Cannes, it pulls you in

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It is generally agreed that Russian literature understands and interrogates the human condition like no other genre. Physical and mental disorder and dystopia are the fabric of some of the world’s greatest stories from War & Peace to Crime & Punishment. By coincidence or design Tolstoy became a recurring theme for me at Cannes this year, having recently started reading Anna Karenina it struck me how ‘health’ in its broadest sense is a constant in Tolstoy’s work. The physical and mental state of his characters are an essential tool in his story telling, the dyspeptic, the dipsomaniac, the depressive, the bipolar, the love sick, the disabled, the pock-marked and the consumptive. He pulls you in to their lived human experience, you feel the exhaustion, terror and elation that makes us who we are. To Tolstoy the human condition is inseparable from physical and mental health, there to be explored and dissected whilst everything else – the external ‘consumer goods’, the clothes, food, activities and chitter chatter of society are there to be satirized.  So whilst there has been much debate as to the merit of having a separate Health Lions, that somehow by separating our sector from the real deal we continue to be perceived as the ‘special needs’ group. One could argue however that Health is the only sector to truly celebrate what it is that makes us human, whilst Cannes celebrates the external fripperies of consumer pointlessness – the joy of stuff, Cannes Health explores the exhaustion, terror and elation of being – the joy of us.

The seminars on Saturday afternoon crystalized the human condition so brilliantly – Jason Silva’s Boundless Possibilities: How Biotechnology could Revolutionize Healthcare, Rita Charon’s How the Story is Changing: The Power of Narrative Medicine and David Nutter’s Fighting for your Creative Life. Jason and Rita could not have been more different in character. Jason – the world’s worst dinner guest had the energy of an exploding bomb, his seminar felt like a blitzkrieg bombarding us with a series of extraordinary and mind-blowing ideas and possibilities for the future, moving so quickly if you lost concentration for just a minute you’d miss one. Rita on the other hand was ponderous, delicate, thoughtful and drifted through her half hour like a little cloud, contemplating and molding ideas as she went. In our “What are you talking about? Get to the point” culture both speakers were unusually disquieting.

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Jason Silva is frankly pretty excited about everything. In a nutshell he talked about how biology and technology are on the verge of merging to such an extent that we will soon all become monitor-able pieces of machinery uploading constant streams of physical data. He talked about the 2nd stage of civilization where sentient beings no longer explore outwards – their world and beyond, but explore inwardly – pulled into our bodies creating a complete map of ourselves in real time. Human beings effectively become transparent like an open watch face, the inner workings available for all to see and vitally, to change. He talked about technology being the scaffolding around us, an extension of our own biological systems. Eventually he disappeared so far down his own worm-hole it became difficult to follow, at some point in his future I think he plans for us to all leave our bodies and just drift in a sea consciousness. Or something.

Importantly though he raised the question “why do websites know more than my doctor?” He rightly points out that in the very very near future, getting nearer by the second, we will be self monitoring and self diagnosing. With self diagnosis soon comes self medication, which begs the question what will be the role for doctors in the future?

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The ethereal Rita answered the question in her own unique way. She talked about the calling – the natural pull of care giving and rather sweetly she included us, the advertisers in that calling. She bemoaned the new generation of business-doctors (perhaps more of a States-side issue than elsewhere) and their inability to ‘get it’. We were left wondering ‘get what?’ as she told a stream of consciousness story of a patient of hers who died of dementia. As a private doctor in the US of course you are able to take a shared role in patients lives, becoming in some instances part of the family. Private health care has the luxury of time, which allows the physician to practice the ancient skills of the family doctor. Evidently this involves quite a lot of crying.

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Still she pulled us in. She used Mark Rothko as a metaphor for becoming part of a patient journey. You are pulled in to his paintings; you do not see them as you do a patient with a bio-marker and a diagnosis. They cannot be distilled down or reduced to simple words or numbers. Rather you experience them, they surround you with a wealth of feelings and intangible emotions, they are sensations like sleep, skin, doubt or death. She likened her patients to unfolding stories that are narrated over time and encouraged the scientific community to embrace and enjoy the doubt and mystery of what it means to exist, to share the lived human experience with patients. It seems to me that Rita was calling for a return to a more ancient role for physicians, someone with whom we go on the strange mystical journey. In the context of Silva’s bio-tech future where today we are all citizen-journalists, tomorrow we will all be citizen-doctors, it may be that the traditional values of caregiving will become increasingly important.

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The final speaker of the day, the director David Nutter likes to share a tear or two as well, he seems to take great pleasure in making his crew and actors cry. Predominantly his presentation was a series of clips from stuff he’s done, from Game of Thrones to Band of Brother’s. Frankly it could have done with a lot more footage of Damien Lewis, still it was entertaining to a point. One of the most compelling things he said however, was about what he looks for in a successful character, what is it that will pull you in to a programme? He looks for the void, or the flaw: the element in someone’s history or character that has caused some kind of dysfunction. It is this void that pulls us in, makes us connect, makes us care about them and keeps us coming back to his shows again and again.

Our health makes us who we are. Physical and mental disorder and dystopia are the fabric of some of the world’s greatest stories. And good story telling, like good advertising pulls you in.

I am now going to contradict myself. Frankly Health Cannes should not exist. In fact Cannes should not exist at all in its current form. Judging communications based on channel is from the dark ages. No one makes just a press ad anymore; every single agency in the world has gone through the seismic shift required to create ideas not ads. Cannes could learn a lot from the Oscars and think about restructuring based on skill. Best idea, best content, best filmic, best static, best regulated, best product design, best art direction, best user generated. But we all know this is a money making machine and we can look forward to Cannes Car, Cannes Beauty, and Cannes Baby in the near future.

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Still Cannes Health was a fantastic and inspirational experience and restored my faith in advertising to do good things and not just add to the noise. Helped by the fact that we walked away with a silver. And I learnt a few things along the way:

–        I work with a really lovely and smart bunch of people, both agency & network
–        Jim Stengel is utterly affable
–        You are never too old to party til dawn
–        It’s not a good idea to say ‘Ghurka’s foreskin’ to the guy at passport control

Sian Dodwell, PLBR Head of Planning

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