Cannes Lions boss Jose Papa: 'WPP is a key partner, I expect all the industry to engage with us'

Jose Papa reflects on a turbulent first year leading Cannes Lions and explains why a journey through Campaign's archive reassured him that the festival could recover from its recent troubles.

Cannes Lions chief Jose Papa.
Cannes Lions chief Jose Papa.

These have been testing times for Cannes Lions owner Ascential and the festival’s managing director, Jose Papa, who only took on the role in August 2016.

In the aftermath of the stunning revelation that Publicis Groupe was pulling out of all trade shows and awards for a 12-month period and all-out attacks from WPP boss Martin Sorrell, there has been a steady drumbeat of complaints from the industry that Cannes Lions is ripe for change.

It has become too much of a "money-making exercise," they say. It has lost its focus on creativity, many suggest, not least as a result of the huge variety of ad tech and digital companies making their way to the Croisette. Some, like Sorrell, openly question the continued relevance of a premium-priced jamboree on the French Riviera during the summer months.

Papa, who describes himself as an "optimist," insists that the expenditure of emotional energy – even in a negative context – proves that the industry remains committed to Cannes Lions. "I firmly believe we matter now more than ever. If we didn’t matter, then nobody would care [what Cannes Lions did], and we wouldn’t even be having this conversation," he says.

The discussion with Campaign comes ahead of the announcement of a host of changes to next year’s festival, including a shortened event, a new pricing policy, and a major overhaul of its awards structure.

Papa, however, denies that the alterations have been made with a gun to the organization’s head.

"Cannes [Lions] as a platform changes every year. We are always developing it, not only because of client feedback and stakeholder feedback, but because we need to change, we need to evolve, as we are a mirror of the industry," he explains. "When you look at the new awards structure, this is something we’ve been working on over the last three years."

It has been a baptism of fire for Papa, who saw his first festival overshadowed by Publicis’ decision to pull all trade-show spend in favor of investing in its artificial intelligence platform Marcel, an announcement he argues was "misinterpreted" as a judgement on Cannes Lions. Yet he refuses to be downbeat.

"What I think is that the last year couldn’t have been better. It was the ideal first experience to have. I was given a chance to participate in true change," he says.

While disagreeing with assertions that Cannes Lions has become detached from its creative roots, he acknowledges that there is a "perception" problem and that the festival has not been "making it clear" what it stands for.

"Although creativity is changing, the true recognition of creativity and creative achievement was always at the heart of everything we did," he said.

Beyond the nuts and bolts of dropping 120 subcategories, retiring categories such as the Cyber Lions, and introducing nine overarching "tracks," including Reach, Craft, and Innovation – Papa said the restructure has been instigated to ensure Cannes Lions reflects the "true modern marketing path."

"We knew there was an appetite for us to change the categories and to organize those categories in a way that reflects in a clearer way the evolution of the industry," he admits.

Many will be pleased with the new points system, and the cap limiting campaign entries to six Lions, meaning the days of agencies flooding the awards with submissions to crudely influence the overall scoring are over. The decision to separate out charity and NGO campaigns from brand-led work is also likely to be popular, and may see the end of stirring but commercially questionable winners like Fearless Girl and Dumb Ways to Die."

The latter change, however, will take two years to implement, says Papa, not least as the rise of purpose marketing has blurred the boundaries around cause-related marketing.

"There are many campaigns than can be clearly set apart, brand-led and charity work, but there are others not," he explains. "This will be a better distinction for the future, but given we have the grey areas about what exactly is charity work, this process will take time."

With delegates only on-site for five working days—Monday June 18 to Friday June 22—Papa hopes for a more "streamlined" festival, without the "fear of missing out" that some experience when only attending Cannes Lions for a few days.

"The great majority of our attendees come during the working week. So we are organizing it in a more effective way, focusing the event. It makes the experience more compelling," he says.

The new set-up has been discussed with "friends" of the festival, including brand marketers, agency executives, and technology providers. Publicis quickly voiced its support, and promised to return in 2019, while Omnicom chief executive John Wren said it was a "smart" moment for Cannes Lions to "hit the reset button."

Papa is also confident that WPP agencies will be entering to win Cannes Lions next year, despite its decision pull out of Ascential's Eurobest awards in London this November.

"WPP is a key partner, and I’m confident that the new structure will deliver the needs that the industry was asking for," he says. "WPP is part of this and, yes, I do expect that all of the industry will engage with us."

To support his theory that such crises are cyclical, Papa has been exploring the Campaign archives. He claims to have found numerous articles pronouncing the "death" of Cannes Lions, which he has circulated internally to impress upon the festival’s employees that the situation is not as dire as they may have feared.

"I shared articles from the Campaign archive with the organization. There have been so many examples [of critical articles about Cannes Lions] in the last 30 years – always the same headlines in 1977, in 1979, in 1992, in 1994, in 2000, in 2001. We are watching history repeat, and there is whole new generation that has never seen this. We are a young organization, and they have not seen the kind of headlines we have seen. But if you go to, you will find them," he says. "What organization in the world is not always obliged in today’s challenging environment to change all of the time? It is our obligation. If the pressure was there [from the industry], and it put us on track, then great.

"I believe strongly that we matter; we would not prompt so much industry debate if we did not matter," Papa says. "The industry has changed, so we now have to change as well."

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