Are Cannes and industry events still good for business?

Richard Stokes, global chief development officer at Maxus

The Cannes cliché is well-documented. Tens of thousands of advertising, media and technology folk head down to the French Riviera to have their work judged and to meet people from across the industry.

There’s no doubt that for some, it’s a frenzy of drinking, networking and general merriment, with new business directors hovering around the Gutter Bar, hoping to charm passing prospects and exchange business cards.

While it’s an appealing scenario, when it comes to doing business, it’s not quite so simple. If you’re going to industry events like Cannes, CES, or dmexco, hoping to party your way to a roster full of new clients, you’re failing to appreciate how these events actually work.

You simply can’t do the hard sell, handing out your business card, left right and centre, and expect people to call you on the journey back. Even if you succeed in making a compelling impression amid the over-enthusiastic networkers and flowing rosé, you still run into the attention scarcity problem. There’s only so much time that clients can spend with people who want their money.

Being realistic, you’re not going to win much new business out of industry events – and certainly not if you go in with converting leads as your sole criteria for success.

What these events excel at is cultivating an environment for relationship-building and knowledge-sharing. At their best, that is what these events are about. It’s not the soirées and the celebrities; it’s the people you meet.

This can be getting to know your existing clients better, cementing relationships and building a strong sense of trust and mutual respect.

And there can be opportunities for new relationships. These almost happen by serendipity, when you get a unique combination of smart, curious and open-minded people in one place. You could gain a valuable contact at a vendor, be introduced to a new technology, discover a new way of thinking, and yes – sometimes – meet someone who will one day become a client.

Industry events are a bubble outside the pressures of the day-to-day, business as usual. They are a rare opportunity to step away from emails, calendars and pitches and make real, genuine contact with people.

Knowledge-sharing on the big industry issues

The conversations you have are equally as important as the people you meet. The last thing you want, watching a panel or meeting a new contact, is to be confronted with a sales pitch.

Industry events are valued because they give us the chance to start discussions around big issues affecting the industry – to glean fresh insights and find new ways forward.

Take the conversation around diversity and equality, which has benefited hugely from being on a platform at every industry event that I can remember. The Female Quotient, led by the irrepressible Shelley Zalis, has done a great job of putting this issue on the agenda. They attend all of the key industry events, bring people together and have triggered some powerful debates.

And then there’s the discussion around transparency and trust. That emerged from an industry conversation at the ANA conference, and has been subsequently led by Procter & Gamble’s Marc Pritchard at several events since. While this subject is uncomfortable for some, it’s the act of talking through the big issues of the day that give vitality and momentum to our industry.

Industry events create space for conversations to open up, giving people the chance to be honest about the issues and candid about the solutions.

And you need these moments as a business. The diversity issue doesn’t just affect us in human terms; it limits the talent pool and hurts us in business terms. Equally trust and transparency can either enhance or harm the client relationship, depending on what stance your business adopts.

Is it worth the price?

Yet the fact remains: attendance at industry events remains expensive and is a big resource strain on any organisation, whether they are a client, agency or a vendor. You can’t invest your resources in attending en masse all of these events. So you’ve got to make choices.

At Maxus, our Cannes team is a mix of “young guns” and “establishment” folks, so we treat it as an opportunity for up and coming talent to gather knowledge and build contacts that will help them succeed in their careers – something that very much benefits our business. In the same way that you might invest in training initiatives, we’ve found that taking younger talent to Cannes can certainly be worth the investment when it comes to building their expertise and getting them to share their fresh perspective on the event within the agency.

Publicis’ decision to pull out of Cannes next year and focus resources into its new AI platform is a clear reflection of these choices. The decision to invest in improving their tech over getting awards and recognition may make sense to them and be the best use of their finite resources. Time will tell what impact this has on both staff morale and how their clients react.

It’s certainly a blow to Cannes and will make the awards pool less representative of the wider industry.

But such a decision does not sound the death knell for Cannes. Industry events are an economy and it ultimately comes down to supply and demand. If the demand is there, the supply will be there. Cannes has become as big as it is because demand has driven it, even if that is now primarily from media and technology players – but that is simply representative of the direction of travel in the wider industry.

Yes, we will probably see a reduction in the size of Cannes, in response to Publicis’ move, and especially if others follow suit. But the demand will not go away altogether, and so long as it remains Cannes will continue to thrive and benefit its attendees, albeit while tweaking the model. Ascential is doing the sensible thing by working in collaboration with big clients and agency groups on what customers want going forward.

We all have to invest sensibly and ensure that we are driving our clients’ businesses forward in everything we do. That means investing in our people and investing in our product, both of which can benefit from the knowledge-sharing and relationship-building that the best industry events offer.