Cannes: Refusenik-turned-fan

Once a cynic who viewed Cannes as a vacuous money-making machine, Tim Delaney explains how the past decade has made him a festival convert.

Delaney... values Cannes
Delaney... values Cannes

Some time during the 70s, Cap'n Birds Eye bumped into the Milkybar Kid in Wardour Street. The conversation went something like this:

Cap'n: "Going to Cannes this year, me hearty?"

Milkybar Kid: "Of course. I'm the chocolate bar you can eat between steak frites and a langoustine dinner, so I was practically invented for the place. See you there, Cap'n. And remember: don't take any money - the TV production companies pay for EVERYTHING."

And do you know what? Just like a fairy story, they did meet in Cannes, at the Garrett party, and they met all their closest friends. Maggie the Flash lady was there, along with those hands of "hands that do dishes" fame, and so was the doyenne of TV mums, Katy, the Oxo superstar.

There were others, of course - characters who used to invite themselves into our living rooms each night, and who, despite the fact that they treated us all like complete idiots, became friends of the family across every home in Britain. They were part of popular culture, all "on strategy", all highly successful purveyors of ... well, everything that turned up in the commercial breaks.

The creators of these characters strolled with them down the Croisette - "Oh, look! There's the man who wrote 'They're Gr-r-reat' for Tony the Tiger!" - encountering all their partners in crime as they sauntered in the June sunshine.

JWT people, flush from their success of the last edit of a "Katy (Oxo) husband's bought the boss home" commercial, would brush past a Lintas creative team enthusiastically chatting about how great "Fluff" Freeman was on the 56th take of the Daz spot they had just polished off. While in the background, wafting on the Mediterranean breeze, you could hear the Allen, Brady & Marsh boys and girls start the traditional jingle singalong in the bar of the Martinez with a rousing chorus of It's the Wonder of Woolies.

Yes, Cannes was the home - and refuge - of the big agencies and their invented characters, mnemonics and jingles. They went there at the behest of the TV production companies and the indulgence of their account-man bosses. Cannes was a beano of epic proportions, with a few awards thrown in. One could almost say it was really only a pretext for the municipality (and the guys who ran the awards scheme) to earn extra dosh after the real Cannes Film Festival went on its merry way.

One thing was for sure: it wasn't about excellence. It was a week-long awards bash in the South of France for people who couldn't win awards in proper awards schemes, like the D&AD or The One Show. And for production companies who hardly cared what was in the can as long as the can was constantly being filled.

And then something happened. The big US agencies began to take Cannes seriously. The Clio Awards - its US equivalent - lost its way, leaving the boys in the South of France with the only truly global advertising award scheme. Around the same time, agencies including BMP and CDP swept the board with campaigns which, in many cases, were entered by production companies rather than by the agencies themselves.

Even though there were allegations of the juries being swayed by the business interests of the organisers (Japan would mysteriously win the Grand Prix ... and Japanese entries would just as mysteriously go up the next year), the work that won the awards got better, with the big Saturday-night extravaganza invariably being dominated by British agencies.

Personally, it was still not my cup of £10-a-cup coffee. When, as the chairman of the Creative Directors Forum, I asked the Cannes management why they charged four times more than any award scheme in the world for entries, they didn't respond. During an audit of award schemes, we also asked them whether they put anything back into the industry, like D&AD's highly successful education scheme: silence.

Cannes management was in it for the money and duly proved that when they sold the recipe (including the juicy pricing) to Emap.

This, more than anything, has changed my attitude to Cannes, because the acquisition coincided with developments in the communications industry that are profound and far-reaching. It also suggested that a more professional Cannes could somehow explain and foster these changes, not simply acclaim great work.

As the only real international awards scheme for the industry, it was able to reflect the new reality of global communications: that the lowest- common-denominator standard of international work was the result of laziness by agencies, not the demands of the actual brief, and that this was increasingly unacceptable to clients.

The agencies that proved that global work could be original and powerful - Wieden & Kennedy's work for Nike being one example - soon got the recognition from Cannes they deserved; Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Goodby Silverstein & Partners and Crispin Porter & Bogusky all followed.

So, too, did agencies from far and wide that found simple, yet smart and fresh ways to speak to global audiences. Even the big, bad agencies judged that creating fresh ways of engaging consumers is, after all's said and done, what they're paid for - and have subsequently shone at Cannes over the past few years.

But perhaps the biggest reason to take Cannes seriously is the seismic shift taking place in the industry brought about by technology.

Cannes has moved with alacrity to award creativity that cannot be classified in the usual categories, and spread its reach in wanting to award creativity in areas such as media. It will surely mirror the ingenious uses of technologies we have yet to deploy.

The festival now seems to have its finger on the pulse. So much so that clients have taken it seriously for some years - "award-winning" is no longer a term connoting silly and indulgent - and encourage agencies to compete.

Two final thoughts. Cannes is a business that will always look for ways to expand and sell. So maybe I'm crediting it too readily with altruism about the dilemmas facing the industry; the reality is it just makes more money by letting more people into the club.

Second, when I asked someone in the agency about what they thought of Cannes, they snapped back: "It's just a beano." So maybe no number of Procter & Gamble seminars and high-minded (and poorly attended) symposiums will dilute its essential appeal.

Cannes is a week of sun, booze, schmoozing and unprovoked sexual harassment. With the odd Nike ad thrown in. Sounds good to me.

- Tim Delaney is the chairman of Leagas Delaney.