The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

Anyone really missing Cannes? Thought not.

Alastair Duncan
4 min readSep 10, 2020
Typical beach scene with Bob Greenberg and John Hegarty at Cannes

Getting up early has its rewards. This is especially true when you’re missing that refreshing six in the morning dip in the Kandinsky blue seas at Cannes.

A year whizzes by pretty fast, lockdown and all, so to lighten the mood in anticipation of a sweltering September here’s a short reflection on the last live Cannes Festival of Creativity. I don’t always get to go, but enjoy it when I do, more for the off-beach and off-beat serendipitous moments than the corporate glad handing.

That’s not to say a bit of corporate can’t be fun. Last year I had the good fortune to host a debate between the disarmingly charming Sir John Hegarty of The Garage (and formerly BBH of course) and the super smart Mark Cripps, CMO of the Economist.

Our provocation was simple.

Can performance and creativity be best friends?

There’s industry wide concern about the declining effectiveness of advertising. The ANA and WFA have both published studies on this topic. And there’s a deeper problem to understand which bit is working best. According to the WFA and Economist study ‘a huge 72% of respondents said lower purchase funnel messages had improved on effectiveness over the last five years but only 43% said the same about ‘top funnel’ performance. 37% of those questioned said effectiveness had declined.’

In our panel session John Hegarty described the problem as “brand tinkering”, quoting the James Bond franchise where the brand is worth billions precisely because no junior brand manager got to change 007 to 008 or 009. Of course the films update to reflect modern style, but the Licensed to Kill end line never has changed. There ought to be awards for brands that do that.

Whilst multinational advertisers are increasingly satisfied with the performance of their response activity, designed to drive consumers to take action or purchase they gave much more mixed reviews on the effectiveness of their awareness messages. And this is having serious impact on how brands are thinking about 2020 budgets. Mark Cripps’ perspective was interesting

“You need to succeed with the short term results to get the permission to do the long term brand building.”

Beyond the beach, Cannes has matured into a business conference where quality of thought about the industry matters as much as the star turns. Purpose is [still!] big, and more questions are being asked of it. I really liked the Economist sessions, with proper journalists posing difficult questions to CMOs each day, from Marc Pritchard (P&G) to Marisa Thalberg (Taco Bell) to Julia Goldin (Lego). ‘Woke-washing’ is on the spot. Activist and actress Sophia Bush in a panel called “Understanding Culture, Harnessing Perspective” rejected the idea of a “one-month-a-year campaign, where they’re selling us something with a rainbow on it or something that’s pink.” <Sigh>

The Sorrell (S4) vs Whipple (Accenture) event at the Drum Arms was excellent. Everyone wants to own the future with a new way of embracing data, content and technology, as Sorrell puts it, “in an always-on environment for multi-national, regional and local clients.” Accenture is buying agencies as a demonstration of its need for creativity to drive business, it remains to be seen how these companies will integrate and work together.

Another event had Jillian Gibbs from APR and the CEOs of Peach and others sharing challenges of getting a global campaign around the world. This remains the hard yards of advertising practice, is in short supply, and requires a mindset that acknowledges the role and value of technology to implement efficiently.

Fortunately Alexander Nix from Cambridge Analytica didn’t turn up.

It is eye wateringly expensive to go in style. One friend of mine, a very senior client, told me he and a few colleagues were taken by helicopter to wine tasting up in the hills by a tech vendor whose team were so nervous they forgot to do the pitch. “Great wine but still don’t know what they do.”

Was it a vintage year for creative? The usual suspects did well (Nike, Adidas, Pernod Ricard, New York Times, as predicted) but it seemed to me to be less about big ideas and more about execution of good strategy in a charming or challenging way.

I asked Nicky Bullard, Chair of the Direct Jury, what had caught her eye. She liked the way that brands were using smart technology to be aggressively different, and being a bit more ‘up for it’ in a category, name checking the Whopper Detour campaign.

As the Queens of the Stone Age song goes “Sometimes the same is different, But mostly it’s the same”



Alastair Duncan

20+ years helping brands grow. I like Hackney and start ups. Agency of the year founder; Digital Hot 100; Cannes Lion winner etc etc.