Last week was Cannes week. In boom time, that means that pretty much the entire London creative community with access to an expenses account decamps to the South of France for a few days of eating, drinking and messing about on yachts. In recession, it means that boasting about the size of your vessel has been replaced with boasting about the poverty of your accommodation. Some adlanders even took their tents but plenty didn't go at all.
Attendance, in the end, was down by about 40 per cent as the industry put aside pleasure for prudence. At every turn, money is seeping out of the business, so splashing some of it around on the Côte D'Azur was not for the nervous. In fact, as a result, Cannes was rather more purist than usual. This year it was a place for winners and for those agencies that have approached the economic downturn with ambition.
Oh, and it was also a place for the big network chiefs to play trumps with their contacts books. Really, it got a little out of hand. Publicis Groupe's chief exec Maurice Levy delivered Google boss Eric Schmidt as speaker; DDB snared Barack Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe; Young & Rubicam offered up The Who's Roger Daltrey and the music impresario Harvey Goldsmith. But Euro RSCG won the biggest headlines with Kofi Annan and Bob Geldof. If you were in any doubt, the seminars were at least as important as who won what in the Palais des Festivals this year.
In fact, the 56th Cannes Advertising Festival has thrown the whole value of creative awards into question. With almost half the industry bowing out, it is easier to ask whether such glitzy affairs and the trophies they confer have any real value in a world of unrelenting budgetary pressures and fearsome sales imperatives.
Advertising awards generally fall into two camps: those that concern themselves with an ad's style, imagery, design, innovation and all the other subjective criteria that together make it "creative" (or not), and those that worry with whether the beautifully crafted confection in question actually sold anything, or met any robust business criteria whatsoever.
The first sort of awards, the creative ones, oil the ad industry. Higher salaries, tempting job offers, better assignments will all flow towards those creatives with handsome trophy cabinets. And more advertisers spending more money and seeking better creativity will flow towards those agencies that employ such decorated creatives.
The second sort of awards, the ones about effectiveness, are testament to the power of advertising to oil other industries, building brands which, in turn, build balance sheets and strong economies.
These second sort of awards schemes are, in a recession where every penny spent has to deliver a real return, more important than ever. They help prove to those advertisers considering culling their campaign budgets that, rather than being a cost, advertising is an investment.
But the awards such as Cannes that celebrate creativity pure and simple are also more important than ever in a climate where clients are more risk-averse and more easily tempted to consider price over quality. Advertising is teetering on the brink of becoming a commodity, "bought" by the procurement directors at big companies on the basis of how cheap the ad agency will produce its work for.
But creativity, that wonderful, intangible magic that can produce the sort of advertising that touches us (oh, and which, as a consequence of that, actually sells us stuff), cannot be packaged as a commodity. It cannot be costed alongside paper clips and office furniture; it cannot be purchased simply on the basis of a cheap deal.
And that is why Cannes matters, recession or not. Seeking out and celebrating this sort of transformational creativity has never been more vital.
Best in Show: Volkswagen (DDB London)
*Talking of awards, DDB London has bagged a few this year for its print campaigns (Harvey Nichols and Marmite, in particular).
DDB also does fine work for Volkswagen. VW was named Advertiser of the Year at Cannes last week, so it seems appropriate to choose DDB's latest print work for the German car-maker as this week's Best in Show. The ads are typical DDB: clean layouts, crisp copywriting, elegant art direction. But they have few words, which is the point. VW's eco BlueMotion cars save fuel and cut emissions, So the ads cut words to create a simple, stand-out message.