Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Rob Webster: Postcard from Cannes 2024 – The good, the bad and the ugly

By Rob Webster, Chief Strategy officer of Kindred and architect of its Audience Logic Commerce Data Product.

It was a lovely and hectic week for digital marketing and adtech on the south of France. The weather wasn’t the best with clouds and rain dominating Wednesday and Thursday. For the last decade, Cannes has hosted two distinct events: the creative Cannes Lions and the newer, adtech-dominated side event.

I say side event, this year, it certainly felt to me and those I spoke with that adtech had truly come to dominate with most of the best boats, beaches and parties being ad tech based. Further, and this may be my bias, but the digi adtech tribe seemed to dramatically outnumber the creatives.

This is a reminder that this world powers the largest and fastest-growing companies on the planet. Some may downplay Cannes, but I don’t think it has been or could be more important to get people together to discuss how to take this industry forward.

The Good

The people and collaboration. For me, it was an amazing Cannes. With the highlight being talking with some amazing people. It’s a reminder of the power of face-to-face communication, with a truly impressive amount of talent in one place. In our current remote working world, there is less chance to meet folk face to face and this environment creates the space to do deals but also talk about the current state of the industry, what is working and what is not. The atmosphere was the most collaborative I have seen with very little partisan chat. I learnt a huge amount and I know many others did.

Retail Media, CTV and Curation: For me, this triumvirate became the growth story of Cannes. Retail Media had a huge presence with so much excellent content. A key takeout is that Retail Media is no longer in its infancy but is now growing up all be it with a long way to go. CTV is growing and developing at pace and this theme was a perfect bridge between the creative and tech tribes at Cannes with both groups represented at the events and parties.  

Curation, for me, was the revelation of the event. I knew it was big before I arrived however, I now realise I had underestimated its scale. This was a reminder of how integral it is to so many publishers, agencies and tech companies. Indeed, it is central to both Retail Media and CTV.

The Bad

First of all, I think it’s important to recognise that there was a lot of homelessness and inequality to be seen on the backstreets. A reminder of the challenges of the wider world as some of us were lucky enough to drink Rose.

Closer to my focus is – The impasse on privacy and the privacy sandbox: It has become hard to see a path forward that will satisfy both Google, the regulator and the industry. Many big firms at Cannes claimed it didn’t matter if cookies went away, I understand the point because the authenticated web will work just fine.

However, this is simply not the case for the many independent publishers in the open web that don’t have high logged-in volumes. The limbo we are in between cookies working and not (as they don’t in Safari and Firefox) hurts publishers and the independent tech sector hugely.

We need the regulator to either dictate a path forward or step back because this limbo only hurts the independent open web. This space urgently needs a clear paradigm to get behind in order to move forward; otherwise, it will continue to lose market share and shift into irrelevance. On that front, I don’t think anyone knows what the resolution will be but all parties are committed to some form of resolution in 2025. This is not satisfactory but at least an end is in sight.

The Ugly

There is a tendency at Cannes (and in marketing generally) for some to pontificate on fashionable trends more as virtue signalling than because of any real effort or drive the industry forward on the subject.

The top areas of Cannes 2023 were sustainability, attention (leading to better planning, quality media, less fraud), and diversity. These were among the top areas again. Yet if you ask the tribes, it’s well accepted that real-world actions on those three areas have probably stalled and perhaps actually gone backward in the last 12 months. What we are left with is a big discrepancy between what people say at Cannes and what happens in the real world.

There is something grotesque about sitting on a yacht, with a group of people with limited diversity, having rosé and lobster for lunch after a long flight, and preaching about sustainability, diversity, and attention.

Many are not guilty here of course but merely trying to drive change. Yet I think we have to call out the reality that is the last 12 months in these areas has been disappointing in terms of action. I have heard numerous reports that sustainability can actually hurt a sales pitch in 2024 (after a brief period in the sun).

Attention is a vitally important tool for advertising that can help solve problems such as fraud, MFA and drive more revenue to quality publishers. Yet despite some great tools real-world adoption is lacking with only a very small percentage of media campaigns activating with it.

For the industry to grow up it needs to be better at enacting change. That grand claims need to be followed with action and evidence.

Wrap Up

To finish back on a positive. That issues remain shows how important it is for the industry to come together. That when we do so we celebrate our successes, pass on knowledge but also admit where we are still lacking.

This for me is what Cannes is all about and I can’t wait to be a part of it next year.