Cannes vs Tech Start-Ups. Did someone say bubble?

Credit: Bill Erikson

It’s about that time when people in advertising get really excited about the South of France. Yes, it’s Cannes. I’m en route, as they say, we are doing a few cool things to promote our people power seminar – more below. But if I’m honest I’ll be thinking more about a bunch of kids and nerds in Union Square, NYC than the bold and the beautiful.

JWT has just inked a deal with TechStars, a seed-incubator for start-ups. Basically if you have an idea for the next FourSquare you pitch it to them. If they like it they enroll you in a three month boot camp where they might do anything from iron out the kinks to completely re-pivot your idea and team. After the three months they hold a demo day where the teams ask for first round funding. I went to the demo day in New York this year. It was held in Webster Hall, reinforcing the notion that tech start-up founders are – to borrow Bret Easton Ellis’ phrase – the ‘Post Empire’ Rock Stars.

Many of the companies that presented are profoundly relevant to the advertising industry. Onswipe turns normal web sites into ‘app like’ experiences. Others like To Vie For will no doubt throw up interesting client partnership opportunities. While Nestio could change the way people apartment hunt forever – which will just make people more happy. Previous TechStars alumni include ADstruc which is revolutionizing the way outdoor media is bought (full disclosure, I am an ADstruc advisor.)

Roughly around 500 Venture Capitalists went to Demo Day. That’s a huge number and I think most companies secured the investment they needed. That’s a turnaround from a few years ago and has prompted many to claim that there is going to be another tech bubble.

The recent LinkedIn and Pandora IPO’s fan the flames of the bubble debate. I won’t really go into that too much apart from to say that most of the companies that are securing funding are getting around $1-3m. They all have a sound business model beyond ‘on site advertising’. (I always thought it was really odd that many of the people that do website start ups hate the idea advertising but had no way of making money other than carrying it, but anyway). We are not in the realm of Pets.com. The sums and forecasts are much more modest. In fact the only recent start up that has really caused eyebrows to raise is Color which got $41m of funding. Having spent some time on the phone with these guys they seem like they have a plan though.

So, no bubble there. Not yet. This is where it gets weird. I am probably in a minority of one but I honestly think we are right now in an ‘awards bubble’. What are the characteristics of a bubble? Inflated value, people blindly chasing things because they assume the value will continue to rise without thinking about the consequences. That pretty much sums up most agencies and clients approach to advertising awards.

This is not an anti-awards rant. Far from it. The OneShow and D&AD do an excellent job of educating the industry. Of course the awards come first – it’s business – but the contribution is net positive. Cannes has its place too. For a global network there is no better place to show what you are capable of, meet clients, potential hires and see what the rest of the world has to offer. I have seen some amazing work from the JWT global offices that deserves to do well. Cannes is invaluable for that. It’s also great fun. And lest we forget we are in the business to have some fun, otherwise we could all just be bankers, right?

But, I think we may be heading for an awards crash. What is the true value of an award? Last year JWT won a ton of awards for the Heineken Champions league work. The result was the team left to go somewhere else. That’s not just a big agency problem. The writer of Old Spice that just won a Black D&AD pencil and everything else already left Wieden + Kennedy to join Gerry Graf’s agency in New York. We recently won a Gold Effie for Bing. A client we no longer work on. How effective was that? The Crispin / Burger King awards fest clearly worked for Crisping but not Burger King. One of the big winners in the One Show this year was a film called Pink Ponies. It took the piss out of all the awards show films. It’s a funny film no doubt but isn’t that rather like Goldman Sachs betting that the housing market is going to crash while still advising clients to back mortgage securities?

And the above cases are in the big awards, the ones people really want to win. Almost every week a new award show pops up. In 2000 when I was 28 I won something at Cannes for some IBM work. I say ‘something’ because I didn’t go. I didn’t know the work had been entered. I didn’t even know Cannes existed. The first I knew was getting a certificate about six months later. I didn’t even know enough to know that my CD had swindled me out of a cool trip! Can you imagine a 28 year-old creative today not knowing what Cannes is? The publicity surrounding the shows is immense. There is a cottage industry around who will win and what work to look out for. The problem is as more awards shows launch and we all know more about the work there is only a limited supply of good work. Cannes now has an ‘Effie’ too. The same things win time and time again. Everyone around the world sees the same case study films. There are few surprises anymore. This growth is simply unsustainable.

Lets see what happens this week. Don’t get me wrong I’m looking forward to it. We are running a great little free promotion for our People Power seminar on Thursday. If you see a pedicab along the Croisette jump on, our drivers will capture your ride automatically with an iPhone app to give you something to remember the trip by. So I’ll enjoy the shellfish and rose while I can but I’m definitely looking forward to getting back to the more heady mix of pizza and Mountain Dew in the New York start-up scene.

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