Drama, passion, anger, resentment, intrigue and, finally, a sense of impending real change: Cannes Lions 2017 was quite some entertainment. Unfortunately, this had nothing to do with the work in the Palais or the scattering of properly useful talks. It had everything to do with Publicis Groupe chief Arthur Sadoun’s decision to pull all awards and marketing spend for a year in order to focus investment on Marcel, an artificial-intelligence platform to connect the group’s talent.
It’s an audaciously brave decision and one, I think, that is fundamentally right. For years, industry leaders have moaned about Cannes: "Next year, we’re going to make a big statement and invest the (insert an eye-watering amount) we’d otherwise spend to be here into talent to help grow our clients’ business." But they never have. Until now. Sort of. If only Publicis had framed its Marcel message more concertedly around an ambition (which appears heartfelt) to deliver better results for its clients and its talent, it could have sidestepped what rapidly turned into a first-class shitstorm.
The most bleakly elegant riposte to Marcel came from Leo Burnett in Chicago, one of the creative hearts of Publicis Groupe. Mr Burnett himself famously demanded that his eponymous agency should take his name off the door when it spends more time trying to make money and less time making advertising. The day after Sadoun dropped his bomb, a sheet of paper with the name Marcel appeared taped over the company’s nameplate on the front wall.
But Mr Burnett was a fierce advocate of using brilliant creativity to build clients’ business; simply winning awards was never the point. Yes, awards show us what excellent looks like, set a high bar, inspire and excite us. But something’s gone wrong with our system when reputations, bonuses and careers rest quite so heavily on awards won and less on results achieved for clients. Mind you, awards are a useful lump of meat for marketers to throw to their results-hungry boards, so expect Publicis’ clients to enter awards like Cannes themselves.
It’s not what Sadoun hoped we’d all be talking about. But he’s opened an important debate around creative awards (which Publicis Groupe doesn’t win its share of, let’s face it): why they matter, and how to make them matter for the right reasons. He’s also put an overdue spotlight on the Lions festival, which has become too noisy, too greedy and obscenely expensive. A serious rethink is required and now seems to be under way.
So I think Sadoun has inadvertently done the industry a favour. Now he’s got 12 months to prove he’s done his company one too.