Cannes Lions returns to the French Riviera
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The mega-yachts of elite media, tech and advertising execs are dropping anchor in the Mediterranean Sea once again, where the industry’s brightest minds will convene in the French seaside town of Cannes to discuss the biggest issues facing the industry over bottles of rosé and champagne.

The booze-infused week-long event, known as the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, is returning this week after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s sure to be raucous and spirited.

“The demand for this [event] is through the roof,” said founder and CEO of MediaLink Michael Kassan, who is also the unofficial mayor, master of ceremonies and grand poohbah of Cannes Lions. “There’s enormous, pent-up demand to be in-person ,and that demand is going to be manifested and satisfied in Cannes.”

Headlining speakers for the five-day festival, which starts Monday, include Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, who will be named the festival’s Entertainment Person of the Year, as well as NBCUniversal boss Jeff Shell. Actor and entrepreneur Ryan Reynolds will be on hand, as will heiress and businesswoman Paris Hilton, Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai and outspoken ad guru Sir Martin Sorrell, among others.

Ryan Reynolds
Ryan Reynolds will be speaking at Cannes Lions.

With the pandemic waning, execs are likely to discuss how their companies weathered the two-year standstill and are dealing with current economic pressures. Netflix’s Sarandos is sure to be in the hot seat when Kara Swisher, who recently decamped the New York Times to return to Vox Media, interviews the CEO Thursday.

Netflix, which has been the darling of media, is suddenly grappling with subscriber losses amid increased competition from the likes of Disney, Amazon and HBO Max parent Warner Bros. Discovery, which completed its $43 billion merger this year.

While the pandemic helped pique consumers’ appetite for streaming services and fresh content, the end of lockdowns has leveled off that demand as consumers are slowly returning to pre-pandemic life.

Cannes
Cannes becomes a hubbub as thousands descend for the annual Cannes Lions conference.

According to Kantar Media, the growth of streaming in US households has stalled in the first quarter of 2022. This comes after “substantial growth” in the fourth quarter of 2021.

The data analytics firm estimated that 86 percent of US households or 110.2 million households used streaming services as of March 2022. The slowing growth has made the competition for signing up new customers stiffer as marketing execs continue to grapple with how to grab the attention of cord-cutters by using data-driven content to lure them as subscribers.

“The streaming services are coming in en force,” said Kassan, who noted that tech companies will also be center stage as the importance of ad revenue for those businesses has continued to mushroom.

Case in point: Amazon is making its Cannes debut, the exec said. The company will join fellow retail giants like Walmart and Instacart in addition to tech giants like Google, Facebook parent Meta, TikTok, Microsoft and Snap.

But noticeably absent is entertainment and events company Live Nation, which has historically had an outsized presence at the festival, throwing some of the buzziest parties at sprawling villas perched in the hills above Cannes.

Cannes
Countless yachts are seen in the marina at Cannes.

Twitter — which is in the midst of a tempestuous takeover from the world’s richest man, Elon Musk — will also be hosting events throughout the week. With Musk signaling he plans to cut costs, some Cannes insiders speculate this could potentially be the last year Twitter joins fellow tech giants on the beach.

Big tech’s presence and topics like “the metaverse, blockchain and crypto will be huge,” said one advertising exec, who added that privacy issues given legislative changes will also be a hot topic.

Last year, Apple introduced an App Tracking Transparency feature that lets users choose whether they wish to be tracked on various websites. The change hit tech companies hard — with Meta acknowledging the feature would cost them an estimated $10 billion in advertising revenue this year.

And last month shares of Snap tumbled 43 percent — and took other digital ad and tech companies down with it — when the social media company said it expected to make less money from selling ads.

Ted Sarandos
Netflix honcho Ted Sarandos will be at Cannes Lions.

It’s not just privacy and poor market conditions plaguing big tech; looming antitrust legislation in Congress could also undermine tech companies’ business practices.

The American Innovation and Choice Online Act, which could be passed this year, would stop platforms from “self-preferencing” their content. For instance, Amazon would no longer be able to promote its own content over third-party sellers on its site — a measure backers say would help smaller companies compete against Jeff Bezos’ e-commerce giant.

Notably absent from Cannes Lions will be Meta’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, who is normally a fixture at the festival. Earlier this month, Sandberg announced she was departing Facebook — and insiders say they don’t expect her to make the trek now that she’s headed for the exit.

The festival demurred to disclose the number of brands — or attendees — making the pilgrimage to the Cote d’Azur, but the brand partners demonstrate the diversity of companies represented.

Sheryl Sandberg
Sheryl Sandberg, seen in 2019 at Cannes, isn’t expected to attend this year.

Gaming companies including Twitch and Activision Blizzard will have a presence this year as will telecom giants Verizon and T-Mobile and smaller tech companies including Pinterest, Reddit, Roku and Spotify.

Cannes Lions Festival organizers are also hoping to address diversity and inclusion topics in the advertising and marketing space in the wake of Black Lives Matter movement. The event’s program will include a talk with Issa Rae, the creator and writer of HBO’s “Insecure” series, who will discuss bias in the workplace and beyond. Other panels will touch on the importance of diversity in creative industries, as well as a session with transgender activist Munroe Bergdorf on the “criticality of positive representation.”

But the festival has come under scrutiny recently after a Brazilian advocacy group called out Cannes Lions over its lack of diversity when it comes to jurors, who dole out prizes to ad and marketing and execs. Lions chief Simon Cook acknowledged the problem, noting that the festival is “doing the work to view everything we do through the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Still, others bemoan the commercialization of a festival that is supposed to celebrate artistry and creativity.

Michael Kassan
Michael Kassan is seen as the unofficial mayor of Cannes.

“It used to be all creatives … now it’s really just an entertainment event for clients. It’s evolved — or devolved — to become CES on the beach,” one Cannes veteran lamented, referring to the crowded, annual tech conference in Las Vegas.

But Kassan defends the evolution of Cannes Lions, “We are there to celebrate creativity but also to engage in the topics relevant to our industry.”

And for some pandemic-weary attendees, CES on the beach doesn’t sound too bad.

“This will be a level setting of Zoom … now people who know how to work a room will be thriving and that’s to my benefit,” one source told The Post.

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