[The following post was originally written three years ago but its recommendations for making the most of the exceptional learning opportunities at the annual Cannes Lions festival remain relevant to the 2015 event.]
The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity held each June is the world’s leading celebration of brand communications and creativity. The official programme of the week-long festival combines a dizzying array of industry and agency showcases, formal seminars, lectures, workshops, teaching academies, and award shows. Arguably even more happens unofficially, with agency and holding companies gathering their global talent and leadership, often with clients, in meetings and parties, and with informal business meetings and social gatherings occurring around the clock.
For each of the last six years, the Berlin School of Creative Leadership has partnered with Cannes Lions to offer the premiere educational programme among the many held at the festival. The Cannes Creative Leaders Programme (CCLP) begins with six intensive days of leadership training in Berlin followed by six days of the festival curation and closed-door sessions with industry leaders in Cannes. While individual faculty, industry speakers and sessions provide many specific insights to programme participants, CCLP also emphasizes how more generally to learn from the festival itself – from Cannes as a model classroom for creative excellence. The result is a fresh approach to sustaining creative and intellectual stimulation both within individual businesses and at other idea and creativity festivals.
Here are a handful of the touchstones we urge participants to adopt in making the most from the festival:
Why should I care about what’s said or shown on the stage at Cannes when we are pursuing creative excellence? It’s a large question but an essential one: beyond the hype and personality cults and justifiable admiration for strong imaginative work, what is relevant to my own creative leadership and why? Is a brand, client or consumer problem being defined and an original solution being plotted, one or both of which may be relevant to my own situation (either now or in the foreseeable future)? Direct relevance and applicability are not the only tests of value, of course, but particularly in sessions featuring high-profile individuals or agencies, we do well by asking what concretely are the ideas or insights being shared and how are they relevant to our own work. Too often, on big stages in Cannes and elsewhere (from other live events like MIPTV for television professionals to online offerings like TED), we partake in what I call “popcorn creative thinking” – easy and even enjoyable to consume in the moment but failing to provide any real nourishment or impact. The more we question relevance and value, the more sharply we gather knowledge and insights from others that can help to make us better leaders.
Part of what animates Cannes is a core tenet of creative leadership and all creative work: inspiration. We’re inspired by the examples of new standards of work that move the industry forward and even improve society, the innovative solutions to business and human problems, and the perspectives of leading voices and thinkers. Inspiration doesn’t always readily pass the relevance test, but it is vital to advancing creative excellence. The challenge is to know how to take the inspiration of a Cannes session or speaker (or, again, those at any number of other events) back home to enrich our own work. Sometimes the answer is as simple as reflecting on what kind of inspiration we’re experiencing. In its 2012 CEO survey, IBM looked closely at what constituted inspirational leadership and revealed five major characteristics: creating a compelling vision, driving stretch goals, hewing to shared principles, exercising enthusiasm, and guiding with expertise. By asking that additional question – how specifically are we being inspired? – we increase the likelihood of taking away practical knowledge of how to sustain the inspiration of the moment and use it to lead others.
Part of the attraction, even magic, of Cannes Lions is that it happens only once a year. Thousands gather from around the world and produce a singular, energetic mass of industry voices, experience and successful work. The festival consequently becomes what anthropologists call a “tournament of values,” a site where the priorities of a community, here of global creative communication professionals, determines its leading values, standards and priorities. Tracking closely which values – or ideas, debates, challenges, and kinds of work – are highlighted and celebrated helps further our understanding of the shape and future of the industry. Viewed this way as a hothouse of industry ideas, however, Cannes Lions also becomes a model for us as individual leaders to stimulate thinking and engage diverse ideas more consistently. Put in more practical terms, how do we as creative leaders construct similar opportunities for our teams or businesses to learn from and be inspired by multiple voices and engage in industry-defining debates and conversations? Many organizations, large and small, from BBDO’s Digital Lab to Pixar University, have institutionalized such continuing engagement with diverse and innovative ideas. The question remains for us, how are we doing so in ours?
Common to testing relevance, sustaining inspiration, and continuing engagement with diverse ideas is the challenge of actively taking home the experiences and insights of Cannes and making them a part of our own creative leadership practice. Again, not all lessons or experiences of Cannes Lions or other events can or should be immediately applicable (some of what happens in Cannes should indeed stay in Cannes…). But too often, the big names, the trend-setting work, and the fresh ideas – and a kind of romance with creativity they often come to represent – can turn us into passive viewers and admirers. As an educator of professionals and executives, this tendency casts light on a special imperative for me in any setting in which I work: what will you do with what you’ve learned? For creatives, the added burden of what I call “creativity voyeurism” can dull our capacity to embrace and transfer the rich diversity of ideas we experience. Put simply, often the greatest challenge of participating in Cannes Lions or any idea festival is to act concretely and locally after the event is over.
Making the Story Your Own
We have the good fortune to be living in (and hopefully contributing to) a golden age of creativity and innovation in business. From reading Fast Company, Inc. and Entrepreneur to following our favorite TED-talks and video blogs to attending Cannes Lions and SXSW, we are awash in tales of creative leadership, bleeding-edge practices, and innovative possibility. Yet the voyeurism I’ve mentioned, while allowing us to be cocktail-party conversant in what our creative heroes are doing, can easily leave us doing little if any comparable work ourselves. One of the exercises we do in CCLP is to respond to sessions, speakers or experiences at Cannes Lions by creating our own individual stories about them. They may be stories we would tell our bosses, our clients, our friends or loved ones and they may speak to the opportunity, awe or even irrelevance of the ideas or experiences. But what’s crucial is that the stories of creativity become ours. In the crucible of storymaking, we at least begin to transfer the creative leadership, learning and experience of others to ourselves. In that way, we take a critical step toward making real for us the extraordinary ideas, insights, excitement, and possibilities of Cannes.