Wanna buy the Cannes Lions?

With revenues on the rise, it could be time to put the International Festival of Creativity up for sale

With revenues on the rise, it could be time to put the festival up for sale

Is Cannes for sale? And by Cannes we don’t mean the sunny town in the South of France. We mean, of course, the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity—adland’s annual junket and the awards ceremony prized above all others by a great number of agency bosses.

The word from Amanda Benfell, the festival’s head of press and PR, is unequivocal: “Officially we don’t comment on mergers and acquisitions, however there are no current plans to sell Cannes Lions. The focus is to grow the business.”

Fair enough. And yet it has become common currency in the industry that the festival’s proprietors intend to offload. Cannes has been owned since 2004 by the U.K. publisher and conference organizer Top Right Group (the former Emap, which started out as a modest publisher of regional newspapers called East Midlands Allied Press). Top Right is jointly owned by Apax—a private equity and venture capital firm—and the Guardian Media Group. Still with me?

Anyway, back in February 2013, U.K. newspaper The Telegraph reported that Top Right was “said to have been quietly sounding out would-be buyers,” although the paper had no luck obtaining a comment from the company.

Last June, The Guardian reported the festival helped fuel a 9% revenue spike for Top Right’s events division, i2i. “We saw exceptional growth rates in our Lions festivals business,” Tom Hall, chairman of Top Right, told The Guardian, which concluded a sale wouldn’t happen before 2017 with the company intent on driving up revenues still further until then.

And so Cannes sails on, introducing new categories, putting pressure on ad world bosses to attend and coming up with new ways to get them to hand over the corporate credit card when they do. The overpriced drinks still flow at the Martinez hotel and between June 15 and 21 this year everyone will again end up sloshed at the Gutter Bar across the road (its real name is 72 Croisette).

So what’s the backstory? How did Cannes Lions get to be king of the awards jungle? Let’s turn the clock back to 1953.

At that time, commercial TV had not yet arrived in Europe and investment in cinema advertising was minimal. So the cinema advertising contractors formed an industry association, The Screen Advertising World Association, to promote their medium. To this end, they created an annual festival to which they could invite potential clients. And as this was the movie business, they staged the event in the two European cities associated with film festivals, alternating between Cannes and Venice. The Venice link explains the Lions; a winged lion is the symbol of the city’s patron saint, St Mark. Venice was dropped some years later due to transport strikes, a lack of central accommodations and the logistical nightmare of ferrying a bunch of over-excited advertising people around on the canals.

Cut to 1985, when Roger Hatchuel, a former head of advertising at Procter & Gamble France, was hired to run the French cinema advertising contractor Mediavision. Hatchuel’s new boss—Mediavision co-founder Jean Mineur—put him forward as chairman of the association. Hatchuel once told me: “I felt it would be terrible for my personal image, because as far as I was concerned the association was run very unprofessionally by a bunch of old guys. But I respected Monsieur Mineur, so I went along with him.”

The following year, Hatchuel told the association members: “Look, I’m not going to stay involved in this festival if it’s run in an unprofessional way as a non-profit organization. We need investment, marketing and manpower so we can turn it into a real business.”

From 1987, Hatchuel took a financial stake in the Cannes festival and began to develop its activities. “I wanted to turn it into the Olympics of advertising as far as awards were concerned, the Davos in terms of networking and seminars, and the Harvard in terms of opportunities to learn.”

Hatchuel tried to steer the image of the festival away from sun, sea and sex towards more serious matters. In 1991, he established a slogan: “Less beach, more work.” This later became “No beach, all work.”

“The strategy was not 100% successful,” he admitted, with a twinkle in his eye. “But I was able to convince people that the festival had genuine value—that it was not just about having fun in the sun.”

In 2004, when it became clear his son Romain didn’t want to take over running the festival, Hatchuel decided to bow out at the age of 71. And so Emap stepped in, acquiring the business for a reported £52 million.

Emap vastly expanded the seminar and workshop aspects of the festival to more than 130 gatherings—with speakers ranging from Bill Clinton through to, this year, David Hasselhoff—and began welcoming new disciplines, slowly transforming it from a purely advertising event into one that also celebrates excellence in PR, branded content, design and, of course, all things digital.

Want the latest news and winners from the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity? Visit Marketing @ Cannes.

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