Yachts, rosé and Wyclef Jean: Cannes Lions is the ad industry’s rowdiest week of the year

As the sun set last Tuesday on Hotel du Cap Eden Roc, a cliffside hotel jutting out over the very edge of the Mediterranean, a barefoot Chris Martin, the Coldplay frontman, took the stage to play acoustic guitar and piano for some of the richest and most powerful media players in the world.

Of all the events taking place last week in the French Riviera — and there were plenty — this dinner hosted by consulting group MediaLink and iHeartMedia may have been the crème de la crème.

WPP’s Martin Sorell was in attendance, as was Omnicom CEO John Wren and Turner CEO John Martin — men who control billions in ad dollars. TV personality Ryan Seacrest was there, too, as was actress Gwyneth Paltrow, Chris Martin’s ex-wife. Just outside the standing-room-only salon, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey chatted quietly with Cosmo doyenne Joanna Coles.

“There’s nothing I love more than performing for drunk executives,” Martin jokingly told the crowd.

After a few songs, Will Smith joined him on stage and grabbed the microphone to rap “Men in Black,” but promptly forgot the words and freestyled instead. The crowd roared, captured the ordeal on a hundred different smartphones and shortly thereafter headed to private shuttles and black cars waiting to take them out into the summer night. And on to the next big party.

Welcome to Cannes Lions, the only place in the world where renting a yacht for the week means you’ll blend in much more than you’ll stand out. I spent the past week at the annual advertising confab in the south of France, and found myself in the midst of what felt like a never-ending college party, except people can actually afford the booze.

Cannes is technically an awards conference for advertisers, and the Cannes Lions website claims 15,000 attendees despite registration fees as high as €3,750. But that attendance number doesn’t do Cannes justice, as many attendees don’t bother to register. Instead they simply show up, overflowing the 70,000-person city to drink rosé (which is free-flowing and socially acceptable at any hour), attend lavish parties and write checks back and forth to other advertisers in attendance — all of which happens outside of the actual Cannes programming track.

The biggest players are easy to spot. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube set up shop right on the beach, plopping down Wi-Fi-powered cabanas with big screens, food, drinks and even free sandals. Instagram offered up an “iceberg room” with ice murals from Hawaiian-born artist Sean Yoro on display. (You could wear a blanket inside if needed.) Twitter had an outdoor studio and camera set up for live broadcasts on Periscope.

Across the street, these same companies commandeer shaded indoor spaces — in Facebook’s case, multiple hotel floors — for more structured meetings and press briefings. Those same hotel lobbies offer patios where other attendees post up for hours, scheduling meetings every 30 minutes and ordering lunch over and over and over.

If you didn’t own a strip of the beach, you might own a strip of the ocean instead. Dozens of companies rent yachts for the week, with barefoot executives holding court on boats that double as their hotel rooms. Shoes aren’t allowed, which leaves the dock littered with cubbies and baskets full of loafers and heels. “Captain’s orders,” the hostess said with a smile as I boarded Pandora’s boat for an afternoon soirée.

Unlike the beach, the yacht scene is full of companies you may not have heard of. Some well-known players like Pandora and iHeartMedia cuddle up in the marina alongside ad tech companies like OpenX and Smart (whose logo looks like “Smar+”).

As I walked by the Steelhouse boat one evening, a three-story mammoth, one of the executives lured me in. “Wyclef’s inside. Head on up,” he said. Indeed he was, lounging on the top deck with a half dozen other people while his own music blasted over the speakers.

The only company that seemed intent on keeping a low profile was Snapchat, whose gated meeting space included eight-foot privacy shrubs and a sprawling dock that butted up to the marina. It’s where the company hosted exclusive cocktail events that ran into the early morning, and guests were asked by security not to take pictures. (Not even snaps.)

As the sun set, Cannes only got rowdier. This is where the college part kicked in, everyone hoping to find their way into the most exclusive parties and dinners. This was basically the only time you were ever asked to leave the comfort of the conference’s main drag, either shuttling or Ubering up into the hills that overlook the sea.

AOL had a big-time beach party on Monday night. Vayner Media and Thrillist had the must-see party on Wednesday, an exclusive, off-site shindig that was marred by an email sent out earlier in the day requesting attendance by “attractive females and models only.” The email was greeted with sighs and eye rolls, but didn’t seem to hurt the turnout.

One attendee offered to write me a headline for the event: “Wyclef Jean freestyles to many wealthy white people and Instagram models,” this person joked. “Kidding, kind of.” (Wyclef apparently made the rounds.)

MediaLink, the well-connected consulting firm I mentioned earlier run by Michael Kassan and Wenda Harris Millard, had its fingerprints all over Cannes. In addition to the executive dinner, it partnered on other parties throughout the week, including a “Guys’ Night Out” event on Monday with casino games, beautiful women carrying trays full of cigars and stacks of free Muzik headphones.

After those parties are over, people flood to the nearby hotels. The InterContinetal Carlton, a bustling meeting spot during the day, was so crowded each evening that people spilled out of the lobby and patio and into the hotel’s circular drive.

There is, believe it or not, a legitimate business reason these companies throw money around at Cannes. The same way advertisers convene at the CES blowout in Vegas each January to wheel and deal, Cannes is the mid-year opportunity to check in on those deals and lock down new ones heading into the second half of the year.

And deals do seem to get done. Twitter, for example, was pushing its NFL ad packages. With so much money being spent to set the scene, no one can afford to head home without at least one (if not ten) fresh contracts in tow. “I tell my salespeople to ask for the extraordinary,” one ad tech exec told me, explaining that he tries to capitalize on the pressure companies feel to close deals. Another exec at a large tech company mentioned something about “shooting fish in a barrel.”

So there’s method to the Cannes madness if you look hard enough — or drink enough rosé.

To read the full article on Recode, click here.