the absence of some of the annual mainstays down to straightened financial circumstances in the industry, The&Partnership’s Johnny Hornby has been quite clear that their yacht party was dropped in the interests of having a more sober approach to the festival.

Indeed, the question of the industry’s reliance on alcohol to prove to itself that it’s fun and cool – and alcohol’s role in sexual harassment – was a topic that may not have been centre stage at the Palais, but was instead an unspoken undertone to the week’s debates on harassment and diversity. 

Problem Solved?

While most of the people we spoke to were happy that things seemed to be changing and that the conversation has become more open, one concern that cropped up among a few of the people we spoke to was that the theme of gender and diversity was in danger of being treated like a fad of the year. (Indeed, one writer for another creative publication asked me, ‘wasn’t gender and diversity last year’s ‘thing?’).

MullenLowe Group’s Creative Council President and UK CCO Jose Miguel Sokoloff told us that he worries that the industry, bound up in campaign-thinking, is at risk of thinking the issue ‘solved’. “We tend, in advertising and at Cannes ,to try to find ‘a thing’ for the year’. If the thing is me too, and gender respect and equality – if that is the thing for the year… then I think we’re fucked. Because it shouldn’t be,” he said.

Instead he says he hopes the wave that we’re seeing is a bubbling up of a long-brewing movement. “I hope that it’s something that has already been happening slowly and brewing and we’re just coming to realise it. In Hollywood maybe one single scandal bubbled up to the top, but I hope it’s something that we have been seriously looking at and tackling before and that we continue to work on. I think it’s a different Cannes because the composition of the jury is different, but it was last year anyway - and I think the composition of the industry is changing, which is great, but I hope it continues. I hope we don’t say ‘ok, that’s a solved problem’ because it isn’t.”

Bettina Olf, CCO at Geometry Germany also said that she took issue with the idea that diversity and gender equality were the ‘hot topics’ of 2018. “I find that a lot of men are a little bit insecure about the whole thing, which I find very weird because it’s something that has been brought up as ‘the topic’ this year. But this topic has been around for years. I was kind of expecting that everybody already has a take on it. And with some people I get the feeling that they just started reflecting on it now,” she said. “Some people are very tired that it’s one of the main topics in Cannes. I think if it needs this push to get people thinking then we have to talk even more about it.”

But while there was nothing like a consensus on where the industry is at when it comes to diversity, work culture and inclusion, it was undoubtedly a week that reflected the rather interesting place the industry finds itself in 2018.
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