Cannes Briefing: Sports hold full court at Cannes Lions 2024

Digiday covers the latest from marketing and media at the annual Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. More from the series →

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Sports at Cannes? Old news. They’re like peanut butter and jelly — they just go together. Normally, the festival takes place alongside mega events like the World Cup, where the ad industry’s elite sip rosé and munch on canapés, chatting about it all. But this year? Sports aren’t just a sideshow; they’re taking center stage.

And they’re everywhere.

Former NFL player and media personality Shannon Sharpe was spotted mingling with guests at MediaLink Beach, while England soccer players Mary Earps and Alessio Russo were at Stagwell Group’s Sports Beach.

Speaking of Stagwell’s beach, former NBA player Carmelo Anthony and his business partner Asani Swann turned up there to give attendees a preview of their wine and spirits festival.

Just a few meters away from all of this there was soccer’s governing body Fifa’s own setup on the beach.

“Twenty-two of our 25 biggest clients are sports marketers in some shape or form,” said Beth Sidhu, chief brand and communications officer at Stagwell Global.

The subtext here? You can’t talk about media and marketing without mentioning its connection to culture and sport. And even non-sports marketers are starting to realize just how entwined it all is.

But tapping into this synergy isn’t cheap. Media rights and sponsorship deals are some of the most valuable assets in media and advertising. This reality is pushing marketers, especially those new to the sports scene, to think more creatively about how they make their presence felt — something that’s happening along several main contours, from programmatic advertising to data.

Another major one of those is athlete insights.

Marketers need to look beyond follower counts and understand the full potential athletes bring to their brands. Nowadays, athletes want to be seen as cultural influencers — whether that’s as entrepreneurs, investors, music producers or fashion designers. Whoever the athlete is, there’s likely much more to them than sports that marketers can tap into if they take the time to learn.

“Every athlete we talk to under the sun has an agent that’s helping them build out a strategy to become their own media company,” said Seb Tomich, chief commercial officer of The Athletic. “They can command huge amounts of attention and large audiences on social media. So what’s to stop them, aside from they’ve got to be able to make great things. So it feels just like an inevitable end to see this coming full circle over here.”

This point is especially relevant now in women’s sports, where cultural impact often outstrips commercial value.

“Every brand should be asking, ‘How should women’s sports be part of my strategy?” said Kristyn Cook, CMO of insurance firm State Farm. “It could be talent. Telling incredible stories of these women. Not just what they do on the court but what they do in communities and their fashion — because that’s part of culture too. There are so many ways to bring it to life.”

By telling these multifaceted stories, marketers have a better chance of standing out in a crowded market. After all, one thing marketing isn’t short of, especially in the summer, is ads with big athletes performing generic sports moves interspersed with product placements.

In other words, just like sports teams pour a lot of time and money into scouting the best athletes to be the best they can be, businesses need to do the same if they’re serious about their brands.

The economics of sports deals are changing as a result of all of this.

Sporting ability is still the starting point, of course. There’s a baseline fee with potential bonuses if the athlete achieves certain on-field goals, like winning a championship or being the top scorer. But brands are now starting to pay more for deals based on social content and appearances.

What used to be secondary aspects of a deal, depending on an athlete’s availability, are now more defined and sometimes being sold separately by the athletes and their teams.

What they’re really selling here is the fandom around themselves — the subculture and community that coalesces around their personalities.

“Everything is causing a shift to understand the fan more and I think they’re going to become, quite frankly, incredibly valuable in the next couple years,” Lara Krug, CMO of the Kansas City Chiefs, said during The New Sports Fan panel hosted by Infillion and moderated by Digiday’s editor in chief Jim Cooper.

All of this is happening against the backdrop of sports becoming a deeper, fuller funnel aperture for marketers to go down. For years, the industry has been reticent here, opting to focus more on upper funnel awareness dollars, not necessarily conversion ones. That’s changing — albeit slowly. Especially as sports data becomes more widely available.

“What we’re doing is connecting that [sports league] data with open web data to get a better view of the fan so we can help marketers get the right media mix and help continue to target their campaigns,” said Manny Puentes, general manager of advertising at Genius Sports, who spoke on a panel hosted by Audigent and Butler/Till in Cannes. “The trick there is being able to take that first-party data and activate it, which is what we’re helping clients do at the moment.”

Digiday and Blockboard video series

Digiday wrapped the fourth and final day of its video studio at the Blockboard villa during day four of Cannes Lions 2024 as rains swept in to cool the morning’s humidity and drove us inside to recording the first of the day’s two videos.

Our segments featured NFL CMO Tim Ellis who discusses how Cannes Lions this year was a key place for the league to show up as it looks to expand further globally to markets like Brazil and Spain. Ellis also discusses how the NFL’s focus of the burgeoning flag football movement has become an important way to encourage a more female and diverse participation in sports in general that will lead to a broad span of fandom for the league.

And Laurie Lam, chief brand officer for e.l.f. beauty, joined us fresh off a Bronze Lion win in the Social Influencer, Best Use of Humor category for the beauty brand’s tie up with water category disruptor Liquid Death. Lam highlighted e.l.f Beauty’s interest in linking with like-minded partners like Liquid Death to engage their consumers with surprise and shock-based marketing In fact, she said surprise, social and scarcity are the three hallmarks of their overall collaboration strategy.

Both Ellis and Lam offered their takes on the AI converstions with Ellis saying his is waiting to see how it plays out over time. Similarly, Lam feels AI’s disruption has potential and that brands shouldn’t be “resisters'” and shy away from it. Her philosophy is, well, unambiguous: “It’s either something you get behind, or get left behind.” — Jim Cooper

Tim Ellis, CMO, The NFL

Laurie Lam, chief brand officer, e.l.f. Beauty

Elsewhere from Cannes

  • Instacart is on a mission to make every surface shoppable, and is pitching that to advertisers at this year’s Cannes Lions festival.


“As the week goes on, Cannes is starting to feel like the Jersey shore to me.” — Overheard from a 20-something festival attendee with a brace of brightly colored attendee wristbands adorning her forearm at established Cannes watering hole the Pint House.

“I slept five hours last night sober raving — couldn’t get a drink anywhere from 10 til half past 3.” — Overheard near Spotify Beach.

The danger is that the outputs get more and more convergent so its important to embed an operating system that boost divergent thinking and is in service of the work. AI platforms such as Genie can give us that visibility and that’s an opportunity for us now.” — Overheard from Bill Scott, CEO of Droga5 London and md of Accenture Song at the Whalar House.

What to do

11:15 a.m. to 11:45 am. Nobel Peace Prize laureate and this year’s recipient of the Cannes LionHeart CEO of Rappler Maria Ressa will address fighting for press freedom in the Philippines at Debussy Theatre, The Palais.

4 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Cindy Gallop, founder and CEO of MakeLoveNotPorn, will discuss reinventing ad tech for the modern age at Debussy Theatre, The Palais.


7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. 2024 Lion winners will be announced including the Film Lions, Titanium Lions, Sustainable Development Goals Lions and Glass: The Lion for Change, along with this year’s Special Award winners at Lumiere Theatre, The Palais.

9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Closing party at Carlton Beach, The Carlton.

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