Publicis to Exit Cannes Lions, And WPP May Follow Suit

Is Cannes Lions getting too big for its own good?

Ad giant Publicis Groupe stunned the marketing world this week after announcing it would pull out of the Cannes Lions event next year, along with other events including SXSW and CES. Following the surprising news, Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP, told Variety that his company was having second thoughts as well, as he suggested Cannes Lions’ focus has expanded to become too diffuse — and too sprawling.

Cannes Lions, which started in 1954, has centered on awards to recognize the best advertising creative in the world. In recent years, it has attracted a growing flock of ad-tech firms, internet and media companies, and entertainment execs.

Publicis’ decision to drop out of Cannes Lions, set by newly installed chief Arthur Sadoun, was motivated by a desire to cut spending on trade shows and awards competitions. According to a memo sent to Publicis agencies, which include DigitasLBi, Leo Burnett and Saatchi & Saatchi, the moratorium is effective July 1 and will extend for at least one year.

Sadoun — who assumed the CEO spot earlier this month, taking over for Maurice Levy — says the money Publicis saves will be invested into an artificial-intelligence initiative, dubbed Marcel, designed to facilitate better companywide collaboration.

In the wake of Publicis’ exit from Cannes Lions, WPP’s Sorrell left the question open about whether the company’s agencies, which include Grey, J. Walter Thompson, Ogilvy & Mather and Y&R. In the Variety interview Wednesday afternoon here in Cannes, he complained that Cannes Lions has grown beyond its original mission of focusing on creative excellence in advertising.

“This has morphed into a worldwide event, but I think it’s trying to be too many things to too many people,” Sorrell said. “Probably a bit too broad, and it’s probably lost its way.”

Sorrell, 72, and said other locations might be more suitable for a global worldwide advertising conference. The British advertising and media titan suggested that, for example, the $450 million Brooklyn Navy Yard development in New York City would have the space — and access to a major metropolis — for an ad-industry confab. Cannes, he noted, is not a terribly convenient destination for many in the industry.

Asked if WPP was going to potentially pull out of Cannes Lions, Sorrell said, “I think we should take a good, hard look at it.”

“Maybe Cannes in the middle of June is not the best destination,” he said. “You could do what Cannes does but in a different environment, and probably more powerfully.” In addition to New York, he suggested London, Paris or Berlin as possible places for a Cannes Lions-style confab celebrating advertising creative.

The good thing about Cannes Lions’ more expansive scope, including the presence of internet companies like Facebook and Google, is that it has redefined creativity beyond just 30-second TV spots, Sorrell said, “beyond ‘Mad Men’ and that narrow definition.”

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