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7 major trends from Cannes Lions 2019

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Now the dust has settled after another busy Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, it's time to take stock of some of the trends from this year's event. Here're seven major themes we observed at thenetworkone...


Ugly sells

I’ve borrowed the phrase from a terrific seminar early in the week by Tim Leake of the indie agency RPA. Tim had co-ordinated some compelling analysis of what works and what doesn’t in terms of internet video these days. There is a strong trend for “authentic” content – the kind people engage with and react to – to be deliberately un-slick and un-crafted and actively avoid production values. Craft for Tim is about story, performance, character and casting: aka, the cheap stuff. 

He showed examples of companies who have learned to modulate communication for different platforms: Denny’s, the hamburger chain, runs very different creativity on Instagram, YouTube and broadcast TV. Gen Z creators use different tonalities for their Instagram and their Finstagram (fake Instagram) accounts. At the end his counsel to all of us was really nicely produced and really badly produced work – both work well. It’s the middle ground that sucks.


Outcome advertising

At the Cannes Official Fringe in Cabana Town, a random comment from one of the participants at Whalar’s talk that her agency, WPP’s Xaxis, is now self-styled as ‘The Outcome Media Company’ was interesting. ‘Outcomes’ are, as we heard last year, what clients want.

Maybe not the CEOs but certainly the CMOs, whose tenure averages less than 18 months and who are nowadays required not just to demonstrate growth, but to accelerate it. In Xaxis own words, it combines unique brand-safe media access, unrivalled programmatic expertise and 360-degree data with proprietary artificial intelligence to help global brands achieve the outcomes they value from their digital media investments. In plain English, this means short term sales results from advertising. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best client proponents of this are American fast food retailers, who won four of the seven Grands Prix which were not awarded for social purpose.



Around November 2018, when the Cannes content team would have been putting together their June 2019 programme, ‘in-housing’ was the big talking point of the industry. It was the prevailing theme of the US ANA (Association of National Advertisers) 2018 annual conference.

The growing trend of clients moving agency services in-house is of course a major concern to some agencies. Most particularly, the traditional agency holding companies like WPP, Omnicom, Publicis, IPG, Havas and DAN, whose prospects have been decimated by the loss of highly profitable media buying assignments.

So, Cannes scheduled a panel (two agencies, two clients) to debate the issue. A lot of people turned up hoping for fireworks about transparency, fraud, FBI investigations and the stuff that has been all over Advertising Age in the US. However, the moderator, Phil Thomas of the Cannes Lions (known to some as Spreadsheet Phil, like the UK Finance minister) decreed at the outset that the discussion would be restricted to ‘big idea creativity’. Ideas are intangible, so it’s quite difficult to prove who has bigger ones and we did not get very far.



In many ways the media wars are over and the agencies lost. Big clients are moving media buying in house, disingenuously citing transparency issues. Did they really not know about agency rebates? When they hired people from media agencies, did they really wipe their memories like the Men in Black? But the bigger issue is the growing importance of highly confidential first party data which the clients own and don’t share with their agencies… although they do share it with the consulting companies!

Independents will probably survive and may well thrive, working for smaller clients who can’t afford their own in-house capabilities – because data analysts and machines that learn, are expensive and the consulting firms are not interested in clients with less than US$1bn in revenue.

We had a shameless sales pitch, but an absorbing one, from Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, for Quibi. Quibi are quick bites: a new kind of TV in 10-minute segments – like the 10-minute chapters in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci code – delivered via your soon-to-be 5G mobile phone, in vertical or horizontal formats, perfect while you are waiting at the bus stop but which can also be watched end to end in an evening. The platform will launch in the US next April. The real USP is that they are entirely curated content. Not like YouTube, Facebook and those nasty UGC platforms where your brand can end up next to ISIS, pornography or the Russian government’s election broadcasts.


Genre fluidity


TikTok's seminar

We’ve all heard a lot about gender equality and to be fair, Cannes has made real steps here. 48% of jurors were female and the speaker programme seemed quite well balanced also. The Cheil seminar, featuring the heads of their offices in China, Japan and India who are all female, was particularly impressive. But one of the best seminars of the week in Cannes was by Google and YouTube, mostly about genre fluidity.

This is quite brave of them since Google began life as a classification business. But they provided a compelling story about how people identify themselves and many other things – notably the music and videos they like. They had a nice story about Billboard being outed for disqualifying a musician from their Country Music chart because, well, he did not look like a country musician.

Understanding merging trends and genres in music and making these easier to find online is a challenge. You could sign up to TikTok, who presented probably the most entertaining seminar of all, featuring a “plus-size model” who got a million views for doing the splits and a likeable Nigerian-American whose parents really wanted her to be a lawyer. TikTok specialises in videos which are so short that you have to watch them at least four times, or you miss bits. It’s described as “therapy, a place to go to make your day feel better.” Sounds good to me!


The rise of the consulting companies

This trend is serious and genuinely transformational in our industry. The one truly unmissable seminar and almost worth the delegate fee was the interview with Brian Whipple of Accenture Interactive and David Droga of Droga5. Of course, Accenture Interactive is not the only consulting firm entering the traditional agency space but are clearly the leaders.

In case you have been on a long holiday, Accenture Interactive recently followed up their acquisition of three of Europe’s top creative independents – Karmarama in UK, Kolle Rebbe in Germany and Shackleton in Spain – with the purchase of Droga5, headquartered in New York and arguably the best creative independent agency in the world.

Everyone has been wondering why Droga sold out. An enterprising New York creative shop, Terri & Sandy, even hired a private plane to tow a “Free Droga” banner over the Cannes beach. So, what was the story?

Droga told his version. Three years ago, they pitched a large government assignment and realised there were major aspects to it they simply could not do: brand experience, back end technology, etc. Which the consultancies can. And in Droga’s words: “CMOs used to be paid to build the brand. Now they are paid to build the business. Our industry has digital appreciation, they [Accenture Interactive] have digital skills. They build lung devices and have a company which does special effects for Game of Thrones. They can convince a client to spend 10 times what an agency can.”  


The independents

As the holding companies fade, opportunities will open for independent agencies (perhaps involving collaborations with consulting firms – why not?). My own business, thenetworkone, was formed to help independent agencies win assignments from international clients and manage them effectively; so, I hope you will forgive me a few words on Independents at Cannes.

It’s a subjective view, but I think Cannes is really missing a trick here. Independent agencies used to feature regularly on the main stages, where we hosted a very popular session called the Independent Agencies Showcase. For the last few years, this has not been allowed. This year, we set up our own Indie Forum, outside the official festival (and outside the official fringe) on one of the beach venues.

Gratifyingly, it was packed out. We had three brilliant agency founders – Jordan Warren of TBD in San Francisco, Sharon Napier of Partners and Napier in New York, and Nils Leonard, of Uncommon in London.

Finally, it is great to see Wieden+Kennedy flying the flag for creativity, with their hugely courageous and successful Colin Kaepernik campaign for Nike; and RBK in Sweden, for their innovative work on the carbon-limiting credit card from Doconomy.

Julian Boulding is president of thenetworkone.


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