Ailing Ad Industry Has High Hopes at Cannes

The past few years have been difficult for the advertising industry. The struggling economy has taken its toll on profits and added thousands to the ranks of the unemployed.

To add insult to industry, the industry has taken a second beating as it has struggled to reshape itself in the wake of the increasing importance of the Internet, social and mobile media. In fact, the theme of meetings of the regional and councils and the national board of the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As) held across the country over the past few weeks was "How Can We Accelerate Success in a Recovery Market?"

This week, the worldwide industry gathers on the French Riviera for the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival. For more than 50 years, advertising executives, marketers and ad agency creative types have gathered for a week of workshops, seminars and networking the highlight of which is the conferring of Lion statuettes for the best international advertising work. This year, the festival is anticipating 8,000 participants, up 2,000 from last year and generally a more optimistic group as the worldwide economy seems to be improving.

The festival is the preeminent global festival and award competition for the advertising industry. Hundreds of agencies submit more than 24,000 entries, up 7 percent from last year. This year, judging by the workshops and speakers, the focus will be on mobile media, social networks and engagement strategies. Strong contenders for major awards include Pepsi for its Pepsi Refresh project, Gatorade's Replay and the Old Spice campaign.

The festival is a great microcosm of the industry itself. Agency networks jockey for position by submitting hundreds of award entries hoping for bragging rights for winning the most or the most prestigious awards. Top industry executives and creatives work tirelessly to be invited to be on panels or asked to speak or judge the awards. In past years the atmosphere has resembled Mardi Gras in New Orleans with some of the parties and reveling that go into the wee hours of the morning.

Advertisers Will Focus on Increasing Importance of Social Media

The expectation is for two major differences this year. One is the growing confidence about the end of the recession and the beginning of increased spending in advertising and marketing. Secondly, the topics of the speeches and workshops and the attention given to the new media seems to signify that the advertising industry is fully embracing mobile, social networks and engagement as being center to the future growth and stability of the advertising industry.

Chicago-based advertising agency Leo Burnett has drawn attention with its social media idea. David Perez, a creative recruiter for the company, will be engaged in a social experiment. He has launched a Twitter sight called David on Demand. While he is there his followers can Tweet giving him commands to do things and he has promised to do everything in his power to comply. While this may be a stunt it is symbolic of how the industry is attempting to embrace social media. The best social media ideas still require the rigor of a solid marketing strategy but the first step is to understand the mechanics of how to employ them.

Last year, when it seemed as though the world was tipping on its axis with the faltering economy and global terrorism threats capturing front page news; the advertising industry was focusing on sustainability and corporate responsibility. Now, despite the Gulf oil spill crisis and lingering worldwide threats to a stabile global economy, the industry seems to be trying to will itself out of the recession into a new era of prosperity. As I sit writing this and looking on the shelf at my Gold Lion I'm sort of hoping all that collective willing works.

Like the music industry, the ad industry must figure out a way to truly integrate the rise of digital and to harness and organize all of the new ways marketers can reach and engage consumers. Optimists see the opportunities as endless; pessimists view the end of the traditional advertising agency structure. In the 80's, in addition to being a conference, the Cannes Festival was an exercise in excess with lavish parties lasting well into the morning with free-flowing liquor and legendary debauchery. This year's participants would settle for a clearer view of a brighter future.