Our takeaways from Cannes Lions

Whisper it. This was my 9th Cannes Festival. And to my mind, it remains advertising’s biggest and best celebration of what our industry is all about.

It also reflects just how seismic the change has been. The Croissette is now a melting pot of management consultants, ad-tech, media outlets, platforms, brands…even the odd advertising agency. Advertising, just like Cannes, has come a very long way.

But there’s a risk here too. That we get obsessed with the data, the technology, the new and the possible and lose sight of the most important thing. How is advertising changing from the point of view of those it’s aimed at? Because let’s be honest, when it comes to people, at the aggregate level the big promise of digital advertising hasn’t been fulfilled. You can see that story in the data — when we look at public attitudes to advertising, digital channels are languishing at the bottom of the pile.

So what caught my eye at Cannes this year, were those moments of real clarity about marketing, where real people were right at the heart of it.

Many came from P&G’s Marc Pritchard: the shift away from “mass blast” to “mass 1–1”; the honest conversation about the need to get smarter with data; and above all, the need for simple, frictionless experiences for people that are informed, but not dictated, by data. Raja Rajamannar was another, as he pivot’s Mastercard towards “storymaking” that really enable and inspires.

There was straight-talking too from GSK’s Head of Global Categories, Carton Lawson, casting doubt on the long-held ambition of “building category defining brands that people love”. It’s not about love (if it ever was…), said Lawson, but trust. That means not just products that work, but being trusted as people. His description of the journey GSK in on could not be more people-centred: from “I know you”, to “I like you”, to “you know me,”. It wins my marketing maxim of the week. Elsewhere at GSK, the digital innovation agenda could not be more people-focused as “digi-ceuticals” explore, for example, the power of VR as a form of pain management.

At the tactical level, there was more people-led thinking to admire. Alexa’s techy tones are being left behind, as brands start to unlock — and measure — how the human voice can reflect their brand’s values. McKinsey has proven that it’s the integration of data and creativity that drives growth. 2x revenue growth in fact. No small prize. And I defy anyone to experience Philips’ AR driven, virtual beard and not come away feeling great about that brand. Seriously, download it now.

For every one of those 9 years, the Cannes commentariat has tried to define the festival with a single word. But what Cannes actually reflects — today more than ever — is the bewildering, complex reality for CMOs. Pritchard perhaps summed it best. “This is the era of mass disruption, so we must reinvent the way we are building our brands.”

That’s true. And there was a daunting catalogue of advice on offer to marketers as to how best to respond. But the good stuff carried a common thread: the ability to address real people to improve the digital experience. It has to happen, because in the digital economy, there’s no alternative. B2C is becoming C2B, people are choosing how and when to engage and brands are having to add genuine utility to the mix. It creates an imperative and opportunity to make “advertising” — in particular digital advertising — something that people welcome into their lives.

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