Cannes Lions is back in person for the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and since protests over systemic racism rollicked the U.S. and the world after the murder of George Floyd. The festival is acknowledging the new reality we operate in, and has highlighted “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” as one of its six so-called “priority areas” alongside themes such as technology, creativity, and talent management in the ad industry.
The festival isn’t immune from DEI issues of its own: It has faced backlash in recent years for not having enough diversity of background and thought among its speakers and judges, and for the festival organizers’ own lack of progress in representation. The organization had to issue a public apology and DEI commitment statement last year after firing Abraham Abbi Asefaw, the only Dean at the Cannes Lion’s Roger Hatchuel Academy who identified as a person of color.
The industry-wide upheaval in the two years since the festival was last held in person may have caused a permanent shift in the attitude towards DEI at Cannes, say some industry execs. Digiday notes that the festival will feel different this year for a variety of reasons, including a heightened sense of purpose and a focus on “action items” among its attendees, including action items on DEI. Additionally, the World Federation of Advertising plans to reveal a new Global DEI Charter for Change at the festival.
Here are five major DEI storylines we’re watching at Cannes this year.
There has been enough talk
Advertising leaders made a lot of commitments around diversity and inclusion after the racial injustice protests of 2020, but the ad industry remains largely white (meaning marketing executives and employees of color are preparing for a Cannes where most attendees don’t look like them, as AdWeek points out). Numerous panels and events at the festival will home in on strategies to make tangible change within the industry, both in terms of diverse representation and meaningful DEI initiatives. Examples include conversations about moving beyond tokenism, creating cultures of belonging, how to engage with underrepresented audiences, allyship, advocacy, authentic solutions, microaggressions and microactions, and the role of inclusivity in innovation.
Representation of diverse identities and voices may be the biggest hot-button issue talked about at Cannes. The festival will host a panel discussion on issues of representation within its own organization, called Everyone Needs a Seat at the Table, on Friday. Other conversations about representation will focus on the business imperative for hiring female creatives and creatives of color when crafting marketing targeted at those communities, such as Molson Coors’ session on hiring Michelle St. Jacques as the brand’s first female CMO. St. Jacques was the exec responsible for moving the company away from its trademark beer commercials that many found sexist and outdated. Part of promoting representation at agencies is creating an environment where members of underrepresented groups feel supported and empowered, and several sessions will talk specifically about strategies for retaining Black and Hispanic employees, while others will showcase standout female employees and employees of color.
Marketers have a greater DEI obligation to society
The DEI imperative discussed at Cannes isn’t just about improving the ad industry’s internal environment to be more inclusive, it is also about the industry’s responsibility to society as a whole. Numerous talks and events will highlight the central role marketing and advertising plays in shaping societal narratives and will analyze the ad industry’s role in moving media toward equitable progress for all groups. From WPP’s discussion of how “brands are now more powerful than governments,” to the Geena Davis Institute’s analysis of how advertising is portraying gender, race and ethnicity, LGBTQ communities, disabilities, people over the age of 50, and different body types, the external perception of the industry’s DEI work will be a hot topic.
DEI is good for business
DEI has moved from an issue relegated to certain parts of the organization to a major business concern. A number of sessions will re-emphasize how critical DEI efforts are for organizations not just on an ethical level, but an economic one. David Guerrero of BBDO will discuss how creatives need to bring a wide range of different beliefs, mindsets, and experiences to the table in order to produce compelling work, and Amazon and ADCOLOR will highlight the importance of agency DEI initiatives in hiring and retaining the next generation of emerging creative talent. SeeHer will even demonstrate how creative output with a higher GEM (Gender Equality Measure) score is perceived as higher quality.
The industry needs to worry less about “getting it right”
Numerous speakers will discuss how the industry’s lack of knowledge around diversity (and lack of representation of marginalized groups) contributes to a persistent fear of “getting it wrong” when it comes to DEI work, meaning that more often than not, agencies avoid engaging in the work at all. Twitter’s God-is Rivera will host a session entitled, “Is Your Brand Afraid of Being Cancelled? Or Is Your Brand Just Afraid?” while other conversations will center on how to get it right, including a talk about cultural appropriation and how to collaborate rather than imitate, and a discussion of what to do when DEI initiatives feel like they are the elephant in the room.
Other things to note: In the spirit of inclusivity, if you are attending the festival but are not planning on consuming alcohol, Digiday has once again created its guide for how to navigate Cannes sober.
Havas Open House is back
The Havas agency is once again opening the doors to its free internship program, Havas Open House. Intended to provide increased access to knowledge of the ad industry, as well as group mentorship, attendance at Havas agency events, personal development, and volunteer opportunities, Havas Open House was designed to provide an alternative advertising educational experience. Fully virtual, the program is open to anyone in the world and has already graduated participants from 179 different countries.
Agencies might be speaking out on abortion, but their clients are staying quiet
An analysis of agency and brand responses to the leaked Supreme Court draft indicating the potential reversal of Roe v. Wade shows that while many agencies have communicated their support for reproductive rights, their clients are not necessarily doing the same, per Marketing Brew. Some brands are expressing discomfort with engaging in discourse on a political issue, while others fear appearing inauthentic. Marketers are encouraging brands to provide policy support for their employees, such as covered health care travel, as an important first step in reproductive advocacy.
Advertising and technology nonprofits team up to launch accelerator program for women of color
She Runs It, an ad industry nonprofit, has partnered with the technology nonprofit Digitalundivided on the START Program, intended to help women of color entrepreneurs in marketing, technology, and media industries launch their businesses. The program will select a small cohort to provide mentorship, feedback, and resources, with the goal of creating a tight-knit community of graduates who can then continue to support each other as they navigate the startup process.
Frustration continues for ad industry employees of color
Despite the promises made by agency executives in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the subsequent racial justice protests, actual progress on equity in the ad industry has not been sufficient for the people of color working in creative roles, reports Digiday. A Black creative shared their concerns in an anonymous interview, describing how the industry continues to lack investment in developing its employees of color, as well as a sense that many proposed DEI initiatives have “fizzled out.”
We’re also reading:
- If agencies want to celebrate Juneteenth in a meaningful way, they should focus more on diversifying their workforces than on helping clients market Juneteenth-branded products, per AdAge.
- Employees at Warner Bros fear their merger with Discovery will negatively impact DEI initiatives at the organization, as reported by Insider.