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What it was like to be at the first Cannes Lions Health

Wendy Blackburn

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The first-ever Cannes Lions Health conference was held in — you guessed it — Cannes, France, on June 13-14. As an offshoot of the original Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, this was the first attempt by organizers to extend what has arguably become the premier creative event (same may say “boondoggle”) in advertising.

While it’s very easy to trash the whole Cannes Lions/French Riviera experience from afar, and everyone is entitled to their opinion, I wanted to provide perspective from an industry observer who was actually (lucky enough to be) there on the ground.

Why I was there
I would not have been at Cannes if it weren’t for a gracious invitation to participate in a panel hosted by MM&M’s James Chase. The panel explored the relationship between clients and agencies and how we can work together to make our output better. Other panelists included Alison Woo, director of social media at Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Matt Brown, general manager at ICC Lowe. We made every effort to get another client-side representative on the panel, but came up short. Understandably, it’s very difficult for clients to get the travel budget approval, much less justify being out of the office for that long.

Top-notch facility
Wow — these guys know how to put on a production. This was far from the over-conditioned ballroom conferences somewhere in Philadelphia or New Jersey that our industry is accustomed to attending. With a fancy stage, high-quality A/V production, and plush movie-theatre audience seating (it is Cannes, after all), this conference felt different … special. In addition to the beautiful facilities, contributing to the feeling of being at an elite event, was the Fort Knox-like level of security. We’re talking badge police and purse checks upon every entry. And when we went backstage to prepare for our panel, I’m not going to lie … we felt like rock stars. Or, at least, D-list movie stars.

(See my post-panel interview with ICC Lowe’s Matt Brown on YouTube here.)

Attendees from a variety of backgrounds
While the attendance, understandably, felt very European-based, there were still plenty of American accents in the hallways as well. This wasn’t the typical audience found at U.S. conferences, but represented more of a younger, creative demographic — even students — who were more than comfortable attending sessions in shorts and T-shirts. My guesstimate is that attendees were 95 percent agency side, mostly young creatives seeking inspiration. And if this was their first conference, they probably got what they were looking for.

The first day (Friday) was very lightly attended. The second day — which was one day closer to the start of the bigger creative festival — was a packed house.

Sessions produced mixed results
I’ll start by saying I’m not the best judge of content here because I have attended a LOT of industry conferences. I’m saturated. I’ve heard a lot of this before. Based on the hype and the brand of Lions, I expected TED-talk quality speakers at every turn. While I’m not sure that’s what happened, a few speakers did deliver entertaining inspiration. Buzzworthy speakers included Jim Stengel, formerly of Proctor & Gamble; R. John Fidelino, executive creative director at Interbrand Health who challenged us to be “meaningful, authentic, immersive”; and Game of Thrones director James Nutter. For deeper reviews of these and other sessions, see MM&M’s excellent blog series.

No Grand Prix Awarded
A central component of the festival is the prestige of the awards show, and winners of the first-ever Cannes Lions Health awards are posted online here. The Grand Prix — the highest honor — was not awarded this year, as judges felt there was no one standout entry that truly rose above all others.

To be clear, these awards were based purely, 100 percent on creativity. Depending on how you feel about awards and in which function you work at an agency or client, this could be good or bad. The awards came in from all over the world, and judging did not factor in innovation, regulatory constraints, or actual impact/results. Congratulations to the agencies that were awarded a trophy! The judges took their jobs seriously, and there was some very creative work represented and rewarded!

Blogger John Mack did make a great point in his post about the fact that a fictional patient story won a Gold Lions Award while an authentic patient story won a Bronze. Sad but true — I guess sometimes fiction is just more creatively appealing than reality.  

And even though Intouch Solutions didn’t bring home a shiny Lions award this year (very few U.S. agencies did), we were pleased to be recognized at the event by Advertising Health magazine as one of the world’s top 20 most creatively awarded agencies globally.

See you there next year?
A resounding, repeated theme of the festival was that what we do is DIFFERENT. Not because we are regulated, but because health is so important. What we do can be life-changing, in fact. Many speakers shared personal stories of loved ones afflicted with serious conditions over the years; some had recovered, some had not. As Jim Stengel of P&G fame pointed out, “This is not selling toilet paper.” We need to keep pushing to do more, do better. And it’s our responsibility to be positive ambassadors for our industry.

In the end, in the words of the organizers, “800 people from 50 countries gathered to share, judge and celebrate the life-changing creativity of the world’s best healthcare communications.” And if we don’t celebrate the work we do in our own industry, who the heck will?  

In Cannes, I made some new friends. I got inspired. I enjoyed some great French rosé and top-notch people-watching. (Hey, we have to look for the inspiration wherever we can find it.)

Special thanks to MM&M editor-in-chief and industry rock star James Chase – seen here in the Cannes Palais des Festivals backstage dressing room — for including me in this amazing opportunity.

Watch for news about Cannes Lions Health 2015; conference organizers have already confirmed there will be another. Will I go again? Perhaps. I’d like to bring some creative Intouch folks with me — and, if I can get them there, a client or two. Any takers?



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