Cannes Lions 2021: Is industry ready for an in-person event yet?

While most ad agencies admitted to participating in the festival, they noted that they were doubtful whether Cannes Lions should take place as an in-person event this year

e4m by Misbaah Mansuri
Updated: Apr 1, 2021 8:25 AM

In January, Cannes Lions said its annual Festival of Creativity was returning to a live-event format this June after being cancelled last year due to Covid-19. But it looks like those plans are still dicey. Parent company Ascential issued its full-year 2020 financials last week, noting that the festival will likely be a hybrid digital-live format, with in-person attendance on the ground in Cannes “if possible.” The wild-card: vaccination programmes around the world and how quickly they can be disseminated.

However, as Covid continues to surge in several regions of the world, is the industry ready for an in-person event this year and will Indian agencies be participating this year or fall on the side of caution?


Crisis continues

While most ad agencies admitted to participating in the festival, they noted that they were doubtful whether Cannes Lions should take place as an in-person event this year. They asserted that given the current situation, with Covid still looming around, an in-person festival might not be the best thing to opt for.

Anand Bhadkamkar, CEO India, dentsu, reveals that while the agency would be participating in it, the chances of it being in-person are highly unlikely.

“Given the number of rising cases again, an in-person festival might not be a good idea. We would be participating, but again, with it being virtual, it would not be the same as Cannes is all about ideas, meeting people, networking, etc,” Bhadkamkar remarks.

In January, Cannes Lions announced that it plans to have juries judge work from 2020 and 2021 in person during the festival. However recently it announced that the awards portion of the event, which will judge two years’ worth of entries given last year’s cancellation, will now be “fully digital.”

Rohit Ohri, Group Chairman & CEO, FCB India, observes that with Cannes Lions being a spectator-free event this time, it might take one more year of virtual participation to bring back the in-person event. “The chances of Cannes Lions being in-person are quite remote. The Cannes committee hasn't definitively said whether it is going to be virtual or in person. I think that decision has not yet been made,” he says.

Ohri reveals that given FCB India’s spectacular wins in the last couple of years, the agency is definitely looking at participation this year. “We have been winning the Cannes Lions Gold, and the last time in 2019, we were the only agency in India to win a gold for the country! So we are eagerly waiting to participate. It is after all the Oscars of advertising! So winning there is really something that we look forward to,” he asserts.

It's not surprising that revenue from Ascential’s marketing division, which includes Cannes Lions, research unit WARC and media/marketing consultant MediaLink was down 60% to 54.3 million GBP (about $75.4 million).

While Cannes for years has thrived on the physical presence of brands, agencies and real-world connections, will the magic be lost virtually?

Garima Khandelwal, CCO, Mullen Lintas, opines that a lot in terms of participation and attendance will depend on how Cannes pitches itself this year to lure in the audience, given how the experience would change after Covid.

“Everything we remembered it as should change for the better. Taking in learnings of how Covid has forever changed the way we work. Cannes is a week of sinking into celebrating the best from all over the world. But now, would the auditoriums be as packed for a Droga chat? Will the rendezvous with the familiar and foreign be now masked? Would the hugs for a win be as liberal? Will this year at Cannes even be as diverse and rich in the insights when everyone is coming out of the same experience? Or will the conversations be skewed about the very change that the industry now needs? With the way Cannes has always adapted and been about the change, being abreast with the times, am sure they aren’t thinking of it as any other year either. And if this year is marked as a changer, am sure attending it would mean an experience. Internalising and accepting it’s not going to be the same ever again. And if it is, we learnt nothing,” Khandelwal reflects.


Contractual and other complications

Furthermore, some companies who’d intended to have sponsored spaces and activations at Cannes in 2020 postponed rather than outright cancelling their plans. So while they’re able to wait and see how the event shakes out, industry watchers doubt they’ll see the crowds turn out.

An industry watcher on condition of anonymity notes, “Companies that forked out deposits on renting a yacht—a floating meeting space, hotel and party venue for many on the Côte d’Azur during that week-- are highly unlikely to have received a return of their initial 2020 outlay with local yacht brokers, and will likely be hesitant to repeat placing such a bet 12 months later.”

Sajan Raj Kurup, Founder and Chairman, Creativeland Asia, feels that an in-person festival definitely should not be on the cards this year.

“It would have been amazing to meet people freely once again at industry festivals, catch up with old friends and see some great work. But, the times we live in call for great restraint, care and precaution over anything. And, we hope to be back at Cannes soon,” he says.

Echoing a similar sentiment, Ramanuj Shastry, Co-Founder & Director, Infectious, opines that an online version of the awards is entirely possible and welcome. “We are in the middle of a second wave of a pandemic that is raging across the world so an in-person festival would be a very irresponsible thing to do. Agencies who have done ground-breaking work in these trying times must enter and celebrate the creators virtually,” he says.

“While travel is currently constrained, the availability of multiple vaccines offers hope that we can be together in June, even if we need to limit the numbers of delegates who can safely attend,” Lions chairman Phillip Thomas had said in a statement.

He added, “We will continue to carefully monitor the situation, and maintain our regular communications with the authorities in France, but there are many other large international events planned for the same timeline and it’s clear from talking to the global industry that everybody is very keen to come together again.”

Samir Asher, Co-founder & COO, Tonic Worldwide - a digital-first creative agency, establishes that though the world is not ready for an in-person festival yet, a virtual celebration of work will be more apt. “We must celebrate good work and a virtual festival is perfectly fine, this is the new normal. A festival like Cannes exposes young talent to global work and gives great exposure to your work on the global stage. Indian agencies are already doing some innovative and disruptive work and it will be a shame if the international community doesn't get visibility to this,” he asserts.

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