CANNES, France — Marketers are used to being the sideshow to the main event, whether it’s ads in a magazine, tents at a music festival or commercials during the Super Bowl. So imagine a conference where marketing is the star and pretty much everyone who attends specializes in attention-getting. Toss in the French Riviera and you have what is known as the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity Awards.
The annual Cannes Lions, established in the 1950s to honor the best in marketing, attracts executives from the world’s biggest brands and advertising agencies, as well as the top players from technology, entertainment and media. (It’s unrelated to the city’s famous film festival.) Their presence transformed the beachfront here last week, giving a first-timer like me the sense that I was walking through the internet in real life — or IRL in web parlance.
Stretches of sand were renamed #TwitterBeach, Facebook Beach and Pinterest Pier. The pavement was painted teal, brought to attendees by Waze. Promotions for Shazam, the song-recognition app, and Oath, the newly named tie-up of AOL and Yahoo, dominated the entryways of five-star hotels to somewhat garish effect. Not enough? There was also a Spotify House and an Oracle Deck.
When I marveled over the setup to another attendee, he asked, “Have you seen the yachts yet?” I hadn’t. Sure enough, there was a long line of luxurious boats nearby that were festooned with banners for brands like Nielsen, the TV ratings company, and the accounting firm PwC. Music thrummed from them well into the early hours of the morning, and the drinking and dancing seemed to be made safer by the fact that people had to take their shoes off to board.
At times, though, the lavish displays felt strangely disconnected from what some of the companies face in the real world. Snap, whose stock plummeted after its first earnings report last month, erected a massive Snapchat-branded Ferris wheel and had its own event space, inspiring a popular guessing game as to how much it all cost.
Then there was the exclusive evening party that executives were jockeying to get into at the glamorous Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc, where rooms cost upward of $1,000 a night. The event, which featured a performance by the Weeknd and refreshments like sushi and key-lime pie bites, was co-sponsored by iHeartMedia, the biggest radio broadcaster in the United States. The company, saddled with billions in distressed debt, has been struggling financially for some time, bringing to mind the phrase, “You have to spend money to make money.” Many guests continued the festivities on iHeartMedia’s yacht, where bartenders crouched to serve cocktails and wine from rowboats on the upper deck.
There were plenty of celebrity sightings throughout the week, with private performances offered by Stevie Nicks (courtesy of Oath), Ed Sheeran (thanks to News Corporation) and Solange (via Spotify). Elisabeth Moss, the star of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and an industry favorite from her “Mad Men” days, joined the party at the du Cap, where she chatted with Hulu’s chief executive and the founders of PopSugar as the sun set. Ryan Seacrest, Alicia Silverstone and Gwyneth Paltrow were also spotted — a reminder of how sprawling the marketing world now is. (To that point, the Cannes Lions themselves no longer distribute awards for advertising, but rather for “branded communications.”)
Executives, despite their jam-packed schedules, seemed to be taking full advantage of the weather, donning sundresses, light button-downs and T-shirts with blazers. One said he had conducted a morning meeting during a swim in the Mediterranean Sea. Before the conference, an ad technology company offered me an interview with its chief executive — while parasailing. (I passed, given that notepads and tape recorders tend not to work in that environment.)
Rosé seemed like an integral part of the festival. At meals, it was poured alongside water as early as 11 a.m., and served frozen as “frosé” in the afternoon. Cups of frozen rosé slushies were branded with the logos of Facebook and the agency OMD at a beachfront cabana. Nearby, at a villa rented out by the ad agency Ogilvy, a mini refrigerator from Facebook was stocked with “frosé sorbet.”
The entertainment from media companies often felt pitch-perfectly on brand. At a party held by Pinterest, there were cocktails inspired by Pinterest trends, described with physical cards that mimicked posts on its site. (One example: the Elderflower Champagne cocktail.) At Facebook Beach, the company hired Alexa Meade, a popular artist on Instagram known for painting objects and people and staging them so they appear two-dimensional when photographed. Visitors could take pictures to post to their own Instagram accounts. Sure enough, the dimensions baffled several of my close friends.
While interviewing an executive from Dentsu Aegis Network in an open cabana at the end of a long pier with an expanse of blue water on either side, it struck me that this was not a bad setting for networking and negotiations — even if many of the attendees seemed to be transplanted from New York City at a steep cost. (One executive confessed that his flight from New York to France cost $12,000.)
Kristin Lemkau, the chief marketing officer of JPMorgan Chase, attended the festival for the first time and acknowledged how outlandish it seemed. Still, she said, it somehow made sense.
“This is a relationship business,” Ms. Lemkau said. “It does come down to the relationships and whether you trust the person you’re dealing with and trust their motives, and it’s kind of hard to build a relationship in a meeting.”
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