The end of awards as we know them?
Posted on 2017 Jul,10  | By Iain Akerman

With Publicis Groupe pulling out of Cannes and all other shows for a year and WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell saying the jury is out on future participation, has a rebellion against the rising costs of awards finally begun?

When Arthur Sadoun, the chairman and chief executive of Publicis Groupe, announced from the luxury of the Majestic hotel in Cannes that Publicis was to take no part in the festival next year, he not only caught everybody’s attention, but dominated conversation for much of the rest of the week. Not bad for a man only three weeks into his new job.

A backlash against Cannes or a cynical hijacking of the limelight? A rebellion against the rising cost of awards, or little more than a publicity stunt? Whichever way you look at it, the organisers were spooked and Cannes may never be the same again.

In the debate that followed, two main threads emerged. Firstly, that people are being ripped off by the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, which has morphed into an awards behemoth during an era of category proliferation. In essence, the financial burden on agencies has dramatically increased as the scope of Cannes has broadened. WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell said as much, stating that the festival had “become too much about making money”. The same can be applied to other shows, with Publicis also stating that it is to forego all awards next year in order to concentrate on the development of an AI-powered ‘professional assistant’ called Marcel.

Secondly, there is the belief that Cannes has lost its focus on creativity. That it has become too techie, or too geeky, and has strayed too far from advertising and the concept of ideas. It is a view that Hubert Boulos, chief executive for the Middle East at DDB Dubai, shares.

“In my opinion, the person who rang the alarm bell on Cannes was Jeff Goodby [co-chairman and partner at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners] two years ago, when he said he would no longer attend because Cannes reminded him more of a roof tilers’ convention,” says Boulos. “Unfortunately, over the past two years things have gotten even worse, as it has become a spring break for GAFA [Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon], with the advertising industry feeling totally out of place.”

Has Cannes become too big for its own good? The organisers certainly recognise the need to listen to their critics, with Cannes Lions setting up an advisory committee “to help shape the future of the festival and ensure it continues to respond to the needs of the industry”. With entries down by 4.5 per cent compared with last year and WPP sending 500 less staffers than the previous year, it’s an understandable and necessary move.

“Unfortunately, awards as we know them are gone, thanks to some weird adtech takeover that is not relevant to our industry,” says Boulos. “We want awards shows as they used to be. Cannes Lions as well as the Dubai Lynx should rethink their approach and strategy. The advertising industry definitely needs ad festivals and awards, [but] we need relevance and quality, as was the case before. We clearly do not want to attend roof tilers’ conventions that are priced like VIP boxes in the Champions League.”

“You certainly need to look at the bigger picture here,” adds Sasan Saeidi, managing director of FP7 UAE. “Our industry was founded on the power of creativity and ideas. That’s what we are all about and we will always be a creative led industry. We are much less about technology, data, programmatic, social platforms and beyond. But these very topics are taking more of a central role and [more] real estate in our award shows today. This is not to say they are not important, but rather they are there to serve creativity and not other way around. That’s the big topic here. Not the notion of awards. It’s holding groups wanting to play hard-ball with award organisations in order for the climate and offering to become normalised when it comes to prices and attention. That’s it.”

Paul Shearer, group chief creative officer at Memac Ogilvy MENA, agrees. “What has to happen is for the ad world to get together with the heads of the Cannes Lions and work out a way to make the show more economical,” he says simply.

Negotiations between Cannes and the big holding groups will undoubtedly take place in the coming months, although Sorrell has previously stated that boycotting the festival would be a mistake. He met briefly with John Wren, chief executive of Omnicom, during Cannes to discuss potential ways to shake up the annual festival, but what is likely to be the outcome is as yet unknown.

“I would certainly guarantee that this is not the end of the awards show, as the festival of creativity is there to recognise and reward the big ideas that are helping brands and marketers,” says Saeidi. “Marketers themselves are big fans [of Cannes] today and believe in the economics of creativity, as McKinsey & Co spoke about at the festival. Brands that invest in creativity and have been recognised in awards shows are the ones that have generated higher financial value. This is a fact, not intuition.

“Award shows will continue. There will be olive branches, there will be talks, people will gather in boardrooms and compromises and agreements will be made. We can’t neglect and ignore millions of passionate creative folks that come to work every day to crack that next ‘Fearless Girl’. But – and there is always a but – awards and the obsession of winning more metal should be kept at bay, as this obsession is killing the very essence of what we are being paid to do – to use creativity to build brands and solve challenges. Awards are a by-product, not the main product.”