How many of those lucky individuals who leave Cannes with a Lion know where their prize got its name? If they're looking for a clue, they might like to turn to an obscure 1969 French film called Slogan. This delightful slice of kitsch stars gravel-voiced Serge Gainsbourg as a disreputable adman and Jane Birkin as his lover. When he goes to pick up his gold Lion, he travels to Venice. And that's where the international festival got its stumbling start - in the shade of the winged lions of St Mark's square.
The history of Cannes Lions inevitably reflects the evolution of the advertising industry. This year, for example, the organisers have added a design category (see page 30). "Each additional category has answered a demand from the industry," Philip Thomas, who became the festival's chief executive two years ago, says. "We spoke to many advertising and design luminaries before we made a decision, but it became clear there was a gap. Design is very much part of brand communications, from packaging to retail interiors."
At its inception, the festival had only one category, and it was not TV: Cannes was set up to flog cinema advertising.
The story began in the early 50s, when the only audiovisual medium available to advertisers outside the US was cinema - commercial TV had not yet materialised in Europe. Investment in cinema advertising was nonetheless very low, and the small band of contractors all knew one another. They decided to form a London-based association called the Screen Advertising World Association.
In order to promote themselves, the contractors agreed to hold an annual festival to which they would invite potential clients. The event would be staged in European locations associated with film festivals, such as Cannes and Venice. The first event was staged in Venice in 1954 and there were 187 entries - a far cry from the 25,000-odd pieces of work entered today. The winner was an Italian film for Chlorodont toothpaste. The second event took place in Monte Carlo, and it wasn't until the following year that the junket first came to Cannes.
By the time the festival had settled into a rhythm - zigzagging each year between Venice and Cannes - TV advertising had arrived. Remarkably, though, it wasn't until 1983 that the TV and cinema categories were merged into a single film prize. A year later, Venice was dropped as a location after years of transport strikes and logistical hassles, and Cannes became the festival's permanent home. With its balmy climate, transport facilities and monolithic hotels, the city had been playing host to overseas visitors since the 19th century, when English aristocrats "wintered" there to escape the chill of their island home.
The character of the festival began to change with the arrival of Roger Hatchuel, who became its figurehead for more than 20 years. Previously the head of advertising at Procter & Gamble France, Hatchuel discovered SAWA when he was hired to run the French cinema advertising contractor Mediavision. Reluctantly, he allowed his boss - the Mediavision co-founder Jean Mineur - to talk him into becoming the chairman of the association.
"I felt it would be terrible for my personal image because, as far as I was concerned, the association was run very unprofessionally by a bunch of old guys," Hatchuel says. "But I respected Monsieur Mineur, so I went along with him. This was in 1985. A year later, I told them: 'Look, I'm not going to stay involved in this festival if it's run in an unprofessional way as a non-profit organisation. We need investment, marketing and manpower so we can turn it into a real business.'"
From 1987, Hatchuel took a financial stake in Cannes and began to develop its activities. The recession provoked by the Gulf War helped to drive the festival's development from a film-only ceremony. With the ad industry tightening its belt, attendance was encouraged by adding seminars, debates and new categories. Cannes accepted press and outdoor entries from 1992.
Running the festival has never been an easy ride, with accusations of dodgy voting tactics and whispers of "ghost" ads. Juries' decisions are often controversial, too: in 1995, a jury chaired by Frank Lowe refused to award the Grand Prix to any work, to the extremely vocal displeasure of the awards night audience. After that, a rule was discreetly added obliging the jury to choose an overall winner.
When Hatchuel bowed out in 2004 aged 71, the publisher Emap stepped in, acquiring the business from an offshore trust for a reported £52 million. This year, the festival is again under new ownership, following the sale in December of Emap's business-to-business arm to Guardian Media Group and the private equity company Apax.
Thomas says it's too early to discern the new owners' business strategy, but adds: "From a Cannes point of view, we are one of the healthiest products in the group, so we've been given permission to grow and invest. We've been given a lot of support."
The profits of the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival are shrouded in secrecy, as its owner is not obliged to break down the figure, but it is estimated to make around EUR10 million a year on income of EUR20 million.
A former journalist - he was the editor of Empire in the early 90s - Thomas sees himself as a creator of content. In those terms, he believes the festival offers value for money. "Over the past few years, the quality of the seminar programme, the workshops and the speakers has risen beyond recognition. And that is reflected by the kind of people who come: there are far more clients, for example."
Thomas does not envisage adding any categories for the time being, but says there's plenty of opportunity for growth. "We're making a conscious effort to engage with emerging markets such as China and Russia," he says.
With its 11,000 delegates paying as much as EUR2,000 a head to attend, nobody would deny that Cannes is a serious business - and still growing.
1954: The International Advertising Film Festival is held in Venice. An Italian film for Chlorodont toothpaste wins from among 187 entries
1967: Separate product categories are established for the judging of films. Previously, they were judged together on "technical craft"
1983: Cinema and TV film categories merge
1984: After years of being split between Venice and Cannes, the festival adopts Cannes as its permanent home
1987: Roger Hatchuel takes over management of the festival. He introduces more seminars and workshops
1992: Its name is changed to the International Advertising Festival, dropping the word "film". Press and Outdoor Lions introduced
1995: Young Creatives print competition added. Film jury headed by Frank Lowe declines to award a Grand Prix
1998-2002: Cyber Lions, Media Lions and Direct Lions added
2004: Emap Communications acquires the festival
2005-2006: Radio Lions, Titanium Lions and Promo Lions added
2007: Emap's business interests, including Cannes, are sold to Apax and Guardian Media Group
2008: Design Lions added.