The decision to cancel the Cannes Lions this year came as no surprise. It came after weeks of
“will they won’t they” rumours, amid talk of postponements until October, and probably of
extensive negotiation with the sponsors of the festival. Now, months later, the idea of tens
of thousands of people descending on Cannes seems farcical. The idea of sitting next to
people in overcrowded auditoriums feels dangerous and thoughts of ‘rubbing shoulders’
with anyone would have you reaching for the hand-sanitizer. Cancelling the festival was
So why does the decision irritate me so much? The reason can be found in a single sentence
from the eventual press release:
“We realise that the creative community has other challenges to face, and simply isn’t in a
position to put forward the work that will set the benchmark.”
It’s Cannes telling us that the real reason they cancelled the festival wasn’t on health or
safety grounds, neither was it to halt the spread of a deadly pandemic, it was because the
work wouldn’t be good enough. Hold for a moment the fact that the festival judges 12
months of work, and that 11 of those eligible virus-free months had passed. Forget that
agencies had already spent millions preparing work for judging. Why are Cannes writing off
creativity at a time when we need it most?
The worst presumption about creativity is that it requires a full-moon, a calorie-controlled
diet and a nice shady spot to grow. That there are a particular set of circumstances required
for creativity to work – and nothing could be further from the truth. Creativity uses
whatever is around it, and reorients or reinvents it to its best advantage. Creativity thrives in
constraint – it shines amid challenging budgets and stringent regulation. It sneaks along the
cracks in a problem’s defences and then batters it into submission through strength of will.
Creativity can overturn buildings and overthrow empires.
There is an argument that this is time for science. That data-capturing and predictive
modelling should lead the way during the current crisis. However, to assume that creativity
and science are somehow separate misses the very idea of how science progresses. It
doesn’t just evolve by deductive logic, it leaps. Each leap fuelled by creativity. And every
single year, the Cannes winners are littered with campaigns that tackle every conceivable
illness – rewarding the creativity that saves lives. Next year there will be an entire category
dedicated to Covid campaigns, so why belittle the fight when we are just getting started?
People can be uncomfortable about awards at times like this. Why pat ourselves on the back
when there are frontline defenders risking their lives? Why celebrate advertising creatives
when there are real heroes in our midst? It’s a fair point, but it misses the heart of the
issue. We should be championing creativity right now, not writing off its chances, because
this is the perfect time for creativity to shine.