Advertisers Sip Rosé and Ponder Ethics in South of France

CANNES, France — A who’s who of marketing and media convened on yachts and in the gardens of luxurious chateaus here last week as musicians like Jon Bon Jovi and the Killers performed at hotels and sandy beaches temporarily renamed after companies like Google and Spotify. There was a “blockchain yacht” and a “blockchain villa” and more rosé than any group of people could, or perhaps should, want to drink.

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Sapna Maheshwari
, New York Times

CANNES, France — A who’s who of marketing and media convened on yachts and in the gardens of luxurious chateaus here last week as musicians like Jon Bon Jovi and the Killers performed at hotels and sandy beaches temporarily renamed after companies like Google and Spotify. There was a “blockchain yacht” and a “blockchain villa” and more rosé than any group of people could, or perhaps should, want to drink.

The occasion was the annual Cannes Lions advertising festival and the goal, as usual, was to fete the industry’s best marketing while conducting meetings that could ultimately influence how vast sums of ad dollars are spent. But paired with the heady exuberance this year was a growing sense of unease among some marketers about what kind of return they are actually getting once they pour money into big technology platforms — and also what sort of societal problems they may be unwittingly financing in the process.

The mere presence of Tristan Harris, the tech ethicist who has been called “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,” showed some of that concern.

Harris, who joined the festival at the behest of the agency Hearts & Science, and Scott Hagedorn, the agency’s chief executive, appeared on a panel for clients where they discussed smartphone addiction, the feelings of depression and anxiety that social media can produce in teenagers, and the methods that popular apps like Facebook use to harness human attention so they can serve more ads to people.

“We don’t want to be scorching the playing field when we’re extracting attention,” Harris said in an interview. “It would just suck the air out of democracy and there’s no shared truth and then it’s like, great, we can advertise to people, but they’re lonely, depressed and they don’t believe in facts. No one wants that world.”

Hagedorn, who acknowledged that some might look askance at advertisers taking up the cause of ethical persuasion, said he heard Harris on a podcast last year when his agency was manually reviewing tens of thousands of YouTube videos to figure out what kind of content its clients’ ads were appearing with.

“I ended up basically giving myself PTSD because I saw so many horrible things,” Hagedorn said. “We’ve been, as an industry, blindly telling clients that being ‘video neutral’ is fine — you can follow the eyeballs from platform to platform — and I think we’ve been unaware, or not paying attention potentially, to what we’re monetizing and funding.”

While Google and Apple have announced initiatives around well-being, Hearts & Science has been motivated to help research how people are engaging with their phones — it says that the average person checks apps 88 times a day — and the effectiveness of ads placed next to misinformation and racist or explicit content.

In a separate move, Keith Weed, chief marketing officer of Unilever, said that the company would look to avoid working with social media personalities who buy followers. (The New York Times this year detailed the financial incentives of such behavior and showed that the black market for fake accounts can use personal information from real people without their knowledge.)

“Digital advertising as an industry has grown really, really rapidly and the unintended consequences of that sort of rapid growth means there are things happening that no one had anticipated,” Weed said in an interview. He said he expected to work directly with platforms like Instagram on such issues, adding that social media sites are grappling with a decline in trust.

Jon Kaplan, global head of sales at Pinterest, said that he had observed “a growing backlash” against automated, data-driven advertising. In an interview on a pier that the company rented for the week, which welcomed “friends of the Pin,” he recalled the disenchantment of major advertisers at an industry gathering last year.

“Every story was like, we thought this was the panacea, and while it has its place, we may have over-rotated into that kind of data-driven marketing,” he said. “And there’s kind of no soul and no creativity and no real brand love associated with that.”

Still, the power of tech was clear throughout the week. It wasn’t just companies like Google, which hosted a client dinner on Wednesday where Duran Duran performed. Spotify and Hulu transported guests to a château that is typically used for weddings, serving drinks and offering a discussion with stars like actress Samira Wiley. At the same time, the major ad agency holding companies said that they sent fewer people than in years past.

The big tech companies also had an unexpected neighbor on the beach — Big Tobacco. Philip Morris International hosted a concert by the band St. Lucia and served drinks by robot bartenders. As the week closed, the company issued “a bold call to action for the creative, media and communications communities” to support its efforts in advertising tobacco products, which it says are only for current smokers. Wendy Clark, chief executive of DDB Worldwide, said that in the 1990s the beachfront space now ruled by tech had been dominated by ad agencies. She was optimistic, however, about technology forcing advertisers to come up with increasingly creative ways to reach people.

“The best ads don’t feel like ads,” she said. Terms like “advertising” and “marketing” have come to mean less, she said, recounting a meeting she had during the week with a young YouTube influencer. “She would never describe herself as a marketer, but she’s a modern-day marketer,” Clark said.

As marketers and media types considered the industry’s power shifts — including those resulting from the #MeToo movement — there was ample chatter about the attendance of Martin Sorrell, the British tycoon who abruptly resigned in April from WPP, the ad giant he built and which he led for three decades.

Sorrell spoke at two events and discussed his newly-formed marketing services company on the heels of a report in The Wall Street Journal that alleged his departure was preceded by a company investigation into whether he visited a brothel and used WPP money to pay a prostitute. Sorrell denied the allegation at an event last week. (When approached by a Times reporter in a hotel lobby on Thursday, Sorrell said he was busy working.)

Many in attendance were also interested to see what kind of profile Vice would have this year. The company was the subject of a Times investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct in December and more recently faced serious questions about its business in a New York magazine report.

Still, Shane Smith, Vice’s co-founder, appeared to remain popular with the ad industry, judging by the long line to enter the company’s annual party. The event was held on the grounds of a church, where décor included giant ice sculptures that contained dollar bills and what appeared to be dead doves and crows frozen in midair.

As more reports have emerged about misconduct of varying levels at advertising or media companies, it has posed a challenge for brands.

Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer of Procter & Gamble, the world’s biggest advertiser, said in an interview that, generally, such situations are “few and far between,” but that when they do arise, the company has to examine whether they are “isolated incidents or is there a pervasive pattern that you need to do something about.”

Pritchard added that the company has been working to build up its own databases to make its digital ads more precise and pointed to new partnerships it announced last week with Katie Couric and Queen Latifah.

“The bigger thing we’re pushing on,” he said, “is we’re just trying to take more control over things.”

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