‘There was a gravitational pull’: The definitive oral history of the Cannes ad tech marina

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Forget the Lumascape. For the last decade, the ad tech marina in Cannes has become a microcosm of the independent ad tech industry. A saunter along the marina gives a decent snapshot of which vendors are flourishing and which aren’t. Splashing out on a 150-foot yacht for approximately €150,000 ($168,000) in order to treat senior ad tech, agency and media owner execs to breakfast meetings, boozy lunches, lavish dinners and evening parties, may seem extravagant. But to many, the outcome more than justifies the cost. Here’s the story of how the marina became what it is, from the people who were there.

Origin story
In the mid-2000s, a smattering of yachts flying creative agency colors was visible in the marina. But from 2012 onwards, the area became a magnet for independent ad tech vendors flush from IPOs or courting acquisitions, all vying to differentiate themselves and win kudos for the best parties. Towering above them all was the Daily Mail’s yacht, the marina centerpiece during 2015 and 2016. Here, celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Kylie Minogue, and Gary Barlow were frequent guests. The Mail’s late-night parties were a key attraction for Cannes delegates, with the neighboring ad tech flotilla content to scoop up any spillover.

Jay Stevens, president of Hudson MX and former gm, international at Rubicon Project: It was 2012 when we first recognized Cannes’ importance and that we needed to be there.
The major DSPs were all going strong. The following year we took a villa. It was quite successful but way out of town. The same year I walked through the marina and thought, “Wait.” We need meeting and events spaces, a place for staff to sleep and here were all these boats. I started researching what I affectionately refer to as yacht porn, and we grabbed a boat for 2014. That kick-started it, there was a gravitational pull.

Oliver Whitten, COO, Adform: My earliest memory of the ad tech marina was of Vibrant Media which had a big yacht there and used to host the cigar and whiskey parties. Around 2010 there weren’t that many boats, it was a random mix of creative agencies and a few tech companies. It was much quieter.

Melanie Scott, CEO of Hyphen Social and former MailOnline CRO: The Mail was one of the first publishers in the marina. That was the time when Cannes became not just about ad tech but digital advertising. We focused a lot on our ad tech partners and ensured we saw them, as that was becoming a big part of the Mail Online business. You were competing with a lot of events so having a nice dinner wasn’t a guarantee you would get the top CEOs. You had to do something special. But Cannes is split into specific time zones: you have breakfast, lunch, twilight period, or late-night blocks. So you targeted people within those blocks.

Ciaran O’Kane, CEO of WireCorp: Cannes is where ad tech goes to shop itself out to potential buyers. A lot of the M&A conversations start there because it’s where the connections are made. When I first went I couldn’t believe how ridiculous it all was, I sensed the opulence with all the yachts. But then I started having chats with some really senior execs. You’re rubbing shoulders with the power brokers across TV, out-of-home, digital — everyone is there.

Glory years
Typically, events have their peaks and troughs. Most marina frequenters refer to 2015 and 2016 as the marina’s peak years. That was when the ad tech market was flush from the rise in programmatic advertising demand, a vibrant M&A market and sky-high IPOs. That optimism was mirrored in the ad tech flotilla.

Whitten: Between 2013 and 2016 it began to get pretty crazy. It became the luma yacht scape. It got all a bit egregious. But that early stage of the ad tech marina was exciting and innovative. You had rapidly growing tech companies doing innovative things. It was a microcosm for the ad tech industry.

Stevens: They were glory years. Sounds crazy to say but it [renting a yacht] is good value. You’ve got six meetings rooms so can run concurrent meetings. You have space for entertaining, doing panels. You have overnight accommodation for 8-10 staff. You have the ability to take the boat out. Once you do the math it is broadly the same as what we spent on Dmexco.

Scott: The late-night [Mail] parties were born because there was a gap at that time when nothing else was happening. So you had a captive audience from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. That’s when the Glitter Bar was born, which was like the upmarket version of the Gutter Bar.

Not just a jolly
Cannes has long been described as the top-of-the-funnel, tentpole event in the marketing calendar. Global CEOs can meet and talk while knocking back several bottles of chilled rosé, gazing at a glistening Mediterranean sea. But while more deals are closed in Dmexco in September, critical seeds are sown in Cannes.

Stevens: I’ve closed some of my biggest global deals at Cannes. Certainly the rosé helps lubricate the discussions. It’s a relaxed atmosphere and the only time global media owners are in one place. It’s undoubtedly expensive, but you have to run it like a military operation. There is nothing comparable to Cannes in terms of its joie de vivre. People have a good time but also do business.

Scott: There is an element of showmanship but convenience and accessibility were also big reasons for being in the marina. It was practical and meant we could offer people a chance to get out of Cannes. You have a captive audience for seven hours or so on a boat.

Post-peak years
Gradually, the harbor has evolved to reflect the changes in the market, with more management consultancies taking boats and vendors increasingly sharing boats to split the exorbitant costs. That too comes with its own challenges, as sharing meetings space between four non-competitive companies isn’t easy. But companies are looking to cut down on frills.

Stevens: My favorite day was Thursday. We would sail to Saint-Tropez with 25 clients, push out around 9.30 a.m. and have lunch at Le Club 55 and sail back. It’s not cheap as the gas is expensive and you’re taking the boat away for a whole day. It’s cheaper to helicopter everyone there for lunch now than to sail. There is a lot more pressure now to demonstrate the ROI and rationale.

Whitten: The marina was a microcosm. But it wasn’t integrated into the rest of the festival. The shame of it was that a lot of people didn’t stray from the marina: That was the silo bubble. Cannes Lions tried to change that at one point, by offering space for tech vendors in the Palais and insisting everyone in the marina bought passes. The silos are now breaking down more.


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