Cannes: In The Can

Disclaimer: I wasn’t in Cannes this past week. I was cycling on Cape Breton. I saw a moose. I firmly believe I got the better part of the bargain.

Edificial industries tend to foster appropriately representative events. If you’re in the business of running the world, Davos is the place to be. If you’re in advertising, it’s Cannes. Or it was. This year, the cracks -- even from my vantage point far, far away -- were more apparent than ever.

Two comments in the various summaries I reviewed seem to sum up the crumbling of this particular edifice. The first came from the former capo di tutti capi himself, ousted WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell:“June and Cannes may not be -- with all due respect to the people here -- the best place for our industry to be seen and heard given its challenges.”

The second came from Publicis global chief creative  Nick Law, who commented on the slightly surreal carnival-like atmosphere of Cannes, reminiscent of Nero fiddling while Rome went up in flames: “I do feel like there is a strange lack of urgency even though there are a lot of issues. There was a lack of urgency, and things started to go down. And lack of urgency has been replaced by a strange fatalism. The industry needs to take some risks. “



Fatalism indeed. There were still parties -- big parties, with celebrities like Kylie Minogue and Kylie Jenner and, I’m sure, other Kylie-labeled wannabes. I’m certain the champagne still flowed and the caviar did whatever caviar does. But there seems to be a more sober after-note to this particular Cannes, riding on the realization that this party is slowly but surely grinding to a halt.

To go back to Nick Law’s comment, many in the industry still believe this is a change problem. I’ve gone on the record several times saying that this is severely underestimating the issue. The whole point of disruption is that it comes from without, not within. To have the industry discussing how to save itself in a place like Cannes is akin to two mastodons talking about how the weather seemed to be getting warmer 20,000 years ago.

Speaking of two mastodons talking, the hottest ticket in Cannes appeared to be the showdown between Sir Martin and Ken Auletta, author of the new book, "Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business." Most of the interview seemed to be aimed at turning up the heat under Sir Martin’s seat, but he gamely avoided all attempts to address the elephant in the room: Sorrell’s abrupt ouster from WPP. He instead took the opportunity to plug his newest holding company venture, S4: “S4 is going to focus totally on the new stuff. It’ll come totally from the digital angle.”

No, no and no! You can’t glue fur on a dinosaur and call it a mammal. Holding companies are a collection of agencies that live in the middle. The relentless goal of digital is to eliminate the middle. That’s why the Mediterranean suddenly turned into a flushed toilet last week, sucking Sir Martin, a handful of assorted Kylies, several cocktail parties and an entire industry down with it.

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