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Advertisers' 'Seriousness' Takes Center Stage at Cannes

Publicly, executives may say that the Cannes Lions awards for the advertising industry are only part of the appeal of the 2011 Cannes Festival of Creativity, behind the scenes, advertising companies are feeling the pressure to perform.

A picture taken on June 21, 2011 shows the official flags of the 58th edition of the International festival of creativity, Cannes Lions on June 21 2011, in Cannes on French riviera. AFP PHOTO / SEBASTIEN NOGIER (Photo credit should read SEBASTIEN NOGIER/AFP/Getty Images)
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A picture taken on June 21, 2011 shows the official flags of the 58th edition of the International festival of creativity, Cannes Lions on June 21 2011, in Cannes on French riviera. AFP PHOTO / SEBASTIEN NOGIER (Photo credit should read SEBASTIEN NOGIER/AFP/Getty Images)

The 12,000 or so delegates to the Festival (formerly known as the Cannes Advertising Festival) arriving Monday for a full week of activities could be forgiven for having a mixed reaction to the mayor's posters on the route into the town proclaiming: "Cannes has more cameras per head of population than any other town in the Alpes Maritimes".

For whilst the days of the advertising festival being a hedonistic display of youthful (and embarrassing) excess are clearly over, it is now a place of networking and job hunting par excellence. Not exactly what you'd want to be caught on camera either. And with the mayor of the town being a former well known French ad-man himself, it is an ironic twist.

Then again, it is a time of enormous change in the creative communications business and the themes of the recent Festivals have reflected that. Three years ago it was all about Microsoft and the power of the internet technologies, two years ago the gossip was Google-focused, with Eric Schmidt's presence and last year Mark Zuckerberg made an appearance and the talk was of the rise of social networks.

So will the 10,000 agency types and 2,000 clients attending this year's event find as the theme?

Well it is actually quite hard to pin down. There are more 'famous names' than ever as guest speakers from agencies and other companies keen to attract delegates to their 40 minutes seminar on the stage of the Palais des Festivals - Martha Stewart, Pharrell Williams, Edward de Bono, Ariana Huffington and Robert Redford to name a few.

Each agency is seeking to show itself to be leading the way in a business that is clearly looking for new paths.

There has been some inspiring talk from the Ad Council presentation on the first day about how the future will be about the 'humanising' of the web and that technology now needs to take a back seat to humanity and relevance if the world's consumers are to be engaged. But the talk around the breakfast table at the Majestic Barriere hotel this morning was more of the 'seriousness' of the event and less of the theme of it.

In fact the fullness of the restaurants in the early evening when the Lions are being handed out each day attest to the fact that the awards shows are often left simply to the creative types, and it is the seminars during the day and the opportunity for the chance encounter on the Croisette with many of your peer group that is becoming the main reason to show up.

Terry Savage, the Chairman of the show (an EMAP subsidiary) refers to it as a unique learning opportunity rather than just a celebration of the cleverest ads of the year - a kind of 'Davos for marketing and advertising people' then, rather than simply an awards show.

This seriousness is borne out by the presence of the people who pay the bills in this multi-billion dollar industry. More client companies are attending than ever before with Cannes veterans like Coca-Cola and Procter and Gamble making a big showing but also relative newcomers to the Festival, like Nestle, whose delegations is led this week by their CEO, Paul Bulke.

On the other side of the industry, the heavyweight agency holding companies are all represented here by their CEOs with Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP, Maurice Levy of Publicis Groupe, John Wren of Omnicom and Michael Roth of IPG all making an appearance.

It would be wrong, however, to conclude that the awards have been superseded altogether.

These four CEOs are very clear to their organisations of the importance of winning at Cannes. Whilst they might make light in public utterances on the matter, privately they are putting more and more pressure on their agencies to perform here. Analysts have started to recognise that winning major awards is a ready reckoner for an agency's creative capability, which, given it is an industry selling ideas, is an important measure of the business's ability to attract clients and talent in the future.

This year is the first year of the "Holding Company of the Year" awards, which at least one competing CEO has privately already somewhat despairingly described as the "Omnicom award" on the basis of that Group's domination of Cannes results for at least a decade.

It is also the first year of Lions to be awarded for Effectiveness. Traditionally, Cannes was about the work, the creativity, and other awards shows dealt with effectiveness. Not wanting to leave any revenue opportunity untapped, Savage and his team have decided to create a series of Lions for creativity that can demonstrate its effectiveness over a proper timeframe - truly the sign of a business that has changed.

Cannes 2011 shows us that the industry is growing and business is relatively good from a financial viewpoint with attendance figures nearly back to the 2008 peak. But it also shows us that the flux and dramatic change that the digital revolution is having on this business is in full swing.

The lack of a clear theme, or even a clear consensus on the shape of the future, from the biggest players within it - who still have their many silos operating independently - means that the story is still only half written, with much change and turmoil to come in the global communications world.

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Richard Pinder is the former COO of Publicis Worldwide