What would the Anti-Cannes event look like?

That’s what I wondered while darting around from yacht to yacht on the Croisette this week.

This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with Cannes (Sir Martin Sorrell of S4Capital disagrees; see why below).

It attracts senior leaders to forge relationships, share ideas, and build pipeline that will shape the rest of the year and start the momentum for 2023.

It’s also, at its heart, a festival of creativity, even if the sessions are now increasingly about topics like currency, addressability, and procurement.

Granted, there are challenges with Cannes:

  • It’s a racket. In a lot of ways. Flight costs. Badge costs. Award submission costs. Buying a badge just to get access to local hotel rooms. Someone I know almost got arrested for trying to use a colleague’s badge to get into an event; the badge was confiscated, but he at least avoided the Bastille.
  • The costs mean that a lot of up-and-coming talent, agencies, brands, and startups are hard to find, especially with flight prices this high. Many of these people may be coming up with the ideas that lead to Lions, but most of them won’t make it over.
  • It looks pretentious. In a year of economic anxiety, an event like Cannes may have a good return on investment for companies that are sponsoring it and bringing their teams out here, but the optics of Dionysian yacht parties can be jarring. It felt like a lot of the messaging this year shifted from “Who’s got the biggest yacht?” to “Who’s got the biggest thought leaders?”

Let’s keep Cannes.

But let’s imagine there’s an Anti-Cannes.

What would it look like?

Here are some ideas:

  • There’d be a Venn diagram showcasing creativemediatechnology, and people, with most sessions and functions featuring some kind of cross-over of two or more.
  • There would be incentives for companies to bring at least one-third – maybe one-half? – of their delegation from people with less than five years of experience in the ad industry. This isn’t ageism. A seventy-year-old who spent most of the time working in finance for a packaged goods company and is now taking on new brand management challenges would be just as welcome as a 24-year-old on their first or second job. I met a CMO here from a consulting firm who spent most of her career as a consultant; she’d fit in perfectly under this ‘new blood’ incentive.
  • Cities would apply to host it, like the ad Olympics. There’d have to be some basic infrastructure to support such an event, depending on the size of it, but it can still be a more modest-sized city. When South by Southwest (SXSW) started in 1987, the Austin metro area population was 504,000. This year, it’s 2,176,000. In the US, cities in that 500K ballpark include Omaha, Kansas City, Memphis, Louisville, and Albuquerque – along with Atlanta, which is one of the most bustling creative hubs in the world, and a city that I assumed was much, much bigger. Global cities should also be in contention, but I’ll defer to locals in other countries which ones they’d consider to be the Omaha or Louisville of where they live. (Note: I use the terms flatteringly; I’ve been to every city I mentioned above save for Albuquerque, and I love each one of them.)
  • There’d be more unconference than conference. The most poignant moment of FOMO I had during Cannes was seeing Cindy Gallop tweet about the meetup she hosted dubbed “Redesigning the Agency Model.” Read her thread. I’d love to see more of that.
  • It’d be purpose-driven, like a B Corp for conferences. There would be ways to directly (through donations) and indirectly (through events like brainstorming sessions) contribute to a certain cause. Imagine if this year’s Cannes would have found a public, communal way to help Ukrainian war refugees, for instance. It may take an anti-Cannes for that to work.
  • There would be a people’s choice component. Let’s bring in a version of USA Today’s Ad Meter and let it loose on award submissions. Have judged awards too, but let’s get outside perspectives.
  • The first award submission for any agency with fewer than 100 people working there would be free. Encourage more up-and-coming shops to submit their work. See if that encourages more diversity too. The next black-owned or LGBTQ-owned agency might just be getting started. Some shops in smaller markets may stay intentionally small to attract the best local talent and not compete with every national and international powerhouse. Ideas like these — and I’m sure there are better ones — can aim to bring more demographic and geographic diversity to the events.
  • Have a family day or two. A lot of people bring partners and some even being their whole families, but it’s tough to justify when you’re tied up in meetings all day or going to invite-only parties. Plus, for cities like Cannes, that’s cost-prohibitive for most. Let’s find ways to meet on personal levels and deepen human connections. One person I met from Nielsen was telling me how I visibly lit up when mentioning my daughter — and yet I had to miss Father’s Day to come to Cannes.
  • Speaking of Father’s Day, if there is a major international holiday (in this case) or national holiday, let’s NOT hold the conference at that time every single year. Do you know how many dads had to miss or cut short Father’s Day (and maybe a ton of Father’s Days) to be here? My kid is only 8 and I’ve only been to three Cannes, but I’ve missed a third of my Father’s Days with her. (Side note: I hope Carvel still has some Fudgie the Whale cakes left… hint hint to anyone reading this who might be celebrating a delayed Father’s Day with a certain newsletter writer and his daughter… hint hint.)

I wrote most of this before seeing the Ryan Reynolds announcement about the launch of Creative Ladder to usher in “the next generation of creative leaders.” Reynolds has some great partners in this venture, including the one and only David Griner who I go far enough back with that I still have his FriendFeed link in my contact file for him.

Maybe we’ll have the Cannes Ladders to go with the Lions, or better still, the Louisville Ladders. I’ll take Kentucky bourbon over French rosé every single time.

When I started writing this column, I just got to Cannes, and I was exhausted by the thought of powering through here all week.

As I write this column closer to my exit time, I’m energized by the connections forged and rekindled, along with all the ideas I’ve been jotting down for further writing and exploration.

I’m thankful to have been part of the Mediaocean Cannes delegation and will relish the opportunity to return any chance I get. There is a lot of good that comes out of Cannes – good work recognized, good ideas shared, good people connecting, and good business getting done that will lead to good growth and good hiring and good partnerships.

This isn’t an either/or proposition though.

SXSW wasn’t a must-attend event for marketers until sometime in the latter part of the 2000-2010 decade (the ‘00s? the aughts?), and it’s debatable if it still is. CES started gaining traction only slightly earlier, and for a different contingent, even with some overlap. DMEXCO, Mobile World Congress, Advertising Week, and others have had ebbs and flows for different audiences. What will be the next one to join the A-list?

Meanwhile, as I was about to hit send, I got to join a session at Mediaocean’s Cannes Retreat with Beet.TV where Sir Martin Sorrell was speaking and said the format for Cannes doesn’t make sense anymore.

I asked the final question from the audience, where I pointed out several people in the room and the serendipity of meetings (Sir Martin riffed that people meet “in the loo”). Where else can people like this get together?

Sir Martin noted we have to consider the costs, which moderator Jon Watts of CIMM estimated to general agreement must be in the 9-figures for all of the Cannes Lions. For Sir Martin, when he said, “What are the costs?” he said that intangibles like the environmental impact from travel must be a factor, especially as companies like his seek to hit sustainability goals.

As for the solution, he thought smaller, regional events – even two in the US, like New York and Miami – could make sense. That doesn’t sound like the craziest idea given how much of my Cannes was spent seeing people from the NYC area who I haven’t seen in years.

So, do you think we need an anti-Cannes?

Do we want one?

What would make you want to go? Reply with comments, and perhaps I’ll share some in next week’s edition.

If you’re already planning the Anti-Cannes, be sure to invite me. There are some unconference ideas I’d love to workshop there.

But invite Cindy Gallop first.



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