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June 30 2016

What We Didn’t Learn in Cannes

Why should you read this article?

To learn what needs to be changed in Cannes.
Maya Lawrence

Cannes Lions

Despite the addition of Lions Innovation and the plethora of ad tech companies docked just outside the palais, Cannes Lions has remained agency-heavy, creative-focused and distinctively non-ad tech. Which makes sense. After all, it was founded by and has long been focused on agencies, marketers and publishers. But the purely ad tech vendors (minus the multi-faceted big dogs like Google and Facebook), were literally left outside. Outside the palais and outside the conferences. On the periphery, in yachts, in a ring around the main event. They were invited in to watch and network and learn, and they were free to wine and dine the keynotes (and wine and dine amongst themselves), but your average ad tech company was not headlining at this event.

Digital media and ad tech

The ad industry of course knows that with the rise of digital media, ad tech is indispensable. It plays an important role, from the birth of an ad to it’s last breath. Ad tech is what allows for the proper targeting, distribution, serving, formatting and impact measurement of advertisements. In short, it’s what allows publishers to make a living with digital media.

None of this is new, but how did the ad tech world manifest in Cannes? Not in the way one might think.

We were all excited to hear about the inclusion of Lions Innovation in 2013, but don’t be fooled. This tech supplement to the conference was housed in the auxiliary hall, and looked a bit like a science fair. (Though some said it was much better than last year.) Startups, booths and robots filled the hall. But those who made it to the Lions Innovation “Discovery Stage” were more likely to pitch their product than they were to discuss and debate hot topics like automated guaranteed, viewability and vertical video.

Cannes Lions coverage in the ad tech media

Over the past few days, the song being sung in most post-Cannes articles has focused on the movement of Cannes Lions towards a more ad tech tilt. Some were more positive than others; while AdExchanger announced that programmatic and creative storytelling are finally converging, AdAge called the arrival of the ad tech yachts an “invasion” that hampered the celebration of creativity.

It’s true that there are a slew ad tech vendors present, so many that Terence Kawaja saw it fit to create a CANNES YACHT LUMAscape which he explains was “definitely not sponsored by Cannes Lions”.

So, ad tech’s presence didn’t go unnoticed — from the “inside” of the conference we definitely heard about the necessity of good ad tech players — but that’s not enough.

What needs to change at Cannes Lions

For starters, Lions Innovation shouldn’t just be a start-up hub, it should feature established players in ad tech, ready and willing to give their advice, opinions and critical assessments of ad tech today. That doesn’t mean Cannes needs to be a “tech-heavy” conference. (God forbid Cannes Lions loses its artsy edge), but it does mean it should acknowledge and feature ad tech leaders — purely ad tech leaders, not tech giants — so they can offer their advice and opinions to agency and marketing leaders at the conference itself. That’s not to say there weren’t “techier” conference sessions about hot-button issues like ad blocking and native advertising, there were. And it’s great those were available, but there was something missing. And that something was a good amount of in-depth discussions, panels, and debates about the real ad tech issues impacting advertising today.

It’s not only the agencies, marketers and publishers who are at fault. Ad tech companies need to come to these conferences ready to give strong opinions about the state of the ad industry and not just pitches for their products. A good amount of intelligent, detailed, challenging conversations about how the Cannes Lions theme — creativity — is alive and well in advertising, tech, ad tech, business, health and entertainment would be ideal. Passing statements like “digital media is important in today’s world” or “audience data is key” or “mobile advertising is the future” just doesn’t cut it anymore.

We could have also stood to hear a bit more about ad tech from the publishers. They were present at the conference, especially the star publishers (think Condé Nast and The Onion), but they were second in line to the agencies. Which, when you think about it, is ironic, because it’s their very readership that advertisers are tapping into.

So, what didn’t we learn at Cannes Lions?

We didn’t learn about ad tech.

The easy argument against this is to say, “Well, it’s not your conference”. OK, maybe not. But the need to include ad tech is there. Everyone knows it. If you’re intimidated by or “weirded out” by ad tech, it may not be apparent that all those Cannes Lions hashtags apply to not just advertising, but ad tech, too. Ad tech is: #creativity #dynamism #daring #reflection #video #reaction #responsive #immersive #experience…and the list goes on.

We need to show Cannes Lions advertisers and publishers that it’s not about being creative in spite of ad tech, it’s about using innovative ad tech to enhance creativity. This seeps through a bit when you examine the distribution the strategies of some of the shortlisted and winning campaigns, as touched upon by AdAge. And that’s a good place to start.

How to get ad tech into Cannes Lions

But next year, let’s get ad tech, real conversations about ad tech, not just fluff, into Cannes Lions. It’s nice lounging on the beach and talking about programmatic or sipping champagne on a yacht discussing the importance of innovative ad formats on mobile or attending lunches and brunches where you can learn about data and measurement. But that’s not enough. The way to improve upon our presence at Cannes is easy. More ad tech players need to get inside and have face-to-face conversations with those who have dominated the conference for so many years. And it needs to be done without outright product pitching, which, as we all know, pretty much ruins a conference. Especially such an expensive one.

It’s true that there is already a lot going on at Cannes Lions. It’s a huge conference, it’s a week long and every year more and more submissions from newly added categories are voted on. Plus, in addition to the main festival, there is Lions Innovation, Lions Health, and Lions Entertainment.

So what does it all mean?

Next year, we’re all gonna need a bigger boat for Cannes Lions.

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