To the world's film lovers, the French coastal city of Cannes is a place of worship. Small wonder, then, that so many who visit during the annual Cannes Lions advertising festival feel the need to offer confessions.
On Monday, Canadian-born author Malcolm Gladwell greeted delegates to the first full day of seminars with a little-known nugget from his biography: That he'd once aspired to a job in their industry. "When I graduated from college 20 years ago, I did apply to every advertising agency in Toronto, and never got an answer," he explained. "But I want you to know that I haven't given up, and my conclusion from that experience was that yours is simply a business where people take a long time to get back to you."
Mr. Gladwell paused as light laughter wafted through the Debussy Theatre. "So if anyone is here from Toronto, if you could do me a favour: When you get back to the office, just move my application up to the top of the pile."
The young creatives in the crowd hooted with appreciation: Here was a popular public intellectual, a bestselling author, stroking their egos. For an industry of creative people who often speak privately of feeling tortured by their professional choices, and whose entire business is in the midst of tectonic upheaval, it felt good, even if it was brief.
The Cannes advertising festival is an odd beast. Most festivals, like the most famous one that brings movie stars here every spring, are platforms to launch work into the world.
The ad fest, on the other hand, is where work goes for one last shot at glory, often long after it has worn out its welcome. Some of the big campaigns winning awards here include the second half of last summer's effort, in which the character interacted with his audience online, and Arcade Fire's Web-based video The Wilderness Downtown, released last Augustto show off Google's Chrome browser. One of the ads expected to do well on Saturday night, when the awards for the high-profile film category are handed out, is Nike's three-minute " " epic that ran before last year's FIFA World Cup.
This year, as if emphasizing the ambivalence felt by many toward their own field, the festival even changed its name to the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity – entirely excising the word "advertising." Many panels and discussions seethed with that sentiment: the New York-based agency Strawberry Frog hosted a workshop titled "To Hell With Ads, Spark a Movement."
One of the dynamics changing the industry is the rise of crowd-sourcing – the practice of issuing a challenge to people over the Internet and then compiling their contributions. Representatives of the Brazilian agency AgenciaClick Isobar and Fiat Brazil discussed the development of the Fiat Mio car, which they said involved the input of more than 17,000 people from 160 countries.
The New York agency Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners talked about how the development of BMW's first electric car – using a similar process – also served as savvy marketing, since it ignited grassroots excitement.
And Casper Willer, managing partner and executive creative director of the Copenhagen ad agency Naked Communications, noted that, in Japan, his client Lego has a project through which fans of the toy can design a new Lego kit and upload that to the Internet. If the amateur designers can get 1,000 people to vote for the kit, the company will manufacture and sell it.
North America seems less experimental with crowd-sourcing, using it primarily to procure commercials made by fans of brands. In recent years, Doritos and CareerBuilder have both aired so-called user-generated ads, and during a panel this week featuring the crowd-sourcing agency MoFilm, General Motors announced that one of its Chevy TV spots in next year's Super Bowl would come from one of MoFilm's army of volunteer filmmakers.
"For so many years at Chevrolet we thought we owned the brand," said Paul Edwards, executive director of marketing strategy at General Motors, "but we realized that consumers own the brand."
Marketing executives will say that consumers bring passion and a fresh eye to brands. But sometimes they can suffer from the same lack of perspective as the agencies who work on brands full-time.
In one tin-eared example that was nevertheless received warmly here, David Alberts, chief creative officer of MoFilm, presented a 50-second animated commercial that earnestly invoked the accomplishments of great men, including Neil Armstrong and Nelson Mandela. The spot concluded with a voiceover that declared: "I don't know what drives them, but I know what drives me," as a Chevy logo came up on the screen.
Brands are increasingly looking to co-opt the goodwill of heroes and causes. Ian Wolfman, chief marketing officer of the Dallas agency imc2, recounted how his client, the Procter & Gamble deodorant Secret, which is positioning itself as an aid to female empowerment, had organized a Facebook campaign on behalf of the ski jumper Lindsey Van to press the International Olympic Committee into making women's ski jumping an official sport. In April, amid pressure from numerous countries (as well as the Facebook campaign), the IOC relented.
And Secret? Noting the more than 1.1-million Facebook fans the campaign had accumulated, Mr. Wolfman declared that the brand "had month-over-month sales increases of almost 80 per cent."
"The passion around this has created something," he said. "Women will switch deodorants to some extent because it's a great deodorant product, and it has heat-activation crystals – the what, and the how. But they'll switch in droves because of what the brand believes in. And it has given us, as marketers, an opportunity to do something more meaningful for the world. To make the world a better place."
But it's a delicate and potentially dangerous dance for marketers to perform. On Thursday, the agency JWT convened a discussion with Fisher Stevens, the actor and independent filmmaker who produced the dolphin documentary The Cove, and the filmmakers Jehane Noujaim and Amr Salama, who both covered the recent Egyptian uprising. David Eastman, chief executive officer of JWT North America, asked them if revolutions had something to teach marketers about promoting brands in the brave new world.
Mr. Eastman was, in a sense, slapped down by his guests. "What you're doing here, shouldn't be: How can we use the revolution to sell more products? Or 'How can we use the tools of the revolution to sell more products?' " shot back Mr. Salama, who had noted that he'd been arrested and beaten by police during the revolution.
"People right now are voting on their governments, but I believe in a couple of years they will be voting on their products, and corporations," he continued to a burst of applause. "[Companies] are trying to use the same techniques … A politician comes and says, 'I am going to feed the poor.' We all know he's doing that just to win. People are now smarter."
Citing the 2003 Canadian film The Corporation as a personal inspiration, Mr. Salama issued a stark warning: "Businesses now really need to understand something that governments, dictators didn't understand. They didn't understand that some day [they'd] be busted. Anything you do will be known. Social media's gonna get you, and if you're lying, we're gonna know."
"Yesterday it was the governments," he declared. "Tomorrow it's going to be the corporations."
And for those who fall afoul of their audience, a mere confession probably won't be enough.
If it's an honour simply to be nominated, then Canadian ad agencies are having a nicely honourable Cannes advertising festival. So far, they have collected a handful of awards to take home, and on Thursday, Canadians scored an impressive 20 nominations in the film category – those ads which are known to the common man as TV commercials (though sometimes these days they just run online). Highlights include five spots for Skittles by BBDO Toronto, three tongue-in-cheek videos by Dare Vancouver for the Amour porn channel, and a wonderfully self-mocking effort by John St. Toronto that sends up the industry's penchant for inane 'case study' videos. We especially love the John St. video because, when the industry makes fun of itself, we get to take a break.
Sometimes, the Toronto-based holding company MDC Partners seems to be the ad world's equivalent of a game show host. It likes giving away cold, hard cash. On Thursday, it announced the second edition of a challenge issued to the industry during last year's Cannes festival: a million bucks to the winner of a contest looking for a great idea for an agency start-up. (In the end, MDC launched a not-for-profit institute.) This year, company CEO Miles Nadal took the stage here at Cannes to say he would form a partnership with someone, and pay them $1-million up front to build a business based on a technology designed to increase the effectiveness of the marketing industry. All we know is, with PR stunts like this, MDC is already pretty effective at marketing itself.
But then, technology is an obsession for the entire industry. This week Microsoft announced here that it was rolling out ads for its Kinect for X-Box 360 gaming system that – as with everything in the controller-less Kinect universe – could be manipulated with voice commands, hand gestures and body movements. Microsoft's key selling point to advertisers is that game-players will be much more engaged with the ads than normal. All we want to know is whether there's a hand gesture to make the ads disappear from our X-Box. Like, say, raising our middle finger?