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Is it time to can Cannes?

Is it time to can Cannes?

Advertising’s biggest festival has fallen behind the times. Here’s how it can stay relevant.

It’s the highlight of the advertising year, the jewel in the industry’s crown, and a regularly-cited factor in people taking up careers in adland. But the Cannes Festival of Creativity - which opens today - has also fallen behind the times, and is in dire need of a refresh if it wants to stay relevant. Criticising such a beloved event might ruffle a few feathers, but we don’t think you should avoid subjects just because they’re touchy. So is it time to consider canning Cannes?

Before everyone gets their pitchforks out, we’re not talking about getting rid of the event entirely. But there are a couple of areas where we think being constructively critical, and rethinking some assumptions about how the festival works and who it’s for, are long overdue.

The first big question - particularly important given our own focus at Fox + Hare on sustainability - is whether the festival’s celebration of creativity really justifies its environmental impact. All those flights and hotels add up: just one return ticket from London to Nice creates a whacking great 342kg of atmospheric carbon, according to Adgreen. 

Agencies and brands have been trying to make Cannes more sustainable, but these well-meaning efforts have largely felt like a drop in the ocean. If the food at your agency’s festival soirée is vegan and locally sourced, but the people in attendance have all flown there to eat it, then you’re ignoring the elephant in the room.

While we all obviously understand the irreplaceable value of in-person connection after the pandemic, it’s worth wondering whether a greater focus on digital could make the festival more relevant.

After all, the vast majority of advertising is now experienced digitally by consumers, while a decent chunk of the work behind it invariably happens via Zoom: making Cannes’ online offering more prominent wouldn’t just reduce its carbon footprint, it would also more accurately reflect the very work being celebrated.

It would also help to make the festival more representative, given its historical tendency to reflect the disproportionately white and male makeup of the boardroom. Most agencies have limited budgets to send people out to the south of France, so it’s invariably been the senior staff who have taken the plane tickets and the plaudits over the years, while their more junior colleagues remain on the periphery.

But those junior staff are just as much a part of the creative process as their bosses - if anything, they’re more likely to be the ones with a direct role in making the work which is winning the awards. Moving more of the festival online wouldn’t just be environmentally friendly, it would also mean that a greater number of employees and freelancers at different stages in their careers, and from all over the world, would be able to join the party on a more equal footing.

And, finally, just as a revamped or reimagined Cannes could be fairer for individuals, it could do the same for agencies - potentially freeing up money and time to be spent on more exciting things in the process.

In its current form, Cannes is unquestionably and unavoidably weighted towards the biggest industry players. Larger agencies with the time and money to enter countless different categories, or employ people solely to handle competition-related paperwork, and send huge delegations to meet with clients, consistently come out on top.

That’s not to say that those big agencies don’t also do great work, of course, but their inbuilt advantage means they invariably hoover up nominations regardless of quality. The big clients keep hiring them as a result, ensuring that the cycle repeats itself. For anyone on the outside of that relationship, breaking through can feel impossible. Lowering the barriers to entry could help unpick some of this.

There’s nothing wrong with a bit of glitz, but that’s not all Cannes should be about. Making it more financially accessible and environmentally sustainable would open up countless new opportunities for agencies, employees and clients of all kinds to celebrate different types of creativity.

Some of the money and time currently being spent on awards show politics might even end up going elsewhere, and supporting other forms of creativity: bursaries and support for early-career talent, creative sabbaticals for jaded mid-careerists, or more equitable working conditions across the industry, so that the people on whom Cannes ultimately rests don’t all burn out.

Wouldn’t that be a better way to do things - dare we say it, a more creative approach? Whatever its merits, maybe it’s time for us all to think about canning Cannes, at least as it exists currently, and replacing it with something more suited to the 21st century.