Cannes: The clients' view

Simon Clift, the chief marketing officer of Unilever, on why he won't be getting 'Canned' this year.

For the first time in several years, I will not be at the Cannes festival this year. Real life got in the way and I have to be elsewhere. Anyway, I can't quite make my mind up whether I loathe it or secretly quite like it (which, of course, I accept would be criminally uncool) - so let me enumerate the pros and cons.

Reasons to go to Cannes

To see as many shortlisted films as possible. For me, this is a great opportunity to set work in the personal and homecare categories in the context of every other category. It's a useful reminder to me that Unilever isn't just competing against some often pretty unambitious players in washing powder and shower gel, but against everyone who is after a piece of consumers' limited time and attention. For those of us labouring in the sweatshops of "category mandatories", and despite the fact Unilever won 37 Lions last year - including the Grand Prix for media for Lynx - I don't think we can remind ourselves of this too often.

To spend a couple of hours in the gallery downstairs looking at all the press work and the posters. The creative ideas are invariably better than the TV and cinema work.

(Tip: Go early or you will only be able to see these over the heads of huge groups of delegates from Tokyo taking photos of the work, presumably so they can plagiarise it and present it as their own back home.)

To review some of the direct marketing work. To get the attention of a hardnosed B2B buyer, the creative is really "gloves off" and, although not always directly relevant to our markets, the work is increasingly off the wall and intriguing.

To attend at least one of the sessions in the auditorium where a group of luminaries (usually, but not always including James Murdoch, Sir Martin Sorrell and Howard Draft) debate each year whether the internet will affect the way advertisers communicate with their consumers. This has a wonderful Canute-like quality to it.

To attend a new directors' showreel workshop, which is always stimulating and entertaining.

Reasons to avoid Cannes

To avoid seeing work colleagues in holiday outfits. I know I have talked about being comfortable wearing flip-flops to the gala last year, but I spend enough of my time with workmates as it is, without having to see their dubious taste in Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts paraded before my very eyes.

To avoid waiting an inordinately long time for mediocre food served gracelessly and priced exorbitantly.

To avoid the self-regarding CrackBerry and Prada poseurs on the Croisette terraces.

To avoid hearing about how our more structured US competitors are developing a process for maximising the benefit of taking 50 marketing managers to the south of France, inflicting them on their thrilled agency hosts and then calculating a measure of the ROI of the whole dreary affair.

To avoid sitting in a dark auditorium for five hours for the shortlists, while all the Latin delegates talk/text incessantly on their mobile phones and put their hairy feet up on the seat-backs.

To avoid the graceless behaviour of the self-appointed experts who choose to whistle or groan at work that they find inadequate.

It really is time that delegates understand that, however inflated a view they have of our profession, Cannes is not an arts festival and that our air-fares and conference passes were all paid for, directly or indirectly, by selling stuff.

All whistlers should be invited to stay on for a midnight screening of their own showreel to see how many potential clients turn up.

So there it is. Sounds like a bit of a rant against decaying codes of behaviour, but I am almost 50 and I did recently accidentally read a copy of the Daily Mail when there was nothing else on the plane. Pehaps that was it.


Andrew Marsden marketing director, Britvic

It feels rather voyeuristic being a client at Cannes. It's a chance to see the inside workings of the ad industry at play. You feel privileged, but a little like the hidden guest.

My first of several visits four or five years ago was with Clemmow Hornby Inge. Clients don't normally go, but it was suggested we might get one of the principal awards. We got a gold Lion that year - in fact, CHI's work on Tango was voted the best soft drink advertising in the world for two years running. (And we've picked up two silvers.) I didn't know what to expect from Cannes and it certainly wasn't anything like I had imagined. It reminded me of the old "Works Week" in Sheffield when all the steel mills closed and the workers went away en masse to Blackpool or Cleethorpes.

Except for the decadence. In Cannes, there's a whiff of Biarritz in the 20s. It's over-the-top, old-fashioned partying, showing off, in a quaint sort of way. It's why a lot of agencies are wary of taking clients. But, above all, it's a celebration of creativity, not overlooked by commerciality - and the better for it. The awards are at the centre, of course, but it's at the periphery that it's most interesting.

All the big advertising chiefs are there, preening themselves like butterflies in the sun. There's talent-spotting: I've observed some interesting conversations between surprising people.

Then there are the creative cognoscenti, who engage you in conversations of conviction and passion. And the networking is huge. I've never been more pleased not to have a BlackBerry than when I saw a huge mound of them - all looking exactly the same - piled on one of the yacht hatches during a party.

Agencies need to be careful about which clients they take. Those they choose need to be truly interested in advertising and people and creativity. And not too junior. But you wouldn't want too many clients at Cannes. More than 5 per cent would upset the balance. For clients, the week should be approached as a fantastic learning experience. An opportunity to feel the vibes of the industry, to immerse yourself in the culture and language of the creative community, see where its hot buttons are and make you a better client. You learn to express yourself in a different way and develop a lightness of touch that helps in finessing creative briefs.

Apart from assessing the competition and picking up a few ideas, remember that it's also about letting off steam. In the UK, certainly, we try to be terribly businesslike and we're a bit boring, but actually we're dealing with this thing called creativity, which is not linear. Cannes provides a bit of Lebensraum, some free space, a pause. Time to let go and have a piss-up. Sometimes you just need to put a full-stop in the process.

1. Make sure your liver's in good working order
2. Approach the week with fortitude and stamina
3. Wear comfortable shoes (one for the laydeez - mainly)
4. Carry the minimum around with you. Losing your wallet is not always
metaphorical after a night on the Croisette
5. Don't be a pompous client
6. You won't want to do it every year
7. Pace yourself