My Third First Time at Cannes Lions

I’ll be honest with you, I was tempted to lie a little about my time at the 2017 Cannes Lions festival. It is after all a post-truth, alternative facts Age we live in today.

But my reckless optimism about the world (advertising included) still got the better of me, and my rose-tinted glasses continued to be perched firmly upon the bridge of my viewing deck.

So here’s looking at the festival as a first timer. Again. For the third time.

It’s the best way to make the most of your time here, if you are among the 15,000-odd people who do end up making it to the Cannes Lions any time. But allow me to be your (somewhat biased) guide.

Because there’s potentially a lot to be cynical / derisive about.

As you walk down the Croisette towards the Palais des Festivals — the venue of advertising’s glitziest and most well-known celebration — in Cannes, the first thing that strikes you is probably a swarm of real tourists seemingly trying to get away from the madding ad-ing crowd.

Oh, and there’s this pledge I was going to suggest to those trying to woo the Lion (self included).

Dear World,
I pledge to try my best to not save the world from the problems of inequality, injustice, hunger, poverty, war, violence, substance abuse, guns, and disasters of other kinds through advertising for brands.

I will however continue to do my best in helping a brand be purposeful — in moving people so that the needle of business continues to move in the right direction. And in doing so, I will continue to showcase how a brand can be useful, interesting, reassuring, even entertaining to people. And if, also, in doing so their world becomes a tiny bit better, so be it.

But let me lend you those rose-tinted first-timer glasses for a bit.

Because this is what you’d have seen.

A ferris wheel at the Palais entrance? You would so have wanted to ride! It’s fitting that it was put up by Snapchat, a company that makes no pretense about making the planet better but is all about having fun in the moment. The way the world is today, we can all take a page out of their book in how to put the nonsense in sense.

Let’s head over now into the Palais.

Over here on the Terrace, Joe Pytka (if you don’t know who that is, no need to drown in a chullu of paani; just look him up) introduces us to the genius of Ed McCabe and George Lois over some drinks at the legendary Four Seasons. The only point I differ with them over is that we’re past the Good Old Days. We’re still in the process of creating them. Ed / George / Joe, check back with us in a couple of decades. (We know you can because, at least for us, you’re immortal.)

Need proof? Let me take you to the basement where the work from this past year is on display. Yes, it’s a fair reflection of the real word of advertising (if you believe in such a thing). A majority of the work is not stellar, but the ones that are do a service to the rest of us. They inspire us to aspire to be the same. Or better. And the ones that aren’t at the same level signal the aspiration of the rest of us. And a belief that we can too, one day.

When you see work from far-flung markets like Egypt and Kuwait winning metal here, you can believe that the possibility of creativity leveling the playing field anywhere in the world is real.

This 90:10 rule of average : extraordinary applies to the seminars, workshops and talks at the multiple auditoriums in the Palais as well.

When you see agency folks peddling their agency philosophy on the big stage, there is a lurking sense that the Cannes Lions seminars are becoming the thing that advertising is rebranding itself as: branded content.

And then you encounter mind-opening perspectives.

I’m sure you’ve often thought of the problems you confront as having to deal with a lot of sh*t. Via talking about their Space Poop Challenge, NASA’s Jason Crusan showcased the power of openness in finding ideas that literally deal with shit in interstellar space.

The New Yorker’s David Remnick unpeeled the bullshit from the lies and the versatility of Donald Trump in straddling both in his talk about dealing with fake news. The liar knows the truth and wants to take you away from it, whereas the bullshitter doesn’t care about the truth, just his point of view being right and yours wrong. In the middle of his speech in the darkened auditorium, the ludicrousness of it all is driven home by a phone ringing with Jasbir Jassi’s Dil lagi kudi Gujarat di as its ring tone. For all that brands were talking about purpose and authenticity as being the demands of a hype-rejecting millennial consumer population just two years ago, today’s global cultural fabric is about dealing with fakery.

Ira Glass, producer extraordinaire of podcasts before podcasts were a thing and creator of Serial, S-Town and This American Life, shed light on what he learned about how to tell a story. Having fun, talking normally and creating intimacy were three of the seven cornerstones he dwelt on in his talk. Seems like perfectly sane advice for — and the pillars on which — great advertising has been and will always be created. But it’s abiding advice that was delivered with all the hallmarks of great storytelling. He was walking the talk, literally.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., in whose arms the great Martin Luther King. Jr. passed, had a lot of sage advice to offer the world from 50 years of observing its ebbs and tides. Perhaps the one that we can all take away as brand custodians is this: we often think of consumers and businesses as having opposing goals. Consumers want more value for less money. Businesses want more profit for less cost. And the twain, it might seem, shall never meet. But, as the Reverend said, the lion and the lamb can lie together if they care about the same thing — such as the forest they live in being under threat of fire. Perhaps there is more, positive common ground we can find too if we look hard enough.

NYU Stern Business School’s future-gazing marketing expert Scott Galloway appropriately enough demonstrated how spectacular insights into how things work — especially in a hyper-paced world churned constantly by technology — can blow your mind. I wish I could expand more on the high intensity, insight-per-minute session, but here’s hoping it’s out on a public platform soon.

Among others, Dan Ariely riffed effortlessly on the power of irrationality and the importance of the small picture.

Sir Ian McKellen, in his informal yet distinguished way, waxed eloquent on how authenticity can potentially result in revelation and revolution.

And Dame Helen Mirren, how gorgeous was she with her sleight of hand in dealing with doubters (“F** them!”) and self-doubt (“Don’t give yourself so much importance. You’re not the only one in trouble.”).

In between, there was all of this: lots of rosé to be sipped, good food to be had, strolls to be enjoyed, the inviting blue waters to dunk into, a leisurely ice cream (banana chocolate was my favorite this time) to be slurped, parties to be attended, and the pause button to be pressed from the hecticness of the daily advertising life that sometimes makes us forget what a wonderful business it is that we are in.

Facts, fiction, and the occasional home truth in advertising. Marathoner. Group Executive & Strategy Officer, Dentsu India.