Gideon Spanier
Jun 14, 2023

Cannes Lions 2023 countdown: CEO Simon Cook on what to expect, from awards to AI

Sustainability and inclusion will be under scrutiny at festival

Simon Cook
Simon Cook

Expect a lot of brands to attend this year’s Cannes Lions festival  because they need “evidence” – “more than ever” – to justify their investment in advertising and marketing and “to support backing creativity as a growth driver”.


That’s according to Simon Cook, the chief executive of Cannes Lions, who spoke to Campaign ahead of the most important event in the global advertising calendar, which runs from 19 to 23 June and attracts upwards of 10,000 delegates from around the world.


The festival takes place in the Palais, a conference venue overlooking the harbour, where creative and advertising leaders present and debate during the day and the winners of the Lions awards are announced each evening.


But there is a lot of activity beyond the Palais as major companies take over the private beaches along the Croisette, a mile-long strip that runs to the east of the Palais, while other firms rent hotel space, villas and yachts to woo clients, partners and contacts.


Several agency groups are stepping up their investment by taking beaches for the first time. Omnicom has Omnicom Cove and Stagwell has Sport Beach as they seek to compete with Dentsu and WPP, which already have prime spots.


Microsoft is returning as it takes beach space for the first time since before the pandemic, joining technology rivals such as Google, Meta and Spotify, which will again have beaches. Amazon is running Amazon Port, by the harbour, for a second year but Twitter, now under the ownership of Elon Musk, has given up its beach.


Here is a Q&A transcript of Campaign’s interview with Cook about what to expect this year, the 70th edition of the festival.


What can you tell us about award entry numbers because it’s a good gauge of interest? We know you only reveal numbers on the eve of Cannes Lions but last year, which was the first in-person festival for three years, entries were down versus 2019 (about 25,000 versus 31,000) but revenues were up 8%.

We're seeing investment in creativity across the board but with interesting shifts [in terms of award entries]. We have the new Creative Gaming Lion, which has performed very well, and we are starting to see a growing confidence and investment in the non-traditional categories such as Creative Business Transformation, Creative Effectiveness, Creative Commerce and B2B.


So it’s really interesting to start to see the agencies and the brands – the people who are entering their work – not only support traditional channels [such as film, craft and outdoor] but also the new categories as well.


We are hearing so much about the disruptive impact of artificial intelligence. How easy is it for the Lions  to stay relevant? Some of the language you use is interesting about “traditional” categories. We know AI is emergent but are you already seeing that reflected in any of the entries and how is it affecting how you think about the award categories as they currently exist? Do you think any of those “traditional” categories might fall away over time?

There is certainly going to be a lot of debate about AI across the stages at Cannes this year. But you may remember a few years ago across the stages, they were dominated by talk of big data – that's all we heard about for a couple of years. Now, it's interesting that we don't talk about big data any more and that's because it's almost become invisible – it’s just become a part of the ecosystem.


I think we'll probably see the same with AI. There'll be lots of initial debate about how it might pose a threat to our industry, but it will take us to a place where it becomes more of ‘another paint pot on the creativity palette’ and become an enhancer for creativity, rather than a negative force.


You seem to be saying the awards might not need to change that much because AI will be absorbed into areas like film and craft and entertainment.

We'll have to wait and see. When the winners are announced and we see the body of work that comes through this year, we'll have a better idea. I'm sure that the work will be studied, as it always is by people all over the world, because they want a glimpse of the future.


What you can tell us about delegate attendance and what kinds of delegates can we expect? For example, we know many of the big tech companies have made job cuts in the last six months.

Broadly the shape will remain the same – the creative agencies, the media platforms, tech companies and, increasingly, brands. It's been interesting to see and hear from brands who are eager to attend because, more and more, they are having to make the case for creativity [inside their own businesses].


It's definitely shifted from brands being curious to using Cannes as an opportunity to understand what good looks like and to gather the evidence that they need to support creativity as a growth driver – that has become very important and high on the agenda.


We've heard a lot of talk generally about whether social purpose has become too “dominant” in advertising awards. What are the Cannes Lions jurors telling you this year and is there any sense of a swing away from purpose?

I think we'll see more work that is being celebrated or recognised because of the commercial growth-driving elements that it provides. But I don't think purpose-led work will disappear. What we're noticing is that the juries are being much more thoughtful about the work they recognise. It's important that if there is a social aspect to the work or a purpose-led piece to the work that it ties back to the original brand and strategy and doesn't feel like a clumsy add-on.


With both your jury selection and the attendance at Cannes, what are you doing to improve inclusion? There's a sense that more under-represented groups will be at Cannes this year and you're partnering with some of them?

Yes, that starts in the in the jury room – over the past year or so we've been really looking at our selection process and criteria. It's so important that our juries represent society, rather than reflect our industry, and so the jury make-up this year will be much more diverse and inclusive.


Now in terms of groups coming to Cannes, the theme this year is “In the Making” – and, of course, we're all in the business of being in the making – but we also wanted to acknowledge the fact that we're all a work in progress.


And because it's our 70th edition, we have to invest in the future. So we're looking ahead to the next 70 years and in order to prepare for that, that means providing access to our industry and, and to future talent.


This year, we're providing over 150 individuals from under-represented groups with the opportunity to attend the festival. And this year, we have introduced the Lions scholarship, a fully-funded programme by Lions that aims to provide access to people that would never normally get the chance to attend.


Cannes can be expensive, from an award entry to a hotel room. Why do you say overall that it’s worth it to come to Cannes?

Increasingly, because it's a global meeting-place for creative marketing and for our industry. So there is a real value to the efficiency that comes with attending a place where you can have networking and do business, as well as be inspired and understand what's coming down the tracks. There’s also the value of being able to experience sessions and talks and learnings that can help people build the tools to create the case for creativity that's going to drive growth for their business.


And what about the the cost of the awards which are perceived to have a lot of business value (but can cost over 1,000 euros per entry)?

A lot of people don't realise that with the Glass Lions or the Sustainable Development Goals Lions, 100% of the entry fees that we receive go to causes and charities that support the causes that the awards were invented for. So it's important to us to be able to give back as well.


On the topic of sustainability, practically every company is looking at its carbon footprint and we also saw a number of protests by Greenpeace at the festival last year. What has Cannes been doing to improve its environmental record and how are you trying to engage the activists who may be making significant demands on you and the brands and agencies which attend?

The most important thing for us is to be consistent and to offer up our platform to voices that need to be heard and that goes for for anyone and everyone including some of those [environmental] groups.


We have brought in the help of consultants from Isla to help us become a more sustainable festival. And it's important for us, year on year, that every year we're able to say this is the most sustainable Cannes Lions we've ever held.

And to back that up, we are giving all of our partners guidelines about how they need to show up, and also offsetting all of the flights that we can – so offsetting all of the staff flights and also all of the juror flights as well.


Do Cannes and other similar events need to be smaller to be more sustainable?

For those people that don't want to get on a plane, if that's the preferred mode of travel, then they have the opportunity to tune in digitally, if they would like to do so, that's something that remains today. Obviously, we introduced a digital service during the pandemic. And for that reason, sustainability, we decided to maintain it.


Any particular highlights on the agenda at the Palais?

It's interesting that the founders behind ChatGPT are coming and there'll be lots of talk about AI and the impact it will have on our business long term – so that's about the future.


And if we think about honouring the heritage and it being our 70th edition, on the Friday, the whole day will be dedicated to the work. So all of our delegates will be able to have access to the last 70 years of Grand Prix winners as part of a screening and that will be punctuated by industry legends who will come and give commentary on the trends that they've noticed from way back when and what relevance they have today.


And then in more practical terms, we've got our Creative Impact track which we're delivering in association with Warc, our sister brand, and that's an opportunity for brands, creatives and everyone to come and build the case for creativity and hear from people in the world of effectiveness and strategy about creativity as a force for growth.


Lastly, a lot of people who are attending won’t have come before. Any tips – both to enjoy it and to be safe?

My biggest tip is to not over-fill diaries. Cannes is a great place to meet with others, to meet with peers, to do business and to network. But part of the the joy of being there is the serendipity and the experiences that you might encounter and the people you didn't intend to meet but will – and so create the space for that.


In terms of safety, we encourage all delegates, whether it's your first time or your 20th time, to visit our delegate hub where there's a wealth of information and tips on attending Cannes Lions including safety recommedations and our delegate code of conduct.


And if you do nothing else, do spend time with the work [which is exhibited in the basement of the Palais for the whole week]. The reason that we created this awards and festival in 1954 was a celebration of the work and it’s the one place where you can see it and the breadth of it from around the world.


Editor’s note: Ascential, the parent company of Cannes Lions, and Haymarket, the publisher of Campaign, jointly run Spikes in Asia. This article first appeared on

Campaign India

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