Sometimes you have no choice

Philip Thomas, CEO of the Cannes Lions festival

Does the Cannes Lions create this or other trends in advertising and marketing, or, vice versa, you follow what happens and then sort out the best?

It does a bit of both. Definitely, it shows the best of the work that has happened in the past, but also within the winners of Cannes it highlights the potential for the future. There are many examples over the years of this happening. A very good example was in 2003. It was the piece of work called “BMW Films” for the German car manufacturer. It was a piece of branded content which was way ahead of its time. In the last few years this kind content has really become so important for marketers. That piece of work highlighted what was possible for the future. So, there are definitely winners of Cannes who celebrate the past, but there are also many of them who point the way to the future.

 What trends apart from the one you have mentioned have appeared recently?

I think none of them are surprising, they are everywhere. It is about the importance of understanding digital, mobile, social media, branded content and branded entertainment. These are the most important areas. Also, the importance of design, e-commerce, shopper marketing — all of those things as well.

There is an expression at the Cannes Lions internet site saying “The branded landscape communication changes”. Could you explain this in your own words?

It is changing because of consumer changes. It is changing because of ad-blocking, the ability to avoid advertising. Because of the importance of telling stories. Because media is changing and you have to understand how to communicate through other channels. And the remaining new players in the market are now interested in how you communicate through Snapchat, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and all of the different platforms.

So I think in that sense the global marketing communication industry is changing rapidly all the time — in every single country.

There are many other similar festivals. What makes Cannes Lions different apart from its scale?

It is two things. It’s the scale, first. The Cannes Lions is the biggest and has been the biggest for a very long time. It’s the most global; all other festivals and events don't have the global reach we have — attendees come from more than 100 countries. It is also because the Cannes Lions is the most famous among clients and marketers. Not just advertising agencies; if you ask big clients about a name and word for marketing, or a name and an event, they will often say “Cannes”. So, I think it is very useful and important for people because of that – the scale, the global nature and the fact that everybody understands what it is. 

What is the process of determining the winner? There must be thousands of works, it must be a huge workload for the jury.

We have more than 350 jury members, they come from all over the world and they sit in a room and watch the works. There is a jury for the “Film” category, a jury for the “Print” category, for the “Digital” and so on. Their judgement is based only on creative merits. It is a big logistical challenge because we have more than 40,000 entries, but at the same time we have hundreds of judges.

This year the Cannes Lions festival has added Digital Craft, Entertainment and Musical Entertainment categories. What was the reason behind it?

Digital Craft appeared because of the importance of user experience and design and the craft of digital is just as important as the idea. You have to not only have a great idea but also the ability to execute it brilliantly. A lot of people within the industry have been asking us to include digital craft in the festival because of the importance of its execution. When it comes to Music, again for many years people asked us to acknowledge music and have it as a Lion. Music is such a huge part of all types of advertising, it has grown now from being just a part of it to being much bigger than that. Partnerships, sponsorships, experiences, activations and all sorts of other links exist between music and brands. We see the importance of music and talent to brands now more than ever before and we are acknowledging that.

At the moment there are more than 20 award categories. Isn’t there a risk of spreading the awards too thin by trying to reach more and more? In some of the categories the shortlist is actually pretty long and the winners list also looks like you might have difficulties choosing the best.

There are two parts to that. The chance of winning a Lion and the percentage of winners is 3%, and it has been the same for at least 30 years. The only reason for more winners is that there are more entries, it is a mathematical element. The bigger questions are if there are too many categories, do they make sense, and should we reduce some of them or merge some together. And I think that the answer is probably yes and we are looking into these questions at the moment. We don’t imagine that the number of categories will just keep continuing to grow. We have some opportunities to close or to merge some  of them and that is what we are looking at now.

There are different options, especially when the industry is changing so quickly. If we take Mobile as an example, we introduced it because we had to. Everyone was saying, “There is no Lion for Mobile, you look old-fashioned, you have to move with the times”. And now, if we did not have it, it would look very odd indeed. Sometimes you have no choice.

Don’t you think that currently advertising and marketing have become more important and interesting than the product itself, with YouTube views meaning much more than the real thing?

I don’t agree. I think that the product is the most important thing. Unless you have a good product there is no point in advertising it.

Still, one of your winners last year was the “Ice Bucket Challenge” video. And here I am asking myself, “Were they serious about it?”

Well, I think it won because it was a cultural phenomenon. It changed people’s perception about the particular illness and raised a vast amount of money. So, I think it was probably a worthy winner. 

In your opinion, at what point does an advertisement become a cultural phenomenon?

It is hard to say. But if you look at things like the Volvo truck video which included Jean-Claude Van Damme, this had 200 million views on YouTube and could now be considered a cultural phenomenon. But a lot of it is about the scale, how much you are embedding in the culture and how much you have become part of the culture. Anything with that many views might be described as having a cultural impact, I think.

And, vice versa, how does culture influence advertising and marketing, especially these days, when YouTube views mean so much?

It is a really difficult question, does advertising reflect culture or does it drive culture. Probably it's a bit of both. But I think that advertising, along with movies, TV and music, probably does shape the culture. Therefore there is a responsibility for advertisers to understand that. But also, pragmatically speaking, people in this industry should understand that they need to reflect the culture as well.

In your view, how has the Cannes Lions changed recently and how have the demands of your audience changed?

It has changed completely. It used to be an advertising festival for advertising agencies. Now it is a festival with thousands of clients, all platforms including YouTube, Facebook, etc. Also, media owners like 20th Century Fox, newspapers like the Guardian or New York Times, BBC, CNN. We have many design people, many PR people. It has become a very large gathering for people in marketing. And outside it is pure advertising.

If we speak about organization, do you have to work with hired event agencies?

We do it all ourselves. We have 130 people working with us. And we have different suppliers providing designs for the awards shows or creating the gala party, providing security, etc. There are around 1000 people working during the festival week. But in terms of the event we are the organisers.

What do you look for in suppliers?

They have to be world-class and they have to be the best at what they do. The Cannes Lions offer a premium service and this is what we expect from our partners to provide. We’ve been working with the same people for many years, we trust them and they trust us. For example, the company which supplies the awards is called <…>, it is based in Belgium; people who do AV are called Action, based in Cannes; the people who build the structures for us are also from Cannes, and are called Events Partners. So this is how we create an event for thousands of people.

Do you have to look for technical novelties and inventions to not only be the biggest but also the most advanced among other festivals?

Yes, our delegates are very demanding and they expect it. We are not a technology show but we need to be at the forefront of things in terms of the event experience and be good as we possibly can be. People come to Cannes for inspiration and for creativity.

So, the most important thing is not technology but creativity. That’s what we focus on.

What is the ratio between sponsorship financing and money that comes from entrance fees and subscriptions to your information feed?

Sponsorships are about 15-20% of our revenues. The rest is entrance fees and delegates. I think it is OK for us. If you want to talk about business models, then they are not strong if they are based on sponsorships. It is just the cherry on the cake, as we say in England. Everybody who runs an event should understand that. Sponsorships should not be the major part of your business model because if they are, you don't have a really strong product. That is what I happen to believe.

You have held several posts at the EMAP. Does it affect you in your current position?

I’ve been a journalist and an editor. As an editor what you’re doing is trying to package content and make it valuable enough that somebody will buy it. And it is actually the same thing now. When we put on the festival, we are creating something that we hope will be valuable enough for people to pay for and fly to Cannes to experience. So, in fact, the skill is very similar. 

Is it hard to be the head of such a festival? There are works that you might like or not, and probably would like to give your opinion, but still have to remain neutral.

I’ve been doing this for quite a long time now, so I’ve gotten used to a kind of understanding on how to do it. But it is a very big job and quite a responsible one, but at the same time very enjoyable.


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