Women Are the Quiet Center of Power at the Cannes Lions Empower Cafe

CANNES – It’s a breezy Monday morning on the Croisette and Empower Cafe is abuzz with their second conference of the day on the subject of LGBTQAI+ and advertising.

AI is everywhere here.

The Empower Cafe is the first official women’s space at the Cannes Lions, the advertising industry’s biggest annual festival and networking week, which runs June 17-21 (through Friday).

It is clearly the place to network and navigate the week ahead for women at the festival. By lunchtime, a reporter’s name had been added to a secret, 1,000-strong WhatsApp women’s group. She chatted to the England soccer team’s female goalie Mary Earps, the Emmy winner Nneka Onuorah — who mentioned a Megan Thee Stallion documentary — and was invited to a cocktail with players from the Chelsea Football Club.

Such is life at the Cannes Lions, both at the cafe and beyond. An eclectic mix of celebrities, advertising execs, branding specialists, media companies, sports stars, music legends, technology companies, creative industry players, reporters and influencers do a dance around advertising coin and the branding creativity at the heart of this fest.

Just like the Cannes Film Festival, there are beach lounges and pavilions — but here they run round-the-clock talks and conferences that complement the Lions’ official schedule at the Palais. Speakers are everywhere you turn.

A crowd of people watches speakers in an outdoor tent setting.
The crowd watches a conversation with Mary Earps. (Photo: Liza Foreman for TheWrap)

The Empower Cafe has 20 such conferences this week, including several focusing on female leaders, with others on sports stars like Earps, who spoke at an “In Conversation” panel Monday afternoon.

Add into the mix the new kids on the block — the AI companies getting into this space — and star guests like author Deepak Chopra, who wouldn’t appear to have an immediate connection to advertising, and you know that when the Lions say they will announce a surprise guest, it will be a surprise.

At his Monday session  “Creativity Unleashed: Bridging Minds and Machines,” Chopra shared a series of mantras and wisdoms with creatives. Under discussion was  the intersection of the brain, the mind, creativity, technology and AI.

Who could be more interesting to talk to about AI than Chopra? But it gets wilder.

Instead of walking the red carpet, at the Lions, delegates are invited to the rooftop premiere of, say, a B2B LinkedIn film. And this is what people talk about here.

“I can’t wait to tell you about it,” raved advertising film producer Leila Fisher — we met at another private women’s networking hub, the FO Female Quotient Equality Lounge at the Martinez.

“B2B films are massive here,” she added. “One won the main award the first year at the Lions, but not until last year was it a category.”

There are other differences from the Cannes Film Fest proper. People don’t ask you for a business card — they say, “I will find you on LinkedIn.” And if someone says “I’m a film producer,” bets are what they mean is “in advertising.”

If film-world filmmakers show up here, it is not to finance their next film, but to make sure their message is heard by advertisers. That they represent.

Instead of starlets in cocktail dresses like at the film festival in May, the lobbies of the Martinez and Carlton are filled with business hostesses holding Yahoo, Meta and LinkedIn signs to welcome clients. And while the official program begins with a running club and yoga at the crack of dawn, the other main activity here is drinking.

In Conversation with Mary Earps. (Photo: Liza Foreman for TheWrap)
In Conversation with Mary Earps. (Photo: Liza Foreman for TheWrap)

But back to the Empower Cafe and the Lions trend it represents. The Lions have made diversity and equality a big theme in recent years. Old-timers say it’s unrecognizable from just a few years back.

It works. Instead of being overwhelmed by #MeToo protests on the red carpet,  like at the festival, why not set up networking spaces like Empower Cafe across the street?

“We are bringing the first women-led safe space to the Cannes Lions,” Empower cofounder Louise Watson said. She is the associate director, technology practice at British PR firm Propeller Group. “We have four days of content with amazing female leaders from across the industry to sports personalities, and everyone in between, and we are welcoming lots of women here. A lot of women self -fund to come here.”

“Finding a space you feel is home is difficult,” she added. “You come to the Lions. Try to get into places that are very exclusive. You don’t have a place to network with like-minded people. We do that here and talk shop.”

One of the cafe’s partners, the 100-year-old British club WACL for women leaders in advertising and communications, is working on reaching the 50% mark in the industry, Watson said. Another partner is London-based Bloom, a professional network for women in communications. Their chair speaks to the spirit at the cafe.

“We started in 2010,” Bloom Chair and Lions-winning filmmaker/photographer Bronac McNeill said. “We have 500 members. Everyone mentors someone. We lift the glass ceiling but keep the ladder down. Initially it was to make sure we became the CEOs, and now that we are, it’s making sure more are coming up.”

When McNeill won a Lion in 2015 for the virtual reality film “Stroke,” she said, “There was no diversity at the Lions. It was male, stale and pale. There were very few women. There is such a difference now.”

“I came to the Cannes Lions in 1996 for the first time,” Fisher said. She now works for Belgian production company Lesmecs. “There was no code of conduct. It is a much safer place for all now. The juries are diverse and inclusive and they are looking for brilliance, recognizing that the one thing we have in common is that we are different.”

As for ensuring no Harvey Weinstein scandals break at the Lions, McNeill said of the now full WhatsApp group, “So many girls come to Cannes as part of a male group. Then they get into the cab with a CEO and a Harvey moment happens. Now we ask if anyone is going for dinner. It feels safe. If anything did happen, God forbid, there are 1,000 women here to help.”

Mary Earps poses for a photo. (Photo: Liza Foreman for TheWrap)
Mary Earps poses for a photo. (Photo: Liza Foreman for TheWrap)

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