For one week every year, the South of France becomes the center of the advertising universe. Now in its 58th year, the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity has slowly but surely transformed itself from an advertising awards show into an event that brings together the world’s leading minds on advertising, film, music, and technology to debate the future of advertising.

To the uninitiated, Cannes Lions is a seven-day festival that recognizes and showcases the most creative advertising from around the world in every medium: film, digital, radio, print, outdoor, design, promotions, and integrated campaigns. The entire week is packed with screenings of all of the work, more than 50 seminars, 20-plus workshops, and, of course, the award ceremonies. This year it attracted more than 9,000 registered attendees and garnered almost 29,000 competition entries.

Here are a few of my takeaways and highlights from the Cannes Lions Festival 2011:

  • Digital media is ubiquitous but still evolving. This being my first trip to Cannes Lion, I was admittedly caught off guard as I walked down the Croisette, the boardwalk and primary corridor between the Palais de Festival and hotels. I was flanked by tents and venues sponsored by Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Microsoft, without an agency in site. Could this be a changing of the guard, I thought? When Eric Schmidt was named media person of the year, I thought my suspicions were confirmed. But Eric separated the digital hype from reality by commenting that as technology evolves every year, it has a revolutionary effect over time, not in a single instant. Moreover, judges of the Cyber Lions (i.e., websites, viral videos, digitally-led campaigns) were very skeptical of work that was digital for digital's sake. This is an ironic twist from decades of agencies and clients battling over work that was just being creative for creative's sake.
  • Creativity is for marketers too, not just agencies. This year marked a continued trend in client-side attendance, as 450 companies attended, up from 400 in 2010. It’s not just global behemoths like Nike and L’Oreal, it’s their global rivals too — China’s sportswear company Anta and Brazil’s leading cosmetics company Natura were both in attendance. Procter & Gamble (P&G) is credited for starting the trend, when it began sending large delegations to the festival in 2003. But it’s not just for senior executives. Marketers like Kraft Foods and Coca-Cola told me that they brought many midlevel marketers. In coming years, the average age of delegates will likely get younger thanks to a new week-long Cannes Creative Academy for Young Marketers started this year by Jim Stengel, former CMO of P&G. For its inaugural year, the academy recruited 31 brand managers from 12 countries under the age of 30.

  • Creativity and ROI are together at last. The Cannes Lions Festival is constantly evolving and expanding, as it adds more awards in new categories practically every year. This year, it added Creative Effectiveness awards, which recognize both creative excellence and effectiveness — through consumer behavior, brand equity, sales, and profit. The judging panel started with a pool of world-class creative work, by only accepting entries that were either shortlisted or winners in 2010. The Grand Prix went to PepsiCo’s Walkers Crisps (UK), but all of the award winners and shortlist entries are worth reviewing, including: Snickers (US), Old Spice (US), Gillette Mach3 (India), McDonalds (UK), and TV New Zealand (NZ).

Check out some of my own personal favorites from this year's Lions: