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Media and ad execs rejoice a return to Cannes—but a lot in the industry has changed

Attendance levels are in line with 2019 numbers.
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Radu Bercan/EyeEm/Getty Images

· 4 min read

Penry Price, LinkedIn’s VP of marketing solutions, is what you’d call a Cannes Lions long-hauler. He has attended the festival near-annually since the mid-2000s to participate in the elbow-rubbing and hobnobbing that’s a cornerstone of the marketing industry—and by 2019, he was growing tired of the sun-soaked festivities.

“Before Covid, I was sort of dreading it a little—it got to be so much of the same,” Price told Marketing Brew. Later, he added, “When it didn’t happen, I was like, ‘Oh, thank God, I don’t have to go.’ It’s so hot. There’s so many people.”

But after a two-year hiatus, Price admits his tune has changed.

“I’m really excited [for] this whole notion of reconnecting with the industry, reconnecting with my peers, reconnecting with partners of ours,” Price said.

Cannes you believe it?

After two years, marketing and media execs across the industry are once again packing their sunglasses and practicing their merci beaucoups ahead of the annual trek to the French Riviera, even after years of complaints about the value of the festival, last year’s drop in award entries, and one highly publicized (but temporary) departure from the festival.

In past years, agency and brand staffers have “moaned about having to go to Cannes,” admitted Yusuf Chuku, NBCUniversal’s EVP of client strategy and insights, “which is unique to our industry—that people complain about having to go to the south of France for a week.” This year, though, “I’ve not heard any of that,” Chuku told Marketing Brew.

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The resurgence in interest is borne partly out of the desire among the marketing and advertising community to reconnect and reintroduce themselves after the industry has shifted considerably in the years away.

“It really just feels like it’s one of the first big moments where our industry is getting back together,” Judy Lee, Pinterest’s head of global brand experiences and programs, told Marketing Brew.

Go big or go home

Festival organizers told Marketing Brew that attendance levels are in line with 2019 numbers, when 12,000 registered delegates attended. Expectations are high. For one, attendees are expecting more business to get done this year than during previous festivals.

“It should be a different—but probably a more productive—Cannes than we’ve seen for perhaps the last 10 years,” Stuart Bowden, Wavemaker’s global chief strategy and product officer, told Marketing Brew.

Executives who spoke to Marketing Brew also say they expect more high-level attendance than in past years.

“You’re seeing much more focus on senior-level folks traveling as opposed to whole squads traveling,” said Laurel Rossi, CMO of the advertising platform Infillion, which rebranded in March after the companies true[X] and Gimbal merged. “In some ways… the more senior the crowd, the bigger the deal, right?”

But staffing approaches vary. LinkedIn is sending more people to Cannes than it did before the pandemic, including a higher percentage of senior executives, like CEO Ryan Roslansky and SVP and CMO Melissa Selcher, along with product teams, Price said. Wavemaker, meanwhile, is sending fewer employees than normal—less than half of what a pre-pandemic Cannes attendee list may have been, Bowden estimated.

“Sometimes we’ve been a bit relaxed about why people are going and how many people are going,” Bowden admitted. This year will be different: “Everyone there, whether it’s [on the] client or agency side, has to know why they’re there and has to have a plan for what they’re going to get out of it.”

Infillion’s financial investment in the festival is larger than in previous years, especially since other industry events this year, like Sundance, were canceled due to the pandemic. The company is building out several experiential installments designed to help Infillion increase awareness of the rebrand by the end of the year.

“Cannes, for us, is a little bit outsized compared to other things as a portion of the budget,” Rossi said.

Some companies are using their return to Cannes to make a big impact. Instead of traditional onstage talks, Pinterest is building a trend-focused space where attendees can get their hair styled, their nails manicured, their skin permanently tattooed, among other activities designed to “make a bold statement,” said Lee, who plans to get a tattoo.

NBCUniversal, meanwhile, is planning a fan-centric presence, including an end-of-week blowout dubbed BravoCannes, a play on words for the company’s annual reality-TV convention BravoCon.

“It makes sense to really show up and show up big,” Chuku said.

Editor's Note: All Marketing Brew stories are editorially independent from sponsors.

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