Saturday 19 October 2019

Spectre of toxic content stalks advertising industry's biggest annual party in Cannes

Facebook, whose COO Sheryl Sandberg is among the speakers, faces questions over fake news. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Facebook, whose COO Sheryl Sandberg is among the speakers, faces questions over fake news. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Joe Mayes

Facebook and Google have come to dominate the beachfront at the advertising industry's biggest annual gathering in Cannes on the French Riviera, a sign of their ever-growing power in the world of marketing.

This year, they face their toughest scrutiny yet. The tech giants have pulled billions of ad dollars away from traditional media as consumers flocked to their platforms. Now a proliferation of objectionable content on their sites threatens to taint the global brands that advertise there.

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So expect marketing managers to put Silicon Valley executives on the spot at this week's Cannes Lions, a week of events, meetings, speeches and parties. The event is the ad industry's Oscars. Executives vie for awards for the most creative campaigns, sign deals and talk shop at lavish parties on the beach. Celebrities will add some glamour, from Grammy-award winner John Legend and film director Alfonso Cuaron to Hollywood star Jeff Goldblum with his jazz band.

With the tech giants distracted by the problem of toxic content and concerns over data privacy, traditional ad agency networks such as WPP will be trying to reassert themselves and recoup marketing work lost in recent years to digital rivals and global consultancies Accenture and Deloitte. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Google executive Matt Brittin and YouTube's vice-president EMEA Cecile Frot-Coutaz are due to speak. Marketing managers want to know what they're doing about their brands showing up alongside fake news, a live-streamed shooting massacre on Facebook, images of self-harm on Instagram and paedophile commentary on YouTube. "It goes far beyond the direct implications for the brand. It's actually, what are we funding? There's much more of an appetite for these platforms to be engaging," said Stephan Loerke, head of the World Federation of Advertisers, which represents 90pc of the world's marketing communication spend.

London-based WPP, undergoing a reboot under new CEO Mark Read, will set up its first stand on the Cannes beach - a spot typically occupied by companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter - in a nod to Read's digital makeover of the ad network. Paris-based Publicis returns to Cannes after skipping last year's event to spend the money building a new AI platform. "We've had the year of slightly depressed navel-gazing and we're going to move into the year of forward-looking, optimistic yet pragmatic problem-solving," said Jim Prior, CEO of WPP-owned Superunion.

Another issue is how does an industry whose job is to propel global consumption respond to panic over climate change and environmental destruction? The question is now unavoidable in light of the Extinction Rebellion movement, the international fame of Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and the Netflix documentary series Our Planet. "It's moved from being a zealot's concern to absolutely mainstream," said Mark Lund, UK Group CEO of McCann Worldgroup.

"Brands would be stupid if they didn't have some view on what it meant for them and their role in ameliorating the problem," he said.

Cannes Lions started as a "festival of creativity" for people who make ads to share ideas and admire each other's work. It's morphed into a global event attended by more than 10,000 people involved in every aspect of marketing, from data-crunchers who analyse consumer behaviour to media buyers trading ad space. This year's event seeks to bridge the creative and tech worlds to improve collaboration. It includes masterclasses from the likes of, Microsoft and Adobe on how to use their data tools. "It hasn't always been understood why bringing technology to Cannes is so important," said Wenda Harris Millard, vice chairman of MediaLink, which is organizing the programme. "The tech guys are also understanding that creativity only makes them better and more useful."

After a contentious exit from WPP in 2018, its outspoken founder Martin Sorrell is busy expanding his new ad firm S4 Capital and will be back in the Cannes spotlight. Sorrell retains his traditional Friday slot on the main stage, where he'll be in conversation with Marian Goodell, CEO of the Burning Man cultural organisation. He'll also be chatting with Accenture Interactive CEO Brian Whipple in an Irish pub.


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