The Gilded Gutter Bar Life
Since 1984 the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity has taken place in Cannes that pseudo glamorous city nestled on the French Riviera. The festival is big business. In 2019 the last edition of the festival to be held in person pre-pandemic generated revenues of $94m. Duncan Painter, the CEO of parent company Ascential, was certainly pleased. His compensation package that year totalled £1.7m. Despite the difficult headwinds caused by the pandemic, he felt that the business was in rude enough health in 2021 to purchase a further £1.5m worth of shares to add to his holding of £11m. In a world defined by inequality, it is worth noting that South Sudan, a country long racked by civil war, currently has a GDP only 50 times larger than the world’s premier advertising award show.
And none of this takes into account the ancillary costs of the Cannes Lions Festival — namely the vast sums of money spent by production companies and advertising agencies on entertaining their clients. These below the line costs rack up as quickly as lines on porcelain surfaces. It is estimated that $3.1m worth of cocaine was ingested at the festival in 2017, along with eight kilograms of molly. At the Carlton Terrace you can spend €400 on a large bottle of Rosé to keep the curtains of remorse closed and help you forget the terrible human toll of the global nosebag trade as another powdered chimera disappears up your nostril. A panicky, sweaty, sleepless night at the famed Hotel du Cap can set you back upwards of $4000 a night, but the bespoke memory foam mattresses will at least absorb some of the Delirium Tremens. If you want to condemn yourself to wandering the backstreets of Cannes in the Sisyphean task of finding a taxi then book a villa in the foothills of Los Reyes for €25,000 a week.
I have no issue with the advertising industry wanting to celebrate its achievements. I’m not one of those self-flagellators that hates themselves for working in advertising. I made my pact with it at the crossroads long ago. I feel lucky and privileged to work in the industry. No, the thing that sticks in my gullet like the bone of a €175 gilt-head bream from Maison du Bacon is the sheer wanton excess of the Cannes Lions Festival — a decadence that would make even the Sun King Louis XIV blush.
A quick glance at the ‘about’ pages of most advertising companies will reveal commitments to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, pledges to dismantle the systems of white supremacy that have held back creators from marginalised communities for generations. Well, there’s a lot of diversifying, equitizing, and including that you could do with $94m. Off the top of my head you could create a bursary and finance 94 one million dollar films by directors of colour and change the course of cinema history.
There’s an adage about awards: you pretend not to care about them when you don’t get nominated, but you care about them very deeply when you do. There are no sour grapes from me. Our work has been both desperately un-awarded for long periods and highly garlanded at others. I’ve fallen under the award spell, cock-jousting at the Hotel du Cap cabanas with the great and the good, caning my data roaming to refresh the Cannes Lions website and download the latest nomination PDFs; I’ve spent hours trying to decode the Byzantine metric for how they calculate the Palme D’Or winner; I’ve brushed shoulders with David Zander, the King of Cannes, in the pool at Eden Roc and watched his courtiers bobbing around him nervously. I’m such a dipshit that we once missed out on a Grand Prix because I forgot to enter a category. I’ve strolled down the Croisette holding a Gold Lion and had people stare at it in awe. There is no denying that the Cannes Lions are powerful. They’ve been transformative for our business. And for ad agency creatives they can be life changing — lucrative pay rises, C-Suite job titles, and a lifetime of invitations to judge other award shows. “Has anyone seen Pat?” “Naw. He hasn’t been in the office for 9 years. He’s out judging Creative eCommerce at the Helsinki Festival of Advertising Inspiration.” I once saw David Droga being hounded by delegates outside The Majestic Hotel for autographs. While I’m very grateful for advertising, the only signature I want from it is on a cheque. Alas — in spite of everything, I just can’t get past the moral bankruptcy of the whole Cannes affair. My complicity in it weighs on me.
This underlying unease serves only to heighten the more immediate effect of the Cannes Lions Festival: being there feels like a week long panic attack. It hones in on your insecurities like a crazed therapist hell bent on tormenting you. Paranoia. Regret. Disdain. Fear. Self-loathing. Imposter syndrome. Shame. They all cling to you like a wet pair of Villebrequins. The basic goal is to make it through each day without crying too many times. The disappointments accrue. Another client flakes out at the last minute on the lunch you’ve been painstakingly planning for six months. They forsake you for another company’s helicopter ride to post production island. Know this. Some other shitsucker has always organised something better than you.
By sundown you feel all the emptiness you call home. Now you just want to blot out the sky. You congregate at the Carlton Terrace, Dante’s third circle of hell, and wallow in the putrid slush of Rosé until it’s time to have that chemistry call with your Id. The conversation is a short one. You re-emerge triumphant from the toilets with the devil’s own loquacity. You run headlong into the Soho Farmhouse set. A harridan screams “Oh My God”. The throng presses you into an awkward conversation with someone you fell out with years ago. Or maybe they fell out with you. The night air is hot and cloying. You feel like you might suffocate. You sweat incomprehensibly. Or talk profusely. Someone nearby is mumbling the serenity prayer. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” In that moment the need to leave is overwhelming.
You find yourself in the queue to the Shots party. You are completely alone, having lost everyone you started the evening with. The dance floor beckons you once you get inside. Your mouth is drier than a desert. A stranger hands you a baggie and you dab molly. That acrid white girl taste. There’s a commotion. A surge towards the stage. Armand Van Helden is coming on to DJ. You hear the first tremulous strains of Armand’s dark garage remix of ‘Spin Spin Sugar’ by the Sneaker Pimps. As the squelch of the baseline drops you start to come up, synaptic cleft blooming, neurotransmitters flooding your body with serotonin, a mind rush of euphoria causing every nerve ending to tingle at the threshold of exquisite pain and pleasure. The slightest touch sets off thousands of explosions of love. You’re deep inside the cathedral of Kelli Dayton’s voice, in an Anechoic chamber of joy as she sings directly to your soul. “I'm everyone - I need you.” You see Danny Edwards. “I love you man. I just feel so close to you.” Hours pass by. Then the lights come on.
You’re still cresting, but you can sense the dark clouds of come down reality gathering at the edge of your consciousness. You walk to the Gutter Bar like your life depends on it and order three glasses of ice cold Stoli and neck all of them and then key a bump. That takes the edge off. Woozy drunk takes over. More Stoli. Ice cracking. Bones melting. You see the mother and daughter prostitute family making their rounds. After a week of whoring yourself, you’ve never had more affinity with the oldest profession. You want to speak to them. To connect. To tell them everything all from the beginning. Someone asks you, “Bruv, you got a spare cigarette?” You hand over a Marlboro Light that you didn’t know you had without even looking.
A blush of daylight peaks over the horizon. No no no no no no. It can’t be. Pure horror. It all comes crashing down. Fucked sober by dawn. You start running. Past Hermes. Past Gucci. Past the Palais. Past the Yahoo yacht. Toward the Vieux Port. Down the Alles de la Liberte Charles de Gaulle. You stop to catch your breath by the little bandstand. A stray cat looks at you like the degenerate you are and then slinks away. A nearby Boulangerie is about to open for the day. Staff on the early shift set out tables. ‘Torn’ by Natalie Imbruglia plays on an old radio.
“I'm all out of faith”
Now, finally, it’s too much to bear. You sink to the ground, lacerated by booze and drugs. Despair slides into the Google Doc of your being.
“This is how I feel”
You soul-cry an ocean of shining tears into the gravel.
“I'm cold and I am shamed”
Hallucinatory case study graphics swim before your eyes.
“Lying naked on the floor”
Unlock immersive highly visible media impressions share of voice return on investment business 2 business engagement numbers proprietary data solutions.
“Illusion never changed”
A cascade of broken images. Dead sound.
“Into something real”
You slowly feel yourself disappearing as you close in on absolute zero.
“I'm wide awake and I can see the perfect sky is torn”
June is the cruellest month.