Cannes Lions Launches With Focus on Sports, Streaming, AI

Buzz this year includes ‘Lions King’ Michael Kassan upending the ad business with new company to challenge MediaLink

A purple neon-lit party aboard a yacht with a number of people mingling on its deck.
A fashion fundraiser and disco on the VX Yacht at the 2023 Cannes Lions. (Photo by Richard Bord/Getty Images for Vayner)

CANNES – Launching on Monday, the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity will be an advertising mecca drawing everyone from Elon Musk to Queen Latifah and John Legend, redirecting the focal point of the creative economy from legacy properties to streaming platforms powered by AI.

At a press conference Sunday, Lions organizers said 12,000 delegates from 90 countries were registered for the event. The creative economy is worth $250 billion currently, they stated, expected to rise to $480 billion by 2027. 

All that commerce may be well and good, but the drama will be among the power players stalking the Croisette. That includes ‘The Lions King’ Michael Kassan and UTA-owned MediaLink, the company he founded, which is a strategic advisor to media and marketing outlets and helped catapult the Lions to a global advertising powerhouse.

Kassan is now in a legal dispute with UTA CEO Jeremy Zimmer over breach of contract or alleged theft, depending on which lawsuit you read. But it’s indisputable that Kassan put the Lions on the map by boosting the star wattage and high-profile networking ops.

First — the star power. Where else can you find SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, author Deepak Chopra and actor/rapper Queen Latifah gathered in one room? Or actors like Jessica Alba and Andie MacDowell rubbing shoulders with musicians like John Legend and Janelle Monáe, with sports stars including the Tennessee Titans’ DeAndre Hopkins and rapper/college basketball star Flau’jae Johnson debating sports and mental health? You’ll find the Saudi and South African tourism reps, plus even the odd filmmaker.

Awards categories reflect this diversity, spanning gaming, music, sports, craft, media, public relations, social media and influencers. Business executives in attendance include UTA Sports co-head and COO Andrew Thau, Main Street Advisors founder and CEO Paul Wachter (also of UTA) and entertainment marketer Jonelle Brown, Paramount’s director of global franchise planning and studio marketing. 

Alongside official panels hosted by the Lions organizers, beaches set up by companies like Spotify, META, Brand Innovators and MediaLink address key branding and advertising topics in intense programming schedules.

On Wednesday, Musk is presenting a talk on “Exploring New Frontiers of Innovation” in the Grand Theatre, while over at the MediaLink beach, panels this week include the Black Executive CMO Alliance’s “Future Leaders: Inclusive Intelligence.” Speakers include Johnson and Johnson senior product manager Nadja Briscoe, Brown from Paramount, Nike global art director Warren Cochrane, S.C. Johnson director of North American eCommerce, Alyson Harvey and Jerri DeVard, founder and CEO of the Black Executive CMO Alliance itself. 

Sports is also front and center at MediaLink and elsewhere. MediaLink panels include “The Moment: Women & Sports,” featuring Klutch Sports Group COO Fara Leff, USC Trojans basketball player JuJu Watkins and The Athletic writer Meg Linehan.

“Suits & Stars: The Business Story of Sports” will includes speakers Myles Garrett of the Cleveland Browns, DeAndre Hopkins of the Tennessee Titans and UTA’s Thau.

Behind closed doors, companies like Brand Innovators, run by cofounder and CEO Marc Sternberg, and Kassan’s new venture will put together movers and shakers to keep the big advertising bucks flowing. 

That’s a fast-shifting landscape, with streamers like Amazon’s Prime Video and YouTube dominating business at the recent upfronts. Amazon introduced advertising on Prime Video just six months ago.

Industry insiders say that if Amazon sold all its advertising slots across all its platforms, it could take in $6 billion annually. Traditional TV took in $19 billion at last year’s upfronts in total.

Streaming now accounts for 37% of U.S. television viewing, according to Nielsen. Netflix and Prime Video joined the upfronts for the first time this year, as Netflix has also brought in more users viewing ad-supported programming through its lower-priced tiers.

With entertainment advertising still in a slump overall, there’s plenty to talk about at the Lions. According to media strategy company GroupM’s figures from December 2023, U.S. TV ad revenue, including traditional and connected TV (CTV) (excluding political advertising), will drop 0.6% in 2024 to $64.1 billion.

Other big Lions topics include AI, which dominated the event last year. Diversity also remains in vogue. 

Cannes Lions 2024 introduces its first women’s space Empower Cafe as it seeks to improve diversity and equality overall.

Global disruptor Yolonda Brinkley, founder of the Diversity in Cannes program at the Cannes Film Festival, said, “Since the 2018 launch of the Can Cannes Diversity Collective, the Lions has been on my radar, as many people confused Diversity in Cannes to this newly launched organization, fighting a similar battle at the Cannes Lions. Fortunately for the CC:DC team, the Cannes Lions leadership, unlike the patriarchy at the Cannes Film Festival, was receptive to their efforts to diversify the Cannes Lions, and the global advertising and marketing industries. As a result, I’ve seen tremendous growth in the inclusion efforts at this international festival of creativity and I absolutely want to experience it for myself and plan to be there in 2025.”

Five hundred speakers are taking part in this year’s event.

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