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How to do Cannes Lions right
Putting the ROI in Riviera
At the beginning of every summer, advertising professionals of all stripes converge on the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès for the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Behind that mouthful of a title lies a near-endless stream of Instagram photos of people hobnobbing on the beach, skipping from yacht to yacht, enjoying themselves in decadent villas with pools, and toasting with obligatory glasses of rosé.
Sounds dreamy, right? You can’t exactly complain to your friends and family who all think you've gone on holiday, but that week-plus in Cannes can actually be quite a slog. (We see you all breaking out the world’s tiniest violins here.) It's really hot, many of us are jet-lagged and running from meeting to meeting. You're also in the gorgeous French Riviera, where the last thing you really want to be talking about are third-party cookies.
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Getting a good ROI from Cannes requires significant preparation, especially as the investment required to have any kind of presence there is quite high (often a significant chunk of your marketing budget, and that’s not including T&E!). When managed correctly, however, this kind of event has the potential to change the trajectory of a company and certainly a career.
Two worlds colliding
Over the last 10-15 years, the Cannes Lions Festival has become the place where many corners of the digital advertising and marketing ecosystem blend together. Its origin—and hence the glitzy location—initially revolved around celebrating creativity in advertising; then the adtech and martech crowds started crashing the party. It made sense: If you wanted to sell your product or service to an advertising agency, all the agencies would attend the Cannes Lions Festival—and they'd bring their brand clients along, so two birds, one stone.
Then the adtech "pirates" showed up. The Palais—the site of the creative conference—is next to the old marina in Cannes, and so Yacht Row was born: Dock a yacht outside the Palais, put on your own event, and lure the folks you need with the promise of flowing rosé to lubricate serious business conversations. It was a guerilla marketing tactic that evolved as conference organizers began experimenting with sponsorship offerings aimed squarely at this growing adtech and martech presence. As with many things in advertising, an initial mismatch of different worlds has, over time, become more aligned.
After a pandemic pause, the Cannes Lions Festival roared back to life last year in a difficult economic climate of cratering tech stocks, staff cuts, and a general caution that creeps in in challenging times. We don't expect it to be dramatically different this year: The potential impact of AI on the industry will likely be top of mind as deals are negotiated and new clients wooed.
Know why you’re going
Cannes Lions often suffers from mismatched expectations. Whether you’re going for the first time or are a sizzled veteran, it is (hopefully still) exciting to attend. And while Instagram may suggest that it’s all yachts and rosé, the reality is that to have a successful event, a lot of effort needs to happen before and after the show, too. While there is always room for serendipity along La Croisette, exactly how much of one’s agenda can be left to happenstance vs. a solid, pre-booked set of meetings really depends on your role and what you’ve set out to do.
So before confirming your travel arrangements, you should have a good sense of what your week is going to look like. Be intentional about your agenda and what you're trying to achieve. Not every conversation will have an immediate company ROI, so make sure you design a set of personal goals (in addition to the company ones) that you’d like to hit. Maybe you've just signed a new partnership with a holding company and you want to see what they're talking about and maximize on their content. Some might want to just catch up with old colleagues to get a sense of everybody's priorities for the rest of the year. Or the goal might be to sit in the Palais and learn. Those are all different approaches than someone who needs to start at least four conversations with customers that will be ready to sign this year, which requires more of a block-and-tackle strategy. If you're potentially going to be testing the job market, it's a great place to soft-launch yourself to recruiters and prospective future colleagues.
Booking meetings is one thing, but actually having them can present an additional challenge. It's not uncommon for people to triple-book themselves and have to cancel at the last minute. Or they book their meetings all over town without enough of a buffer to get to where they need to go because they must get around on foot. When attending, you need to figure out how you should prioritize and ensure that you're supporting your team. For senior executives, it's about how to make sure they're in the right conversations and where those “right” conversations are happening.
Some veteran Cannes tips
• A/C please: If your expense account affords you a room at one of the three marquee Croisette hotels (this year the Carlton is back after extensive renovations!), this tip isn’t for you. If, on the other hand, you’re aiming for something less “my expense report will crash our expense management tool,” your best bet is an apartment in Centre Ville, ideally sandwiched between Rue D’Antibes and Boualam. If you want the calm and quaint Cannes experience, look to the old city for lodging, but don't expect good air conditioning. If A/C is important to you, consider other parts of town like Californie but be prepared for logistical challenges getting back and forth to the Palais. There are limited taxis and ride-share services compared to the number of people attending the conference, so your best and most reliable way of getting around is on foot. Give yourself ample time to travel between events and meetings: While Google Maps claims you can get from the Martinez to the Palais in 15 minutes, that’s practically impossible and easily twice as long in real life.
• Take care of yourself: It's hot in the French Riviera in June, so bring a hat, apply and reapply sunscreen, drink lots of water, feed yourself, and be aware of jetlag. Don't be that person who everyone talks about for years because you passed out in the middle of an outdoor panel from sunstroke.
• Privacy premium: There are tons of people at the conference, so be mindful when having private, sensitive conversations if those discussions include anything you wouldn't want others, including your competitors, to hear. If you’re really looking for off-the-grid places, then head up to the hills away from prying eyes and ears or hop over to Juan-les-Pins to hide in plain sight among the tourists.
• Where to go? That yacht or villa invitation sure sounds appealing. What a great problem to have! But both can be big time commitments, and if you’re trying to get a lot done, an afternoon or whole day away at sea may look great on Insta but ultimately be counterproductive to your conference goals. Choose wisely.
• Where do I find . . .? If you need something in a pinch, Rue d’Antibes is where you’ll find everything from a Zara to lovely boutiques that sell impossibly flowy dresses, espadrilles, and other unique Riviera staples. You’ll find the high-end designers along La Croisette, but their stock generally tends to trail behind the season. There’s one supermarket that’s open late: a Monop on Rue Hoche, close to the open-air Gambetta market.
• If all else fails, there’s a bus! It’s the very antithesis of Cannes glitz, but this one has proven to be an unexpected savior and is especially applicable if you’re traveling back on Friday or Saturday. On high-traffic days in Cannes, it can be a challenge to find a taxi or Uber. There’s a magical bus—the Cannes Express 210—that leaves from the train station and takes you to the airport in just under an hour. The magic works both ways: The bus is a great option for getting from the Nice airport to Cannes, especially if you’re traveling on your own. For just 19 euros, you can buy yourself some piece of mind and a mobile ticket. And if that fails, you can get to the Nice airport by train, too, although that’s not as straightforward as the bus.
After the event
Once you're back in the office, you need to strike while the iron's hot. You may have to very rapidly shift back into execution mode and classify every conversation you had in Cannes. That may include a general catch-up vs. someone you need to follow up with later in the year or a lead that should go directly into the pipeline. Every team member should do the same.
We like to hold a Cannes post-mortem a week after the event. It can just be an hour-long meeting in which everyone is asked to share their best or most surprising conversation, something they didn't expect to learn, what kind of next steps should follow, and reflect on the latter half of the year.
Ultimately, don't get distracted by the glitz, the rosé, the yachts, and the parties in Cannes, especially if you're an ambitious mid-career professional. This is the kind of event that can alter the course of your career, in terms of the people you meet, the relationships you cultivate, and the deals you can set in motion.
Safe travels and see you on La Croisette!
What is your favorite Cannes insider tip?
There are events planned from morning until 1 a.m. in Cannes. For a rundown of all the happenings during the conference, our friends at ID5 have created this nifty list.
Thanks for reading,
Ana, Maja, and the Sparrow team
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Founded in 2015 by Ana and Maja Milicevic, principals & industry veterans who combined their product, strategy, sales, marketing, and company scaling chops and built the type of consultancy they wish existed when they were in operational roles at industry-leading adtech, martech, and software companies. Now a global team, Sparrow Advisers help solve the most pressing commercial challenges and connect all the necessary dots across people, process, and technology to simplify paths to revenue from strategic vision down to execution. We believe that expertise with fast-changing, emerging technologies at the crossroads of media, technology, creativity, innovation, and commerce are a differentiator and that every company should have access to wise Sherpas who’ve solved complex cross-sectional problems before. Contact us here.
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