Industry POV

Narayan Devanathanís My third first time at Cannes Lions

04 Jul 2017

For all that brands were talking about purpose and authenticity as being the demands of the millennial populace just two years ago, today’s global cultural fabric is about dealing with fakery.

I’ll be honest with you, I was tempted to lie a little about my time at the 2017 Cannes Lions festival. It is after all a ‘post-truth, alternative facts’ age we live in today. But my reckless optimism about the world (advertising included) still got the better of me, and my rose-tinted glasses continued to be perched firmly upon the bridge of my viewing deck. So I decided to reminisce about the festival as a first timer. Again. For the third time. It was the best way to make the most of your time here, if you were among the 15,000-odd people who ended up making it to the Cannes Lions. As you walked down the Croisette towards the Palais des Festivals — the venue of advertising’s glitziest and most well-known celebration — in Cannes, the first thing that was striking was probably a swarm of real tourists seemingly trying to get away from the madding ad-ing crowd.

But let me lend you those rose-tinted first-timer glasses, belatedly, for a bit. Because this is what you would have seen. A ferris wheel at the Palais entrance? You would so have wanted to ride! It was fitting that it was put up by Snapchat, a company that makes no pretense about making the planet better but is all about having fun in the moment. The way the world is today, we can all take a page out of its book in how to put the nonsense in sense.

At the Palais’ Terrace, Joe Pytka (if you don’t know who that is, no need to drown in a chullu of paani; just look him up) introduced us to the genius of Ed McCabe and George Lois over some drinks at the legendary Four Seasons.The only point I differed with them on was that we are past the ‘good old days’.We are still in the process of creating them. Ed/George/Joe, check back with us in a couple of decades. (We know you can because, at least for us, you’re immortal). Need proof? Let me talk about the basement where the work from this past year was on display. Yes, it was a fair reflection of the real word of advertising (if you believe in such a thing).

A majority of the work was not stellar, but the work that was, did a service to the rest of us. They inspired us to aspire to be the same. Or better. When you saw the work from far-flung markets like Egypt and Kuwait winning metals, it made one believe about the possibility of creativity levelling the playing field anywhere in the world. When you saw the agency folks peddling their agency philosophy on the big stage, there was a lurking sense that the Cannes Lions seminars are becoming the thing that advertising is rebranding itself as: branded content. And then you encountered mind-opening perspectives.

The New Yorker’s David Remnick unpeeled the bullshit from lies and the versatility of Donald Trump while straddling both during his talk about dealing with fake news. The liar knows the truth and wants to take you away from it, whereas the bullshitter doesn’t care about the truth; just his point of view being right and yours wrong. In the middle of his speech in the darkened auditorium, the ludicrousness of it all was driven home by a phone ringing with Dil le gayii kudi Gujarat di as a ringtone. For all that brands were talking about purpose and authenticity as being the demands of a hype-rejecting millennial consumer population just two years ago, today’s global cultural fabric is about dealing with fakery.

Ira Glass, producer extraordinaire of podcasts before podcasts were a thing, and creator of Serial, S-Town and This American Life, shed light on what he had learnt about how to tell a story. Having fun, talking normally and creating intimacy were three of the seven cornerstones he dwelt on in his talk. Seemed like perfectly sane advice — the pillars on which great advertising has been and will always be created. But it was abiding advice that was delivered with all the hallmarks of great storytelling. He was walking the talk, literally. The Rev Jesse Jackson Sr, in whose arms the great Martin Luther King Jr passed, had a lot of sage advice to offer from 50 years of observing the world’s ebbs and tides.

Perhaps the one that we could all take away as brand custodians was this: we often think of consumers and businesses as having opposing goals. Consumers want more value for less money. Businesses want more profit for less cost. And the twain, it might seem, shall never meet. But, as the Reverend said, the lion and the lamb can lie together if they care about the same thing — such as the forest they live in being under threat of fire. Perhaps there is more, positive common ground we can find too if we look hard enough.

NYU Stern Business School’s future-gazing marketing expert Scott Galloway shared his spectacular insights into how things work — especially in a hyper-paced world churned constantly by technology. Among others, Dan Ariely riffed effortlessly on the power of irrationality and the importance of the small picture. Sir Ian McKellen, in his informal yet distinguished way, waxed eloquent on how authenticity could potentially result in revelation and revolution. And Dame Helen Mirren, how gorgeous was she with her sleight of hand in dealing with doubters and self-doubt (“Don’t give yourself so much importance. You’re not the only one in trouble.”).

In between, there was all of this: lots of rosé to be sipped, good food to be had, strolls to be enjoyed, the inviting blue waters to dunk into, a leisurely ice cream (banana chocolate was my favourite this time) to be slurped, parties to be attended, and the pause button to be pressed from the hectic-ness of the daily advertising life that sometimes makes us forget what a wonderful business it is that we are in.