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Ad Festival: The Rise of the Creatives

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More from the Cannes Advertising Festival:

Advertising people love to boil a concept down to its essence, the memorable catch phrase that captures the heart and soul of a product. Think "Got Milk".

The prevailing theme of this year's festival is: "Got a Future?"

Everyone here is talking about how the ad world needs to recreate advertising in a way that will embrace new technologies and engage the new breed of consumers who are more and more likely to be found getting their content on the web, on their cellphones, watching video games, or listening to their iPods.

It's the subject of panels (like the one today featuring Viacom CEO Tom Freston on how traditional media companies are responding to the ever-fragmenting audience) and of private conversations throughout Cannes.

A point everyone seems to agree on is the need for advertisers to make their output more compelling. "In the old days, you could run crap, and it was inescapable," said David Lubars, chief creative officer of BBDO, North America. Today's consumers have unprecedented choices, "so you have to convince them why it's worth their precious time to engage with your brand..."

One of the ways the big agencies are responding to the challenge is by elevating and empowering the creative people in their companies so they're not smothered by the money people.

For instance, Bob Jeffrey, CEO of JWT has made Craig Davis, JWT's Chief Creative Officer, his partner in running the agency. It's the first time the ad giant has put its worldwide head of creative on equal footing with the top business guy.

At a cocktail party hosted by WPP (parent company of JWT, Ogilvy & Mather, Young & Rubicam, and many others), the company's chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell, said that he'd only invited the creative heads of his ad agencies. "They're the ones who are gong to figure out how we can compete in the new world of multiple platforms. If you want to know what I worry about, it's that: can we reinvent ourselves?"

While he spoke, Sir Martin was flanked by Neil "The Godfather" French, the former worldwide creative director of WPP who resigned after making disparaging comments about female ad execs, and Robyn Putter, French's replacement.

Despite the controversy -- which centered around French's (he says joking) comment that women ad execs with families were "crap" because they can't commit to their jobs 100% -- the flamboyant ad elder statesman was clearly not persona non gratis among the WPP crowd. One of the WPP faithful was explaining to Michael Patrick King and me that French's comments had been taken out of context by a blogger who'd been in the audience when he made them.

"Oh, those pesky bloggers!" I said.

"Let's rename the Internet 'Busted'," King fired back, "since everyone will be busted on something they've said or done sooner or later."

Discussing his role as worldwide creative director of WPP, Robyn Putter told me that the best ad campaigns "go beyond embracing a big idea and embrace a big ideal." As examples, he pointed to Dove's award-winning ads featuring real women comfortable in their own skin, and the far-more controversial campaigns for BP, which highlight the company's openness to alternative energy sources. Putter was very aware of the charges from some environmental groups that the ads were an attempt to "greenwash" the oil company. "For the campaign to ultimately work," he said, "the company will have to live up to the campaign's ideals."

The more people I talked to, the more clear it became that we really were witnessing the Rise of the Creatives. At one point I found myself surrounded by Putter, the worldwide creative head of WPP, Craig Davis, worldwide creative head of JWT, the creative head of JWT, London, and a few other creative heads from around the world.

As Michael Patrick King put it: "It's like a beehive of creative heads!"