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How Cannes Became South by the South of France

A partial Cannes stereotype: on a yacht catching up with a glamorous friend (Caroline McCarthy), though no rosé in sight&;(image courtesy of Mail Online).

This article was originally published in Ad Age; the pre-edited version is below. Go to Ad Age for more polish.


I knew that when heading out to the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity for the first time this year, I had to wade into a new overstimulating, overtiring experience that rivals the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and South by Southwest (SXSW). What I didn’t expect was what a great complement to CES and SXSW would be in terms of scouting emerging media companies.

As I recover from too much sun and rosé while sending every white article of clothing I own to the dry cleaners, here are three reasons why Cannes now resembles South by the South of France:

It’s more selective. One of SXSW’s selling points is its accessibility. That’s why so many entrepreneurs will eschew flying to drive to Austin from all over the country, or enter the StartupBus hackathon competition. If needed, people can couch-surf for a week and live off free breakfast tacos and Shiner Bock. Cannes, meanwhile, prides itself on relative inaccessibility. For Americans not coming from New York on the one daily direct Delta flight to Nice, getting there is far less than half the fun. Finding a comfortable, convenient room for under $500 a night signifies a good deal.

That in turn offers some cachet to the companies sending people. Cannes, at least for now, is at the point where just showing up indicates that the company is worth a look, if not some serious discussion. I met with a lot of potential vendors and partners in Cannes, formally or informally, and I plan to have serious follow-up discussions with almost every single one. Barely anyone was wasting my time (or theirs). It’s by far the best hit rate I’ve encountered at any event or conference I’ve attended.

It’s more focused. It’s a little hard to tell exactly who or what SXSW Interactive is for. It can mean everything from 3D-printed robots to smartwatches to social CRM software. Cannes Lions celebrates creativity in communications – namely marketing and advertising. While some attendees are concerned about the sprawling number of awards categories at the Lions in recent years, there is a much better sense at Cannes of who the buyers and sellers are, and what they’re here to buy and sell. Sellers here typically need to enable people to make their marketing more impactful, typically by providing better creative tools or ensuring that a brand’s marketing is seen by more of the right people. The sellers are often people selling themselves as well, given the reptuation of Cannes as a talent market.

Digital is taking over. As Advertising Age reported in its June 9, 2014 issue, the Cyber Lions is now the fourth highest-grossing awards category for the festival, and one of the fastest growing, up 55% over 2013 (PR billings grew 58%, but it’s about half the $2.49 million total for Cyber). Other categories also bleed into Cyber’s turf. For instance, British Airways won a Grand Prix in the Direct category for its “Magic of Flying” digital billboards supported by flight-tracking technology, and the campaign is one of the best examples of real-time marketing in any media.

Technology and digital media companies showed up en masse. All around the hubs of Cannes – the Palais convention center and the central Croisette boulevard – the main brands on display included Spotify, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Pinterest, the Mobile Marketing Association, and others. Yachts along the marina sported the flags of Celtra, True[x], Vibrant Media, Mail Online, Pandora, and the Mobile Mafia (I’m an informal member of the last one, but if I tell you about it – well, you know the rest). Traditional media brands were far harder to spot. Anecdotally, most of the people I spoke to focused on digital marketing, whether a buyer or seller, were attending for the first time.

I’d expect a sizeable number to return. For all the yachts, 500-Euro oversized mojitos topped with firecrackers, and late night wanderings through the crowd spilling out of the renowned meeting place known as Gutter Bar, Cannes is not just a creativity showcase but a technology showcase. For those at technology companies, there’s a simple way to determine if it makes sense to send people to Cannes next year: browse through the Cannes Lions entries and see if your product or service can help marketers win one of those Lions in the future. If so, stock up on seersucker because many marketers attending Cannes will be receptive to hearing more.



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