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The evolution of Cannes Lions

Hand holds phone with a gold lion on the screen sitting on red steps.

Illustration by Nick DeSantis / Getty / Shutterstock / The Current

The Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity once again returned in person this year after COVID-19 kept creatives home for the last two. The desire to attend has also rebounded. We look back at some of the highlights from the nearly 70-year-old festival.


Inspired by the Cannes Film Festival, a group of cinema-screen advertisers conceive of the International Advertising Film Festival. The first festival is held in Venice, Italy, and boasts 187 film entries from 14 countries. The lion sculpture overlooking St. Mark’s Square inspires the lion trophy.


After being held alternately in Monte Carlo, Venice, and Cannes, the festival finally lands in Cannes as its permanent festival site.


French businessman Roger Hatchuel takes control of the event, with the goal of bringing it into the modern era. During the 1990s, the festival adds seminars and workshops to build out its award programming.


Cannes Lions launches the Young Creatives competition (which is eventually renamed The Young Lions Competitions) to award those under 30 years old in the industry.


British publisher and conference organizer EMAP (now Ascential) acquires the festival for $52 million.


WPP wins the first Holding Company of the Year award. Other new awards and categories include the Independent Agency of the Year, Creative Effectiveness, and PR Lions. The festival draws celebrities like Robert Redford, Pharrell Williams, and Arianna Huffington.


The festival grows to host 130 sessions over seven days and launches Innovation Lions, honoring technology and innovation, including a category for Top 10 Startups to Watch. Australian public service ad campaign “Dumb Ways to Die” becomes the most-awarded campaign in festival’s 59-year history.


Cannes Lions launches a standalone event for healthcare communications called Lions Health.


WPP, Publicis speak out about the festival becoming too costly and stated the festival should return to its roots. A few months later, the festival reduces its duration to five days, lowers entry costs, and streamlines categories. Cyber Lions as well as Promo and Activation Lions, among the categories, are retired to better reflect modern times.


As the coronavirus pandemic shuts down most of the world, the festival goes virtual.


The nearly 70-year-old festival returns in person for the first time since the pandemic began. More than 11,000 people are expected to attend, roughly 90 percent of the 12,500 individuals who attended the last in-person Cannes in 2019.

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