Stuart Elliott: When Publicis Groupe Boss Said "Non," Madison Avenue Listened

Instead, Sadoun said, the money that Publicis would spend to take part in those industry mainstays will be invested in developing an innovative tech tool, a platform in the vein of Amazon Echo.  He didn't discuss figures, but the myriad expenses involved in participation -- entrance fees, entry fees, travel, lodging, bar tabs, shipping trophies home -- really mount up.

Business Insider last year estimated an agency could spend 1.1 million euros just to enter work in and attend Cannes Lions.  Now, multiply that by all the awards shows and all the agencies owned by Publicis -- which include Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Leo Burnett, Fallon, Publicis Worldwide and Saatchi & Saatchi -- and the costs can easily climb into eight figures.

The Publicis pullout generated "Man Bites Dog"-type headlines, partly because Sadoun dropped his bombshell in person as the festival still was going on, and partly because the Frenchman who is arguably the highest-ranking executive in French advertising was saying "non" to a globally known ad event that has been held in France for six decades.

What would be a comparable "thanks, but no thanks" in the world of media?  Imagine if the chief of a leading Hollywood studio stood up in the audience during ABC's broadcast of the Oscars to declare that he or she was taking a pass on the following year's Academy Awards.

Sadoun's moratorium generated many questions, and some backlash, which he's scrambling to address.  Adweek.com described the industry as "skeptical" of his "stunning move," while the Advertising Age website told readers that Sadoun was trying "to calm alarm over his Cannes ban."

The objections to staying away from trade events and awards shows are fairly obvious.  Among them: creative types will lose chances to be recognized for their achievements, which can lead to promotions or new assignments; marketers will lose opportunities to be honored for outstanding work, which could help the agencies as much as it does the clients; and agencies' staff and brass will lose the benefits that can come from mingling with their peers, which happens less often in a world that increasingly lives virtually and digitally.

Still, there's a lot to be said for Sadoun's stance.  For one thing, it's great publicity for him, coming less than a month after he took over the Publicis Groupe from Maurice Levy, its longtime and larger-than-life leader.  Levy joined Publicis in 1971 and had helmed the holding company since 1987.

For several years there had been spirited debate as to when, or even whether, Levy would step down; his tenure in the top post kept getting extended, most recently in 2014.  Now, Sadoun has signaled he is in charge, entering onto the ad world stage with a bang.

Another advantage of Sadoun's plans is that they position the Publicis Groupe on the side of innovation -- not only technologically but also when it comes to the ad business.  A perception has been building for a while that as honors keep proliferating, the awards tail increasingly is wagging the industry dog.  It's a sentiment not unlike the one expressed in a new ad in the Chevrolet "Find New Roads" campaign: "Some build cars to win awards.  We win awards because of the cars we build."

Even Kevin Swanepoel, CEO of the One Club for Creativity, bestower of the prestigious One Show and ADC awards, acknowledges that the loving cups may be running over.  "A large contingent in our industry has grown cynical of awards show culture, understandably so," he writes.

Swanepoel decries awards shows operated by "for-profit entities whose drive is to grow even larger" and enrich stockholders -- i.e., events like the Cannes Lions -- and lionizes those "run by nonprofit organizations that also produce diversity, education and professional development programs and initiatives."  That includes what's under his purview, of course, but he also tips his cap to the ANDY Awards, from the New York Advertising Club, and the D&AD Awards, from the British nonprofit known as Design and Art Direction.

If Madison Avenue sours on gongs, to use British slang for honors, it's possible the nonprofit babies may be thrown out with the for-profit bath water. It's telling that Sadoun's stop sign is directed at all awards shows, not just the ones that make money for people who aren't intrinsically part of the industry.

Perhaps that's a way forward: consolidate the bewildering plethora of ad awards and have those deemed worth keeping administered by highly regarded nonprofits and/or trade organizations such as the One Club, the Ad Club, the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers.

There's just one drawback.  I don't believe any of them would be able to justify presenting awards in the South of France in June.

Editor's note:  Look for the next Stuart Elliott Report on Wednesday, Aug. 9.

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Stuart Elliott

Stuart Elliott reports on the media exclusively at MediaVillage.com. He has spent more than three decades covering advertising, marketing and media. He is best known as the advertising columnist of The New York Times, a post he held from May 1991 to D... read more