10 things I got horribly wrong about Cannes Lions 2023

Do creatives really resent the adtechs? Is Gen AI going to take everyone's jobs? Can I run the length of the Croisette in five minutes? Robin Langford, Editor at Performance Marketing World, confesses his top misconceptions, biggest mistakes and flat out wrongness upon returning from a week at Cannes Lions 2023.

With the breach installations dismantled and Grand Prix winners basking in their glory, it’s time to reflect on my first IRL experiences of Cannes Lions, a decade on from covering the festival from afar.

About 80% of the people I met at the festival fell into two categories. It was either their first year attending or they were a veteran of over ten years. The latter were by far the more relaxed of the two. This article is probably written for the former.

One thing the more experienced doyens assured me of was that this was the first ‘proper’ return of the Festival of Creativity post COVID, following a tentative relaunch last year. From the mood along the Croisette, it certainly felt like this was an industry on the rise, despite some rather gloomy recent predictions from AA/ WARC.

With this in mind, here’s my top 10 list of things I got wrong at Cannes Lions 2023, in the hopes that I and others like me won’t make the same mistakes next year.

  1. The creative awards are what everyone talks about: WRONG

At a music festival, everyone talks about the headline acts. But on the ground at this advertising festival, there was something of a disconnect between the rock star-level creativity on display inside the Palais and outside on the technology-heavy beaches and hotel residences. Without making a conscious effort to do so, it was easy to miss the big winners and speeches, or indeed be aware of any winners at all, outside the auditoriums.

A shared Cannes app did an admirable job to try and connect people, but it lacked urgency or direction with so many talks and awards going on, while the numerous digital displays along the Croisette felt like a missed opportunity to showcase some of the winners as they were announced. Fortunately our sister titles Campaign and PR Week did sterling and comprehensive work as usual covering the big creative winners, while PMW covered some of the most interesting data-led finalists.

But I couldn’t help feeling there were two disparate events going on at the same time – it would have been nice to celebrate the winners a bit more and have more visibility of the creative agencies along the Croisette. At times it did indeed feel like the ‘Cannes Lions Festival of Performance Marketing’ but that was as much about my choice of interviewee as it was the presence of tech giants on the beaches.

  1. It’s a European dominated festival: WRONG

Nestled on the French Riviera, it was striking just how large – and possibly dominant – the North American contingent was at Cannes Lions 2023. It was also heartening to see strong representation from Asia and Latin America, with the relatively small independent Argentinian agency GUT winning some of the biggest accolades including the Grand Prix in the Creative Data category, and best agency overall.

The international nature of Cannes LIons is what sets it apart from other conferences, and why companies pay so much money to be here. Those from the US were slightly more buoyant about the industry's prospects than those from the UK, or as Craig Atkinson, CEO at Code3 put it: “No-one’s spraying Dom Perignon around just yet… but they're thinking about it.”

  1. Generative AI will dominate the conversations: WRONG

Connected TV, sustainability, retail media, cross-platform integration and blending brand and performance were the biggest subjects I heard about at Cannes Lions. There was a sense that generative AI will be a huge game changer, but people aren’t quite sure how to slot it into their workflows just yet outside of big creative showstoppers.

There was also a sense of 'gen AI fatigue'; the best uses of AI I heard were around mixing predictive AI for cohort analysis mixed with old school market research to validate the findings. As the famous old saying goes: “trust, but verify”.

  1. It's a closing celebration of the year: WRONG

Cannes Lions marks the starting bell in adland’s sprint towards the golden quarter. Brands come here to make deals, power up their tech stacks, validate their decisions and compare notes with fellow brand marketers. There was a sense among those I spoke to that the creative on display was great, but their laser focus was on how to find the best tools and talent to utilise that creative and drive better clicks, leads and sales for Q4.

  1. The adtech presence on the harbour yacht is a new phenomenon and the creative community largely resents them: WRONG

Not only were the adtech providers warmly received, they were actively drawing in brands and potential clients along the harbour. Cannes Lions is essentially a beach version of a conference - the Palais the main stage, the beaches the second stages and the yachts the exhibitor stands (albeit one million pound luxury ones). There was a bigger presence from adtech than last year and it's easy to predict that the line of yachts will grow again next year.

  1. It's a grotesque display of excess in a time of much global strife: WRONG (ish)

With food price inflation remaining stubbornly high in many parts of the world, it can be somewhat jarring to see tech giants forking out for Glastonbury-level headline acts and free flowing rose when homelessness and poverty is clearly visible, even on these sun-kissed streets. But Cannes Lions, run by British company Ascential, is a money generating machine for a huge $900bn global industry that is helping to prop up economies worldwide.

Think of it as speed dating for marketing deals; there are a lot of time poor senior executives assembled in Cannes, squashing years’ worth of business meetings into one frenetic, scorching week. Could it work elsewhere at half the cost and more practically? Possibly, but frankly there is nothing else like Cannes Lions and that is part of the appeal.

  1. The advertising industry still needs unified metrics to benchmark performance success: WRONG

CPM, CPA, CPC, ROAS, LTV, attention… over the decades there have been calls for the industry to offer unified metrics to better benchmark success and provide clarity. But the time has come to let it go.

The need for unified standards of best practice will never go away, but when advertisers plug into programmatic nowadays, they aren’t looking for a one size fits all solution. As AI becomes more abundant, the ability for each brand to find custom KPIs becomes more appealing. As Matt Nash, UK MD at Scibids confides in me: “Five years ago, maybe 10% of my conversations with clients were about custom KPIs. Now I’d say it's about 50%.”

  1. It's all about the scheduled meetings: WRONG

Unlike typical buttoned up conferences, I found people at Cannes Lions were operating in a jarring combination of hyper work mode and holiday mode simultaneously. It’s impossible not to feel somewhat relaxed in the Cote D’Azur sea air, and that actually helps the flow of the business here. Aside from the formal presentations, high tech installations and data heavy spreadsheets, people still buy into people, and it was very obvious when walking amidst the crowds.

It was striking the number of times I saw people spontaneously breaking out into hugs and exclamations along the Croisette, or giving each other a knowing tap and a wink. A presence in Cannes Lions is priceless in that respect.

  1. It's all about the rose and late night parties: WRONG

While the late night concerts and parties were as abundant as ever, if not more so, there was a deliberate effort this year to cater for the more health conscious. Over at Amazon Port there were daily morning Yoga routines, while Stagwell’s beach was dedicated to a sports theme with regular Pickleball tournaments.

It was a nice inclusive gesture towards those of us that weren't night owls, and a societal pivot to more health conscious (and fun!) lifestyles. I didn't partake in the sports myself, but that was largely because I was too busy making mistake number 10…

10. It's all on one beach so it's easy to walk between meetings: WRONG

Sure, I’m at the far end of the harbour - I can make it to the Martinez Hotel in under five minutes right? Lets just say I found out the hard way that isn’t true. It is all walkable within 20 to 30 minutes, including up to the Contagious Villa above the old town, but PMW-branded scooters seem like a wise choice next year, budget permitting.

Attendees should leave at least 30 minute buffer zones between meetings to allow for travel and the chance for serendipitous meetings like those listed above, or simply take in the spectacle of it all.

One thing we got right: Performance Marketing is growing… and changing

Across the five days there was a sense that performance marketing is growing in relevance to the ad creative process to the point where it's becoming ubiquitous. Our first day talk with Snap led to a five minute segment on how the platform is driving up its performance marketing capabilities.

Meanwhile Amazon Ads keeps adding to its suite of ad techs and DSP. But even on the branding side, we are measuring new things that were once thought impossible, and as such the performance and creative worlds are merging into something altogether more exciting. I suspect Cannes Lions will be all the richer for it next year.

Read Robin Langford’s full account of each day at Cannes Lion 2023 in PMW’s Cannes versus Machine series here.

One final mistake? It was impossible to put all my video experiences at Cannes Lions into one highlight reel on TikTok, so here’s two...

@performancemarketingw PMW’s highlights reel from @Cannes Lions #canneslions70 #canneslions2023 Head to performancemarketingworld.com for all our Cannes coverage and more… #performancemarketing ♬ original sound - Performance Marketing World
@performancemarketingw More highlights from PMW at @Cannes Lions #canneslions70 #canneslions2023 Head to performancemarketingworld.com for all our Cannes coverage and more! #performancemarketing ♬ original sound - Performance Marketing World

Read all about PMWs on the ground insights for Cannes Lions in this daily series below: