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Cannes: heady cocktails, naked hedonism - but great content

John Shaw, worldwide head of strategy and branding at Brand Union joined the marketing advertising throng at last week's Cannes Lions. Here he shares his experiences and insights into the shenanigans.

John Shaw: worldwide head of strategy and branding at Brand Union

John Shaw: worldwide head of strategy and branding at Brand Union

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1. The Way We Live Now

Outside the Palais there are people dressed as brands I haven’t heard of, squinting into their phones in the sunlight. I’m clearly in the right place.

In the first talk, a slide tells me that Millennials live on their smartphones. I nod sagely. Mobile is the word of the week.

2. Vertigo

Wendy Clark from Coke talks in the big theatre. I’m ushered up into the Gods. It’s incredibly steep up there. I’m actually nervous that I might fall over the edge, like a guy did once at a football match I was at in Glasgow when he was on his way to get a pie. No one here is eating pies though. The girl in front of me is writing a poem.

My view is odd: a compressed screen and, from a great distance, Wendy’s scalp. There’s a really good manifesto film for Coke’s World’s Cup campaign, but I think to myself that perhaps I’ve seen so many brand films that they don’t move me any more. Then she shows another in which a blind man smiles as he runs his hands over the World Cup. My eyes fill with tears.

Wendy has a live link to the Coke team in Rio. When Virgin Galactic starts there will be a mad scramble to have the first link to space from Cannes, and after that there will only really be two standout presentation techniques: live links to previously undiscovered planets, or the use of a quill pen and inkwell.

She talks through some amazing initiatives involving huge and complex social participation, and the 23 centres that comprise Coke’s social listening Hub. But the best work she shows touches universal emotions, and at the end of the talk she reminds us that Coke is "a simple moment of happiness". Like many great modern brands, Coke uses complex real-time techniques to touch simple human emotions.

3. Pacing

I go back to do work on things that could as easily be done in Rickmansworth. But that’s modern Cannes – a deluge of content, meetings, interviews, work to look at, work to do, and of course pink wine. If "strategy is the art of sacrifice", then so is Cannes. I tell myself it’s important to pace yourself, not do too much.

One of my dinner companions, a strategist of global renown, shows up an hour late, so I eat most of his starter. His lame but appropriate excuse is that he had to stay in his room for an hour to charge his phone.

Some time later we end up on the Carlton Terrace. I am sickeningly grateful to be allowed to pay 23 euros for a small Heineken and a tonic water. Everyone I’ve ever admired or disappointed is there. On my way home some people call and tell me I need to come back to the terrace. I don’t need to go back to the terrace.

I go back to the terrace.

4. Streaming

I wake up with the beginnings of a cold wondering what the French is for ibuprofen. Long day ahead. It’s streaming room only for Sheryl Sandberg. The live stream downstairs is favoured by the cognoscenti, particularly after lunch as it’s less embarrassing to nod off there than in the main auditorium, and easier to do stuff on your phone.

Sheryl starts off by saying that mobile is big. She must have seen those people outside too. Sheryl’s audience survey ("How many of you women have been called too aggressive at work? And how many of you men?") quickly becomes famous.

She’s followed by Alan Rusbridger interviewing Ralph Fiennes, although the other way round would have worked too. Alan is as British as Sheryl is American – dry, self-deprecating, floppy-haired. He doesn’t ask Ralph for his views on Big Data though, so I switch streams.

5. A Call To Action

The other stream is raucous. Omar Johnson from Beats by Dr. Dre is laying down awesome soundbites. He says that before Beats, headphones looked like dental equipment. He shows a pair of pre-Beats headphones. They look like a lawnmower. He has fantastic brand values: Truth, Fearlessness, Culture, Hustle. He says that he hears the word culture way too much in decks. How come he has such a highly developed bullshitometer? Oh, I see, he worked for Nike.

Then his agency partner comes on and puts up a slide that says "Fuck Briefs". I wonder if it’s the name of his new clothing label, but apparently it's just a desired behaviour. Tempting, but I head home to write some Strategic Pillars.

Typical Cannes so far then: a heady cocktail of naked hedonism, self-promotion, and avarice, with enough great content to keep people awake and engaged in intelligent conversation.

Just about.

This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk

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