What a difference a year makes. In the 12 months between Cannes Lions 2017 and Cannes Lions 2018, it seems like the advertising world has finally woken up to the fact that, for an industry that prides itself on innovation and advancement, its structures are run by and work for those predominantly male and white, and have been for a very long time.
However, in the face of pressure coming from both outside and within via the wake of the #MeToo movement and the consequences of the Sorrell scandal, it appears that the creative industries have finally started to address the problems with gender and racial equality. Debates and panel talks have made up a large portion of this edition of Cannes Lions, and the general vibe here is that the industry is coming to terms with its issues and is starting to put its house in order.
“It’s not about shutting it down, it’s more like ‘Let’s go in. Let’s storm the castle!” proclaimed Bozoma St. John, the former chief branding officer at Uber, who vocalized the more upfront, no-BS activism that has been shaking up the ad world. “Women are still usually receiving offers rather than asking for what our work is worth, and when you look at black women, it’s even worse. When I look at a role, I always research what a white guy is earning in the same job and ask to get what they’re getting.
Thanks to voices like St. John, more and more brands are responding to this activism by launching initiatives that are tackling these subjects head-on.
Unilever, for example, used this year’s festival to double down on their Unstereotype Alliance; a coming together of powerful consumer brands who, in their own words, “seek to eradicate harmful gender-based stereotypes.” In two far-reaching moves the company is partnering with Cartoon Network to create content that promotes less traditional views of gender and is also using its little-known entertainment arm U-entertainment to launch a perception-challenging pop group. Formed in close collaboration with pop mogul Simon Fuller, Now United will bring together 14 young artists from around the world to help champion messages of equality and tolerance.
The thing is, this new sense of brand purpose is not only shaping perceptions, it also makes sound business sense. “Our research has revealed that progressive ads are 16 percent more relevant, 21 percent more credible and can drive purchase intent by as much as 18 percent,” explained Aline Santos, Unilever’s global executive VP of marketing and head of diversity and inclusion, in speaking with AList after the launch event. “We’ve shown that progressive ads can create impact.”
Even though initiatives like this are causing advertising to reassess its relationship with color and gender, unfortunately, for many, there is still a feeling that the industry has a long way to go.
“Most men don’t want to be jerks, but we need more of them to be allies to women. We need them to stand up when there is sexism in the workplace,” pointed out Riveter founder Amy Nelson to a panel on Monday that spoke about changing the role of masculinity in the creative sector. “I’d like to get to a point where we can move past the ideas of masculinity and femininity and talk about how we can be good humans.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Danielle Lee, Spotify’s global head of partner solutions when we met her at her company’s beach-side activation. “The best thing that men can do is stand up for equality,” she told us. “If they don’t see different races and genders represented on panels or at events they are attending, then they should refuse to do them.”
As Cannes’ focus on activism and diversity shows, change is coming and marketers ignore it at their peril. As sociologist and author Michael Kimmey told the hall on Monday, “[…] equality is not a zero-sum game, and we have enough data to show that companies who practice gender equality are more productive and have better returns on their investments. There is a very strong business case for a diverse workforce.”
What’s even clearer though, is that there will be no going back this time. Speaking to people from all cultures and backgrounds at the festival, there seems to be a collective willingness to make sure that advertising finally opens its doors. Certainly, there will be stumbles and it will be vital to track the progress in the years to come, but its inclusion in this year’s Cannes Lions sends a powerful message and shows the creative industries doing what they do best—breaking down barriers and changing the world.