Lions Festivals’ CEO On Why CMOs Come To Cannes

Phil Thomas, chief executive of the Cannes Lions International Festival Of Creativity, says marketers realise that a creative component “will amplify the effectiveness of their output.”

Lions Festivals’ CEO On Why CMOs Come To Cannes

Cannes Lions, which takes place this month, is the world’s biggest gathering of CMOs and marketing people, according to festival CEO Phil Thomas. That’s quite an achievement for an event that isn’t a marketing conference.

The clue, Thomas believes, is in the name—the Cannes Lions International Festival Of Creativity. He acknowledges that Cannes doesn’t cover a lot of the areas marketers worry about, but he argues what it does cover—creativity—is the thing they need to worry about the most.

Thomas is a former journalist and publisher who took over as CEO of Lions Festivals—the company behind the Cannes Lions—in 2006. He spoke to in the run-up to this year’s event, so I started by asking him what a CMO who hadn’t been to the festival needed to know about Cannes Lions in 2016.

Thomas: There are two parts to the Festival. The first is the awards themselves, the Lions. This year we’ll have about 43,000 entries, ranging from the simplest newspaper ad to the most complex integrated campaign. There’s a lot of product, a lot of design, a lot of innovation. We cover the whole gamut of creative communications, and what we’re looking for is great ideas that are moving businesses forward.

The other part is 16,500 delegates coming together during the eight days of the festival. They are from advertising agencies, PR agencies, media agencies, they are from media owners, and, of course, the digital global platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Spotify, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Instagram, Google.

People attend for three reasons: to see great work and be inspired; to meet each other; and to see the content we provide. We have about 600 speakers across 13 stages. Everybody, from Bill Clinton downwards, has spoken. This year we’ve got film makers like Oliver Stone, actors like Gwyneth Paltrow, pop stars like Iggy Pop, all sorts of people. Why do CMOs come to Cannes?

Thomas: The festival started off as an advertising agency event, but now it’s about creativity in its broadest form. Clients really started coming about 15 years ago. They had come in dribs and drabs before that, but the turning point was Procter & Gamble announcing they were going to bring a delegation to Cannes, because they felt that creativity was going to be the differentiator in the future. That made a lot of other marketers take notice, and now all the major brands are there.

Marketers are still very interested in return on investment. They are very interested in sales output and brand saliency. They are interested in things they can measure. But they’ve measured that a creative piece of work will amplify the effectiveness of their output.

McDonald’s, for instance, recently did a piece of research which measured the effectiveness of work that had won a Lion at Cannes versus non-winning work. In their case, it was 54% more effective. Heineken did a similar piece of work—in their case, it was 45% more effective. So the debate about effectiveness versus creativity isn’t really a debate anymore. Given the choice between effective work and creative work, clients are now saying they would like to have both. What about the non-traditional players, particularly the big tech platforms, what’s their role?

Thomas: They have a difficult line to tread because, on the one hand, they’re media platforms. They need the agencies to partner with them. They go to great lengths to work with agencies and to help the agencies be more creative on their platforms.

At the same time, clients are going direct to those organisations to work on creative ideas as well. These tech platforms are classic frenemies to the agencies. And the agencies that are succeeding are the ones who are opening up to those conversations, not closing them down.

We see that not just with the tech platforms, but across more traditional media. We’ve got the big magazine publishers, the big newspaper publishers, the TV networks coming to Cannes partly to sell themselves as platforms, but also to sell themselves as creative partners to brands.

It’s one of the most interesting things about our industry at the moment. It makes the life of a CMO very complex, very difficult, and it’s one reason why they come to Cannes in such great numbers, because they want to meet these people. They want to try and make sense of what the future looks like. What other key trends do you see emerging that CMOs should be aware of?

Thomas: Last year we launched a special stream at Cannes about innovation, about data and technology coming together with creativity. How data and technology, in fact, are not enemies of creativity. They can be great liberators of creativity, using different ad tech platforms, using data within the ideas, using data to drive the ideas. This is an area that really needs to be understood.

This year we are launching Lions Entertainment. That’s about how we can create compelling content. What do talent and content creators want out of the relationships? Most importantly, what do consumers want?

There is a massive amount of content out there. Not everybody is going to be able to make their brand into some kind of publisher or entertainment company. But in order to get a share of voice, you have to be able to create compelling content. That could be anything from a short YouTube clip to a full-blown cinema film. Understanding that world is very important.

Every year at the festival we look at what people are talking about on stage, because it’s a great indication of what’s happening in the industry. Last year there were a number of themes. One was disruption, and the disruption of media in particular. You have to have a great idea, but on top of that, you have to have an idea of how to utilise the media you are choosing—and if necessary disrupt it—to get attention.

There was a big theme around the creation of products. Solutions aren’t just about classic advertising campaigns. They can be about creating products that help consumers and develop brands. There were many examples of that last year.

Then maybe the biggest theme for three or four years has been brand purpose. How do we fit into the world? How are we making the world a better place and how do we understand the culture of our consumers and embed ourselves in that culture. How are you responding to those themes?

Thomas: The big new thing is the entertainment stream. We’ve got an Entertainment Lion, which is our fastest growing Lion. We’ve got a special Music Lion. That’s not just the use of music in advertising. It’s creating events. It’s using talents, it’s partnerships. Again, that’s a cultural issue, how can music help to really reach people.

That entertainment stream is going to be really fascinating this year, with the advent of ad blocking, PVRs, with all the problems in terms of measurement of digital delivery, and with the unbelievable plethora of content. Creating genuine entertainment is a massive challenge, especially for brands who want their message out there. It’s not just a question of bankrolling some fantastic piece of content. It has to tie in with the branding. You have to get some brand saliency, but you can’t slap your logo all over it, and you can’t make it meaningless. That’s a very hard balancing act. We’ve talked a bit on about the notion of a post-advertising world. Not a world where advertising disappears, but where it’s a much smaller part of the marketing mix. How do you see that argument?

Thomas: The death of advertising is overblown. Not every brand can become a publisher; there isn’t enough time in the world. The growth we’ve seen in the last few years isn’t just about creating entertainment or branded content. There has been a massive explosion of product design and packaging design. PR has come up enormously in the mix, as has clever use of media thinking. Ten or 15 years ago—before the advent of the Internet—you didn’t have to worry about any of that. You just had to come up with a great idea and make sure you bought your media cleverly so that it got out there. Now I think integrated campaigns have to involve really smart PR thinking, really smart media thinking, brilliant design, good advertising content. All of those things are coming together. It doesn’t mean the death of advertising, but it does mean there are many other touch points that marketers have to think about. Cannes has grown in this additive way where you started off with advertising and added categories as other areas have become important. How do you look at that the other way around and talk about integration?

Thomas: It’s a very difficult question to answer, because we’ve got 24 different categories, and you could say, “why have categories at all, it’s not how people think.”

But, actually, it is how people think. There is a place for a really brilliant newspaper ad, or a fantastic cinema ad. If you put everything into one big bucket, you wouldn’t be able to highlight some brilliant piece of thinking in radio, or a beautiful piece of design. And people do look at things in that way.

We do have an integrated category and it’s one of our smallest. It’s a very difficult category to win a Lion in and often not many Lions are given out. That just shows that integration is very hard to do well. What are your challenges and opportunities going forward?

Thomas: The great thing about this industry is that the pace of change gives us opportunities all the time. Seven years ago, Cannes did not have a category for mobile. That’s almost unbelievable because it’s now a huge category for the festival.

So the answer to your question is we don’t really know. This time last year I didn’t know we were going to launch an entire stream on entertainment, but when I went to the festival last year, it hit me like a freight train that the time was right.

What’s exciting about being in our industry right now is none of us really know what’s going to happen next. All we know is it’s going to be really, really interesting.