CMOs at Cannes: Tackling their evolving role amid AI and growth challenges

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

Cannes wouldn’t be Cannes without CMOs extolling the virtues of marketing to business — all while sprawled on yachts, swigging champagne and saturating social media with a tsunami of self-congratulatory hashtags. After all, it’s a Herculean task to prove your indispensability when your toughest decision is between rosé and chardonnay.

Jokes aside, now’s the ideal time for CMOs to drive this point home yet again.

First off, marketing’s stock is soaring; we’re at that familiar juncture where CEOs see it as a growth engine, not just a budget drain.

Need proof? Consultancy MediaLink predicts a 20% increase in CMOs at Cannes this year compared to last year. That’s a significant vote of confidence from a growing number of CEOs. In fact, with 500 CMOs registered for the festival, it’s clear that more top executives are signing off on these trips, recognizing the critical role marketing plays in driving growth.

“It’s no secret that Cannes is expensive for anyone to attend the week so you definitely feel a responsibility for making the most out of being here when it comes to having valuable conversations that will help drive the business,” said Daniel Bueckman, senior director of global paid media at Mailchimp.

On the flip side, advertising has become crucial for companies of all kinds to stay profitable. This has given CMOs more clout within their organizations — and, in some cases, even more responsibilities — as their expertise becomes key to launching these efforts successfully.

Just ask Bose’s CMO Jim Mollica. While he’s not running a media business on the side, he knows all too well why and what those marketers are going through: As consumer needs shift, companies are adopting more complex strategies, meaning they’re looking for something different in the CMO role.

From his perspective, this transformation is happening on three core levels. First, creatively, as brand building increasingly relies on external content creation over internal control. Second, technologically, given how central ad tech, martech and AI have become to marketing. Finally, there’s the concept of the CMO as a value creator, focusing on driving revenue and other key business outcomes.

“My meetings [here at Cannes] are much more focus on learning and meeting with ad tech vendors, content creators or my close partners including agencies that are helping in those initiatives — i.e. learning from people who have gotten ahead of the game a bit, maybe even made some big mistakes,” Mollica said. “That’s helpful because I feel like we learn a lot more from the mistakes than failures.”

So, this year, those yacht-side meetings are less about mingling and more about making an impact. CMOs at Cannes have a far more defined mission than ever before.

This is good news for anyone selling something at the event: There will be no shortage of CMOs to pitch to and, this time, more might actually be listening. Especially those CMOs who are now finding themselves on the other side of the table — selling ads, and not just buying them.

“A lot of the bigger delegations out in Cannes will be where those marketers representing their retail brands and their retail media counterparts are coming together to really tell a holistic story,” said Donna Sharp, managing director of MediaLink’s marketing consulting practice.

Uber is a case in point: Execs there from the company’s marketing team include global head of creative and brand Danielle Howley and head of audience insights and measurement Dorothy Advincula, alongside execs from its advertising division like head of CPG partnerships Megan Ramm and Paul Wright, the head of advertising international.

Said differently, CMOs are juggling a lot more these days, with many taking on bigger roles in driving business outcomes.

On the bright side, this gives them a chance to prove just how crucial marketing is.

But it also means they’ve got one of the toughest gigs in the company, particularly with all the new tech they need to figure out.

Of all these technologies, AI is definitely the standout.

Cannes is a perfect example of this. CMOs here acknowledge that AI is a boardroom topic in a way the metaverse never was. If anything, the technology is on par with how C-suite execs talked about digital transformation — being led from the very top, unlike previous waves of innovation driven by individual departments and budgets.

“CEOs didn’t care about social media whereas they really do for AI,” said David Jones, CEO of the BrandTech Group. “It’s come at a speed and scale no technology ever has before.”

It’s so impactful that marketers here, who wouldn’t have given AI a second thought last year, are now scrambling to understand what it means for their business. More often than not, it’s about doing things faster, better and cheaper — in other words, belt-tightening with a tech twist.

Whether it’s AI, retail media, privacy or ad tech, CMOs are dealing with more complexity — and volatility — than ever before. The good news? The chatter about their work is surprisingly upbeat these days, as highlighted by a recent Thinkbox study published a few weeks before the event.

There’s a lot to the findings, but the gist of it all is this: All forms of advertising are profitable when considering sustained effects, with profitability varying by media and sector. Notably, TV (surprise, surprise) advertising is the most significant driver of overall profit, and 58% of total profit generation occurs after the first 13 weeks.

“Businesses naturally go through cycles of attitudes towards marketing,” said Matt Hill, director of research and planning at Thinkbox. “That said, we’re probably in a better place than say 10 years ago.”

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