Reflections and revelations: Cannes ad execs confront responsibility amid industry chaos

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

Responsibility isn’t usually a strong suit for ad executives at Cannes, but this year, it took center stage. Whether on stage, in lavish hotel suites or lounging on yachts, these execs were unusually introspective about the future. Perhaps it was the sea air and bottomless champagne that turned them all into philosophers.

“No one has an effing clue how to figure out a way out of this mess we’ve created,” said the CEO of an ad tech company, who exchanged anonymity for candor. “And they don’t have a clue because there are billions of dollars at stake if that mess goes away.”

The mess they’re talking about is ad tech, but it could just as easily apply to the wider advertising industry at large.

Made-for-advertising, agency profit models, DEI targets — wherever they look at the moment, the problems boil down to the same thing: misaligned incentives that people would rather complain about than adapt. This persists, either deliberately or accidentally, because advertising is a disorganized industry where good intentions often go astray.

Advertisers promising to clean up a shady, sometimes fraudulent ad tech supply chain? Progress crawls, hindered by everything from inconsistent data standards to ID spoofing. The industry’s grand shift toward data privacy? Led by the very platforms built on data mining. And transparency on media agency fees? Advertisers are left in the dark, knowingly blindfolded.

In short, responsible advertising seems more like lip service than action, leaving the industry stuck in its dysfunctional ways.

DEI conversations at the Cannes Lions festival made this painfully clear.

“Investment in DEI is not happening,” said another ad tech boss.

Of course, it’s happening — but that’s not really the point. What they’re trying to say is that investment in DEI often takes the long, winding road from shining promise to dashed dreams.

And it always will, as long as advertisers hyper-commoditize ad inventory. For years, they’ve told the market they don’t care where ads come from as long as the price is right. The more they did this, the faster the market flooded with cheap, lower-quality ad inventory.

“We’re in a crucial point in our industry to really think about how we’re driving purpose-led investments,” said Amanda Devito, CMO at media agency Butler/Till, which hosted a panel in Cannes with ad tech vendor Audigent. “And yet it seems as if everyone wants to walk that shit back a titch.”

Variations on the same gripe echoed along the Croisette all week: Everyone vows to spend more with diverse publishers because it’s good for society and business, but when push comes to shove, they don’t. The reluctance boils down to costs and the required technology.

Addressing some of those technical issues, TripleLift and Dentsu have launched a tech fund to help publishers grow their programmatic ads businesses. They were talking to ad execs about it at the festival.

As Triplelift’s vp of agency strategy and economic inclusion Thomas Brandon explained: “The primary objective of this fund is about driving more equitable opportunities within the programmatic ecosystem for other platforms and diverse-owned publishers.”

It was a refreshing reminder amid the smog of cynicism that any progress is better than none. Last week offered plenty of those.

One highlight was the launch of the Factual AdTech Collaborative Thinktank, aimed at helping marketers get smarter about online advertising.

Another was the presence of Andy Power, founder of ESG data specialist Legacy Media, at the Little Black Book Beach. Since he started the business three years ago he has done deals with two of the big agency holding groups in GroupM and Omnicom Media Group. It’s hard to imagine that momentum won’t continue, especially with his pitch: ESG data is the difference between active and passive strategies for sustainable advertising.

Speaking of sustainability, there was also the much-vaunted launch of standards for measuring ad carbon emissions.

“We’ve taken ad tech shenanigans from this quiet industry problem to being part of the global climate crisis with the launch of these standards,” said said Brian O’Kelley, CEO of ad carbon emissions measurement firm Scope3, which was part of the working group for the standards. “We can finally connect the dots on solving this thing [waste in advertising].”

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