Behind Cannes Lions’ Glitzy Facade

Cannes Lions Nattapat.J/Shutterstock lucky_xtian/Shutterstock KitohodkA/Shutterstock Serhii Yushkov/Shutterstock Remix by Caterina Rose Cox

Cannes, a resort town on the French Riviera, is most identified with its annual film festival, which brings international film stars to the region for a week of spectacle, glamor, and even occasional movie screenings. But the town also hosts another yearly event which is taking place right now, Cannes Lions. 

Billed as an “International Festival of Creativity,” you might be surprised to learn that it’s basically a conference and award show for media advertising. But of course, they gave it a clever and mildly deceptive name. They’re marketers, that’s what they do.

This year’s event – taking place this week en France – is actually the 71st edition of Cannes Lions, and includes 12,000 delegates from 90 countries! The opening keynote declared that the current “creative economy” is valued at $250 billion, and expected to rise to $480 billion by the year 2027. 

Hot topics this year include the shift from cable and satellite TV to streaming, gathering even more steam this year, and the forthcoming impact of AI technology. Which threatens to take the jobs of everyone from graphic designers to voice actors to marketing directors themselves.

Among the largest and most prominent figures of this year’s event is digital media veteran and entrepreneur Michael Kassan. Kassan’s marketing firm MediaLink was acquired in 2021 by Hollywood’s United Talent Agency (UTA). Which brought together the “strategic advisory” side with the pool of talent they’d surely be drawing from to develop and create fresh content. Kassan and UTA CEO Jeremy Zimmer are now involved in a legal feud over alleged financial misconduct and breach of contract. But that’s a subject for a different column.

UTA and MediaLink are a major presence at this year’s Lions, and focused their joint presentation on – to quote directly from Variety – “the growing clout of social media creators” along with the central importance of “understanding Gen Z.” Certainly, there’s some objective truth to the statement. Utilizing social media creators is increasingly central to marketing and ad campaigns, particularly for products and services pitched at younger people who spend less time watching conventional TV and films in favor of YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, etc.

Still, UTA and MediaLink weren’t the only ones declaring this the Year of Creators at Cannes Lions. The event itself introduced a new track for creators in collaboration with Viral Nation, featuring exclusive programming as well as opportunities for creators to connect directly with established marketing and ad veterans. A number of digital creators were even in attendance this year, including Jake Shane, Roberto Nickson, Colin and Samir, and Twitch’s Vanessa Lopez (who apparently also went last year).

Still, this is kind of a peculiar perspective to consider during a soirée on the coast at Cannes Lions, where you’re more likely to see Bono, John Legend, Jared Leto, Tyla, Janelle Monáe, Gwyneth Paltrow, DeAndre Hopkins, or Queen Latifah than your favorite social media personalities. Unless they’ve won some kind of a contest. 

In fact, surveying the reporting coming out of Lions this year, it’s hard to find anyone speaking at length about any issues facing social media creators or their Gen Z audiences whatsoever. Quite the opposite, in fact.

X/Twitter owner Elon Musk attended this year’s event. Over the past year, he’s spoken frequently about his desire to integrate more original video onto X, and to graduate it into a full and robust streaming platform of its own, dedicated to… sigh… principles of “free speech” and open communication. 

But his keynote session, titled “Exploring the New Frontiers of Innovation,” centered mostly on boasts like about how X will soon improve on newspapers. Or his feud with advertisers. There was also plenty of time to unpack his “go f**k yourself” comments of last year and once again re-litigate his views on censorship. In addition, hip-hop icons Swizz Beatz and Timbaland announced a new deal to bring their “Verzuz” music battle series exclusively to X. But in general, the platform continued its pattern of speaking exclusively to prominent, highly visible creators, winning them over one-by-one, and functionally ignoring the base of the pyramid that would typically serve as a new platform’s active user base.

Take generative AI tools, feared and loathed by many professional creators, who believe that it’s trained on their work without credit or compensation. But at Cannes Lions, it’s an exciting development on the break of a breakout moment. Geoff Edwards, the jury president for this year’s Entertainment Lions awards (and a former CAA executive) expressed a bit of surprise to Variety that there weren’t more ads produced using AI tools this year. Furthermore suggesting we’re just as the beginning “of what I call ‘The AI Age of Discovery.’” 

Not to mention, the Media Grand Prix award handed out by Edwards and his colleagues went to “Handshake Hunt” by Mercado Libre. The campaign uses AI to generate real-time ads and deals directly within TV content, rather than waiting for commercial breaks. Not only does this rely entirely on algorithmic technology rather than any individual creative work. But it interrupts the work of other creatives to serve advertising.

Adding to the slightly surreal “what kind of future are we even discussing here” atmosphere was TikTok. The embattled lip sync and radical politics app made an appearance on the Croisette this year, but their presentation entirely ignored the fact that the US government is actively working to outlaw their platform. Instead, TikTok executives focused on the launch of, wait for it… AI-powered digital avatars. When asked directly by Digiday if this wasn’t a bit tone-deaf, the company’s global head of content strategy and operations said “we’re super heads down on our product team and we’re just focused on building the future of creativity.”

This comment could seemingly be expanded to the entire digital media industry of the moment. Everyone’s super heads down and focused on what’s immediately in front of them. Often ignoring the actual reality for the very creators they’re relying on to engage their audiences, host their ads, and drive their traffic.

As the CMOs and their celebrity guests enjoyed cocktails on the Croisette this week, one story that flew a bit under-the-radar also caught my attention. A former staffer from Kick – the gamer-focused livestreaming platform trying desperately to eat Twitch’s lunch for some time – claims the platform discriminated against particular streamers. Including those living with autism or cancer. The ex-employee – who identifies herself only as “Melissa” – makes a number of despicable and specific claims. Kick management has yet to formally respond.

Obviously, these aren’t the kinds of stories you’d expect to hear at Cannes Lions. And these are just a few allegations in isolation. It does, however, speak to the complete disengagement from reality that seems to be permeating the atmosphere in France this week. In these keynotes and presentations, creators are working hand-in-hand with the wealthy owners of marketing companies and talent agencies, utilizing cutting-edge technology to create hilarious, ground-breaking, and innovative campaigns that move the culture forward. 

But on the ground, creators are struggling to survive on just a small chunk of the ad revenue they themselves are generating. Money that’s doled out at the whim of a faceless tech platform or international corporation that doesn’t see them as human anyway, and would be extremely willing to swap them out for a digital avatar if only the software worked properly.

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