Simon Clift's Cannes Lions Festival 2011 diary: 'Are clients ruining the party or giving Cannes a reason for existing?'

The former global chief marketing officer at Unilever, a Cannes festival regular, casts a sceptical eye on last month's celebrity-laden event and its client and agency attendees.

What's Cannes for? It used to be a get-together to celebrate the best of the craft by having a good time. In the sixties when it all got going, I suppose the Côte d'Azur must have been aspirational, maybe even exotic...

But I find Cannes ville, at least, now bordering on tawdry. Mediocre restaurants and an aggressive parody of ‘service’. And the Lions Festival itself has become a monster. Almost double the size of last year with upwards of 9000 registered delegates.  What is it that brings them all?

There seem to be 3 distinct types of visitors.

(1) Young creatives remaining loyal to the original purpose – especially from countries where the location unaccountably remains aspirational, viz Brazil, India, Russia.

(2) Agency execs who find they can get round the whole network in less time than it would normally take to fly to New York.

(3) Clients! Subject of much debate: are they ruining the party or giving it a reason for existing? This year around 25% of the total registered attendance was from advertisers. So this has spawned a new side to Cannes. Senior agency execs use it for speed dating clients. Even though both sides know that speed dating is usually stressful and rarely productive.

The second most heard language in the Palais – behind English but ahead of French, is Portuguese. I reckon there were more Brazilians along the Croisette than on the Avenida Atlântica. Some 800 delegates.

As a self-styled expert on Brazil I often find myself asked why? Because the economy is booming and the country’s potential as a source of creativity and original brand ideas is finally being realised?

But mainly because, true to the cliché, a Brazilian just can’t resist a party.


To the credit of the organisers, there has been a largely successful effort to build a serious marketing and communications workshop alongside the dishing out of Lions.

The quality of the offering is not always aligned with the size of the venue, however. Jewels are scattered on a few lonely enthusiasts at a seminar in an obscure corner of the Palais sous-sol.

Meanwhile a packed Débussy sits through a bovine presentation by a big company advertiser criminally misjudging the target and missing the opportunity to inspire a whole bunch of their partners to reach for great creative product. Or at least to feel good about working for Company X.

It happened a couple more times later in the week. If  ‘clients’ are going to make the effort to fly down and take the stage in Cannes, best not to reinforce agencies’ preconceived notions of their boorishness…


To a dinner thrown by the crowd-sourcing outfit MOFILM and find myself sitting with Jesse Eisenberg.  (What’s with this nuclear escalation of borrowed stars this year - Gladwell,, Redford?) Eisenberg is a  serious actor, ("The Social Network", "Rio") and a modest, friendly - albeit painfully introverted – type. He tells me he doesn’t own a TV or watch movies because it would pollute his art! And he’s really bored with being asked about his relationship with Zuckerberg. I should know. I asked.

We are on the jury selecting the winning ‘consumer generated’ film from the short list of finalists. Agencies beware! When I first participated two years ago with 8 Unilever brands the results were so-so. This year there are some real gems. 


Delivered myself of two seminars to adoring – and smallish - audiences listening, rapt, on how to get the best out of your agency and on leading global brands. (See Monday’s note about the inverse relationship between quality and audience size…)


Today’s hot ticket was for David Ogilvy’s 100th birthday party. I am sufficiently insecure to simultaneously like being invited to parties and to hate going. But this was rather different. Like a Christmas Day football match in the trenches, the CEO’s from normally daggers-drawn agencies chatted happily together, as if united in respect for the deceased birthday boy.

For me the highlight was talking to his Mexican wife, Herta, – still radiant at 75 – about her granny’s loyalty to Pond’s Cold Cream. Still, by happy coincidence, an Ogilvy client.


Locked in late night debate at a sparsely populated company party with a charmingly earnest journalist about whether Facebook is here for ever or merely a flash in the pan, already counting down its fifteen minutes of fame. Can’t remember which option I was propounding, but I have a voice memo recording which I will dig out in ten years time to sort out which of us was the soothsayer and which the idiot. 

Finally – having resisted all week – I am dragged, long past my bedtime, to the Carlton where I remember why I hate parties. The Carlton Terrace Eye Shift: looking past your interlocutor in case there's someone more interesting, more important or more attractive to talk to.

When after a while you catch yourself at it, it’s time to leave.

Simon Clift is Chairman of Touch Branding, São Paulo, a Non-Executive Director of Engine, and an Advisory Director of EffectiveBrands. Between 2005-2010 he was Global Chief Marketing Officer at Unilever.


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