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Cannes Lions, the ad industry’s biggest party, might finally be sobering up

The craziest thing I saw at Cannes was restraint.

The #Unstereotype flag and the Cannes Lions flag at the annual advertising meeting Francois Durand/Getty Images for Unilever

It wasn’t evident right away, because all of the usual symbols of extravagance were easy to spot: Lavish yachts, rowdy beach parties and lots of rosé.

But as the week wore on, it became clear that Cannes Lions, the ad industry’s biggest party of the year along the French Riviera, felt much more subdued than in years past.

Part of that was because there were fewer people. Publicis, one of the world’s largest ad agencies, sent a lot fewer people than prior years. So did other agencies like IPG and Omnicom, another top-five global ad agency. At hotel bars and patios that usually spend the week at full capacity, you could walk up in the middle of the day and get a table without a wait.

A spokesperson for Cannes Lions told Recode that it sold 10 percent fewer passes in 2018 than 2017, but a lot of people who attend don’t formally register for the conference, so it’s possible the overall decline is even greater.

But numbers aside, there was also a general feeling of restraint at Cannes that wasn’t present the past couple years. Unlike the crowds, this feeling was harder to quantify. It felt like there were fewer champagne sparklers and less hoopla for the sake of hoopla — Snap’s giant yellow ferris wheel was exchanged for a more subtle art exhibit this year, for example. Most everyone who had been here before felt that the mood was different.

I repeatedly heard two explanations for the change:

  1. Things in Cannes have just gotten too damn expensive, even for big-time advertising agencies and brands. Whether it’s tens of thousands of dollars to rent a yacht for meetings (many companies join forces to cover the costs), or a €10 cup of coffee at one of the popular hotel lobbies, Cannes isn’t a cheap place to send a bunch of employees. A king-bed room at The Carlton, one of the main hotels on Le Croisette, Cannes’s main drag, was listed for €879 for Friday night, after most conference goers had left. Those kinds of costs add up, especially with numerous employees, which explains why some budgets have been pulled back. One media exec I spoke with referred to it as “financial sobriety.”
  2. With all of the drama that Facebook and YouTube have faced over the past six months with regard to user data and ad targeting snafus, it’s a sobering time to work in the advertising industry. “There’s a chill in the industry around a couple different areas,” said Matt Derella, Twitter’s VP of global revenue. “Whether it’s data and privacy or whether it’s brand safety, I think at the heart of it is trust. [Advertisers] are concerned about trust with the partners they work with, with the consumers they want to reach.” Companies are re-evaluating their policies and partnerships, and no one wanted to come across as obnoxious and over-the-top at the industry’s biggest party. It was a “read the room” kind of moment.

The result of all this is that people told me they were more efficient and productive than usual. Fewer people meant fewer wasted meetings.

Snapchat’s “Sound Stories” art exhibit was more low key than last year’s Snapchat Ferris wheel.

A media exec described it as the difference between visiting a car show and a car dealership. With a car show, it’s all about presentation and shiny toys you probably won’t buy. You go to a dealership with the hope of driving something off the lot.

YouTube’s brand problems aren’t over

Everyone seemed in agreement this week that YouTube’s brand safety issues are still a problem. The video network has run into trouble this year because some of its videos are inappropriate, which makes running ads before those videos a risk for brands who don’t want to be associated with the video’s content. One ad buyer I spoke to said YouTube has been acknowledging those concerns in meetings with advertisers, and working hard to convince them the company is working on solutions. But it’s clear YouTube isn’t out of the woods yet.

Is anyone capitalizing on Facebook and YouTube’s problems?

Just like last year, every advertiser out there is looking for places to put money besides Facebook and Google, which dominate the digital ad industry. No one has established themselves as a clear third option, though one ad buyer I spoke with suggested both Twitter and Oath (Verizon’s holding company for AOL and Yahoo) have been the best at positioning themselves for ad dollars that might become available.

Twitter implied as much during an interview with Recode. “Blindly chasing reach, for example, has led the industry to some difficult situations,” Derella said. “Now reach is still important, but in addition to reach, what is the quality?”

Derella, of course, thinks Twitter offers a lot “quality” — he used the word a lot during the interview. He says Twitter users are “more receptive” than those on other networks because they come to Twitter to see what’s happening in the moment. “Do you want to go with a passive audience? Or do you want to go with one that’s participating in the conversation?” he asked.

He also mentioned the company’s slate of live video shows as an example of “quality” video inventory to advertise against.

Translation: Our users are more interested than Facebook’s, and our videos are safer than YouTube’s.

Of course, it doesn’t take much searching on Twitter to find stuff that isn’t high quality, though the company is doing a lot to keep inappropriate tweets out of sight.

Reddit doesn’t want to be a social network, either

No one wants the “social network” label anymore. Twitter recategorized its app in the App Store a few years ago to be “news” instead of “social networking.” Pinterest hasn’t been shy about rejecting the “social media” label. Now you can add Reddit to that list as well.

The company’s top executives were in Cannes, including CEO Steve Huffman and new COO Jen Wong, who just joined a few months back after a top job at Time Inc. In an interview, Wong described Reddit as “the world’s biggest network of communities,” and says the difference between that and social media is that people can come to Reddit anonymously to talk about things they’d never attach to their online profile. “Your entry point to Reddit is your passions and your interests,” she said. “Your entry point to social is your friends and family. You, in social, are trying to become popular. You want to amass followers.”

Why is everyone shedding the “social network” label? Well any company that’s considered a social network is compared to Facebook, which is usually an unflattering comparison. But surprisingly, Wong does want people to compare Reddit and Facebook in one area: Ad targeting. Wong’s pitch is that Reddit offers the same kind of interest-based targeting that Facebook does, but without the need to collect everyone’s private information to get it.

“Facebook [advertising] is all interest-based. Go into your ad targeting — they are inferring. Imagine inferring all of that information?” Wong said. “I’m not inferring any of it. I have perfect data because you actually told me [what you like].”

We won’t know for a while if that pitch actually works.

Here’s what GDPR looks like on the ground in Europe

GDPR was less prominent in Cannes than I would have expected — I may have been in the wrong panels, because others tell me it was discussed a lot. It was very prominent in my life as an internet user though. I spent all week clicking “accept” to cookie policy pop-ups that I got from every publisher I came across. Here’s what GDPR looks like in practice.

Create a better Instagram story

Instagram offered “Story School” a few times per day this week to show conference attendees how to use all of the app’s creative features for Stories. I took the class, which includes a presentation often used for advertisers and CMOs who want to better understand the app, and walked away with a few tips. Video performs much better than photos, for example, and you should be sure your video has sound — 60 percent of users watch Stories with sound on, said Kay Hsu, global director of Instagram’s creative shop. Multiple shorter clips also tend to work better than fewer longer ones as people often tap past clips that drag on too long.

Surprisingly, though, there’s no real data behind what makes a story great. At least not any data Instagram will share. How long should Stories be? How many posts per week is too many? Instagram wouldn’t say.

“It’s a super new format,” Hsu said. “TV has been around for fifty years. They’ve had enough time to kind of figure out what’s the best, what’s the standard, what’s the behavior. [Stories] is very different.”

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.