Diary of a Cannes virgin: As a first-timer, I came across a darker side to the event

It's not all work hard, play hard. There is a darker side that needs to be addressed.

Stephanie Matthews headshot.
Stephanie Matthews is senior business director at Creative Equals.

Apparently, that's what the first-timers are called. Cannes Virgins. You can spot us on the Croisette strip a mile off. Hot, dehydrated and frazzled. Even though I was warned about what to expect, nothing can prepare you for it, until you're there. Think Spring Break meets Glasto meets a sales conference. It's a cross-cultural, five-day working bender, where the Brits said let's get trashed, the Americans said let's work and the French said let's do both on a beach in the blazing hot sun, mon cherie.

Tickets to the main event in the Palais are $$$, so I was concerned not having access would limit my experience. Absolutely not. There is a banging fringe track, hosted by all the key creative and media players, and countless sessions located around the strip in the beach clubs, hotels, apartments and yachts. Yes yachts. True story. So in some ways, it's more accessible than you might think.

The intensity comes with trying to do it all. The client meetings, panel events, networking, breakfasts, lunches, dinners and parties for five days on the trot. A walking trot. My Fitbit almost combusted with my daily step count. It reminded me I am equal parts extrovert and introvert and had no way to recharge my phone battery, let alone myself, during that week.

Pre-Cannes, I got obsessed with bagging the best party invitations -- thanks, Jerry Daykin, vice-president head of media at Beam Suntory. It has been said, I would go to the opening of an envelope. Well, Cannes had a Royal Mail sack full of them, and I was star struck. So much A-List musical talent, all in this one city, for one week. I needn't have bothered obsessing though. The heat, fatigue and relentless walking, with a broken toe, meant nothing went as planned. Succumbing to spontaneity is key.

Now, I had a great week and I feel privileged to have attended. However, it's not all work hard, play hard. There is a darker side that needs to be addressed. We need to talk about the duty of care for Black and brown talent at Cannes. Twice, I noticed my Black friend being mistaken for waiting staff. I saw Black and brown people being interrogated more aggressively in the beach front queues by security. I heard of another incident where a Black person was on the end of an attempted glass attack.

This is happening on our watch, at our annual industry event. We can't bring underrepresented talent over to Cannes, and leave it there. We collectively have a duty of care. Remember their experience of Cannes could be remarkably different from yours. Cannes is definitely not the multicultural hub of London. It's the haves and the have yachts. Literally.

The hostility did mean there was community and brown solidarity. There were knowing nods as I walked down the Croisette. There were WhatsApp groups and Slack groups that made me feel welcome, supported and loved. Particularly as an outsider, and a first timer. However, is everyone getting access to this? How can we ensure the support is there for everyone?

Diversity fatigue is alive and well. While there was representation in attendance, it was front and center across the festival content, not in those collecting the awards on stage, and most of the fringe events. There was a feeling at DEI panels, we are preaching to the converted. Those who needed to hear weren't there. Belinda Smith, WFA, suggested adding "metaverse" or "NFTs" to the session title to get them through the door. I think she's onto something there.

My commitment for next year is to bring a junior plus one from an underrepresented group. I urge you to do the same. Build it into your 2023 budget now, so it happens. Where else can you meet senior global leaders, learn from the industry's best, and be inspired to bring change, directly into the business?

Interrogate how Cannes is allocated in your workplace. Do the actual campaign teams attend or just the seniors? Is it a learning and development opportunity or a reward? Whatever line it sits under, ensure it's provided equitably, and intentionally. We have to provide more opportunities to accelerate underrepresented talent. Diversity is the lifeblood of creativity, and at the international festival of creativity, we owe it to our sector, to ensure we represent.

Steph Matthews is an author, activist and senior business director at Creative Equals.

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