Cannes Lions 2023: Festival themes from an adland outsider

Cannes Lions 2023: Festival themes from an adland outsider

What do you get when you drop an adland outsider into one of the world’s biggest advertising events for the first time?

In my case, an inspiring experience that left me with an overwhelming amount of inspiration and food for thought - even if it took me a good few days to digest it all. 

On the surface, Cannes Lions is where you discover the epitome of creative excellence – the crème de la crème. And in the luxurious setting of the French Riviera, it’s also the hotspot for networking, deal-making and showboating – not to mention the presence of wandering celebrities, free-flowing carbs, Rosé lunches and yacht parties. There’s so much going on – and the FOMO (fear of missing out)? Oh, it’s very real. It seems like everyone’s here or knows someone in town, and I bumped into loads of pals among the 15,000 delegates who attended the festival, now in its 70th year.

At least I could ground my debut trip in being appointed to the Direct Lions Shortlisting Jury this year. And after a month of meticulously reviewing more than 300 entries (some excellent, plenty less so), I got a sense of what might happen on the awards front once I arrived. As for navigating the whirlwind of celebrity talks (featuring the likes of David Beckham, Will.I.Am and Kevin Hart), activations (Pinterest Beach was a dream), and the parties (Spotify Beach rolled out ASAP Rocky and The Foo Fighters and I couldn’t get in!), my preference for sparkling water and a good night’s sleep meant I managed just fine by the end of the week.

Now that the dust has settled, everyone’s been asking me the same question: what did I take from it all?

Let’s kick off with the obvious.

I got a sense of what’s been on the hearts and minds of creatives over the past year, a period marked by the tail end of the pandemic, Russia's unprovoked war against Ukraine, inflation, climate change and the great resignation. 

These themes resonated in many of the entries, whether confronting them directly or providing some comic relief from the chaos outside. Regardless, it was fascinating to see what qualifies as creativity. At Dentsu Creative, our view is that modern creativity is the stuff that can shape culture, change society, and invent the future. It was great to see how these principles guided us to win 29 awards this year – 2 Grand Prix (in the Pharma and Industry Craft categories), 5 Gold, 5 Silver and 17 Bronze Lions.

Elsewhere, creativity showed up as having more seats at the table – for both winners and the people making those choices. There were historical wins from countries that picked up their first-ever Lions, such as Nigeria and Armenia. As for the judges and jurors, there was a conscious effort this year to ensure more ethnic and gender diversity and inclusivity, and it was pretty palpable wherever you turned. 

As the saying goes, representation matters, and I loved to see it.

Delving deeper into the works, I discovered a chummier relationship between technology and creative solutions, leading to several purpose-driven award-winning campaigns. These demonstrated that if the robots eventually steal our jobs, they’ll at least contribute to the greater good along the way. 

On that note, the AI talks I attended in the Palais – the festival hub – constantly reassured us creatives that our roles were safe. After all, someone’s gotta program these machines, right? But I digress. Europharma’s ‘Scrolling Therapy’ campaign, straight out of Dentsu Creative Argentina, was a remarkable example of tech for good. Recognising that people spend around 2.5 hours a day scrolling through social feeds, the campaign explored how to turn that time into facial therapy for Parkinson’s patients. Using facial recognition technology, the agency created an app that turned browsing into exercise to alleviate Parkinson’s symptoms.

And another personal fave highlighting the creative potential of tech? Mastercard’s Where to Settle campaign, which picked up the Titanium and Sustainable Development Goals Grand Prix. It involved the creation of a tool to help Ukrainian refugees cross the Polish border, using multiple datasets to help them identify places in Poland to establish a new home.

On the theme of sustainability, I noticed a broader definition reflected in winning campaigns, extending beyond environmental considerations to encompass human, social and economic concerns. Case in point: The Well-Being Index from Dentsu Japan and Nikkei. This was developed to encourage businesses to pursue sustainability to create a fairer society. Rightfully, it picked up a Gold Lion for Business Transformation.

The accolades didn’t just go to the righteous, or course.

Two campaigns that stood out for me were Apple’s R.I.P Leon ad, a mildly amusing spot promoting the iPhone’s unsend feature, which, to my surprise, won the Grand Prix for film craft (admittedly, I’m Team Android). 

There was also Sheba’s Love Hurts campaign, which paid homage to cat owners allergic to their beloved pets. If you see the billboards, you can’t help but chuckle. I mentally filed these under 'creativity doesn’t have to be so serious,' alongside my notes titled ‘think tech’, ‘strive to do good’ and ‘little facts can lead to big ideas’.

But the biggest lesson for me was, while my day-to-day work as a journalist and content marketer rarely intersects with traditional advertising, it can still provide plenty of genius sparks to draw from. That’s why it’s so important to explore new avenues often (and if it’s along the Boulevard de la Croisette in the south of France, even better). It’s how we can supercharge our approach to creativity in ways that are pretty exciting to think about.

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