Jose Papa’s first Cannes Lions as man­ag­ing di­rec­tor has seen a clam­p­down on yacht par­ties and a fo­cus on busi­ness value. Is it a new era for the fes­ti­val?

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“Cannes Lions owner As­cen­tial is acutely aware of the need to demon­strate busi­ness value to any­one at­tend­ing”

For many of the Bri­tish del­e­gates at Cannes Lions last year, there is one over­rid­ing mem­ory: wak­ing up on Fri­day 24 June to dis­cover that Bri­tain had voted to leave the Euro­pean Union.

Twelve months on, the fall­out from that de­ci­sion is al­ready hav­ing a pro­found ef­fect on many of the busi­nesses that tra­di­tion­ally dom­i­nate the fes­ti­val.

Add to this tur­bu­lent cli­mate a weak­ened UK gov­ern­ment, a com­plete lack of clar­ity on Brexit and a cor­re­spond­ing slump in busi­ness con­fi­dence, and it’s clear that the mood on the Croisette this year could be far from buoy­ant.

For Jose Papa, who moved over from As­cen­tial’s WGSN to be­come Cannes Lions’ man­ag­ing di­rec­tor in Au­gust last year, the event, which starts on Satur­day, will not just be his first at the helm. It could mark a fun­da­men­tal repo­si­tion­ing for the fes­ti­val.

Head­lines have al­ready fo­cused on new rules clamp­ing down not just on glam­orous, rau­cous par­ties on su­pery­achts but on who can ac­cess the har­bour walk­ways, ho­tel ter­races and some bars.

On the one hand, this looks like payto-play pro­tec­tion­ism to re­duce the num­ber of peo­ple who head to Cannes for the net­work­ing and the par­ties but don’t pay for a del­e­gate pass. On the other hand, fes­ti­val owner As­cen­tial is more than ever acutely aware of the need to demon­strate busi­ness value to any­one at­tend­ing – this can no longer be seen as an ex­cess-fu­elled jolly.

ROI is a key mes­sage this year. For ex­am­ple, Papa reck­ons a pres­ence at Cannes helped Snap Inc build its busi­ness to a suc­cess­ful IPO: “Snap be­gan en­gag­ing with us a few years ago and we helped them un­der­stand and ex­ploit the value propo­si­tion of Cannes. They were able to demon­strate and val­i­date their value to the mar­keters in Cannes.”

There’s no doubt that be­ing at the fes­ti­val can be an ob­scenely ex­pen­sive busi­ness. Ho­tel rates are laugh­ably, de­press­ingly ex­ces­sive. The price of del­e­gate badges, though frozen, re­mains in the thou­sands of eu­ros, even for en­try-level at­ten­dance. The cost of eat­ing out in many res­tau­rants could eas­ily feed a fam­ily of four for a week.

Papa says: “The cost of ho­tels is some­thing we’ve been tack­ling for quite some time but we can­not con­trol the busi­ness model of the ho­tels – there’s a limit to how much in­flu­ence we can ex­ert.”

As for the ra­pa­cious growth of the event, with ever-more pre­sen­ta­tions, sideshows and awards, Papa is clear that this is not just man­age­able, it’s nec­es­sary. “We dis­agree that Cannes has be­come too noisy. We need to grow and we need to con­tin­u­ously de­velop our­selves to ul­ti­mately re­spond to the needs that the in­dus­try has – we shouldn’t be ashamed of grow­ing,” he sug­gests. “Yes, we are part of a plc; yes, we are driven by share­holder value and value cre­ation. But it is by grow­ing that we can de­liver ex­pe­ri­ences that are bet­ter for our com­mu­nity.”

There’s no doubt that ditch­ing the party im­age – or at least ton­ing it down – and em­pha­sis­ing the re­turn on del­e­gate in­vest­ment de­liv­ered by the fes­ti­val’s key pil­lars of cel­e­bra­tion, net­work­ing, ed­u­ca­tion and in­spi­ra­tion suit the pre­vail­ing busi­ness mood.

If Papa can prop­erly land the ROI mes­sage and speed up the nascent fo­cus on di­ver­sity, he could se­cure a new legacy for the Lions at a time of fun­da­men­tal change for the in­dus­tries that sup­port it. But if the fes­ti­val is to be seen as a fa­cil­i­ta­tor, sup­porter and nur­turer of our in­dus­try and avoid be­ing seen as a greedy par­a­site, then Papa’s job has only just be­gun.

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