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I was on a party yacht in Cannes the other night when I found myself locked in one of the classic quandaries of life on the French Riviera: canapes, crudites, or rose?

I'm joking! Why choose just one? As I stuffed my face, I mingled with a posse of slobbery middle-aged American dudes bedecked in wrinkled linen. They were discussing the highlights of Cannes Lions, the annual advertising industry confab that brought thousands of marketers, armed with expense accounts, to the south of France for the week.

Their conversation moved easily, if bizarrely, between hip-hop and ad tech: "We're more of a live solution." "Did you see Nas on Spotify Beach?" "You're custom?" "We're custom." "Yeah, Nas was awesome."

Yet, Nas and crudites notwithstanding, I found it hard to partake in the mirth. For much of the glamorous week in Cannes, I was plagued by a nagging question about the ad business and the global economy: What were all these people doing here?

Why had their bosses paid for flights, hotels, yachts, private villas, helicopter rides, sponsored beaches, hip-hop stars and enough food, drink and fancy swag to sustain a small village? And why schlep all the way to Cannes rather than to, say, the Marriott in Atlantic City?

All week, as I traipsed from rooftop party to beachfront party to Michelin-restaurant party (I'm hoping The Times puts me in one of those ads showing its journalists braving harsh conditions to uncover the truth), I was struck by the incongruence between the story that the ad industry tells about itself and the story playing out before my eyes.

Wasn't the ad business supposed to be ruled by data now? How could anyone justify this expense-account boondoggle--or any of the similar annual corporate excursions to Aspen, Davos, Sun Valley or Jackson Hole?

Then, over the course of my very tough week in Cannes, in conversations with people from every corner of the business, a truth dawned on me: The global economy runs on parties.

The Internet was supposed to pull down gatekeepers and middlemen. It was supposed to make decision-making rational, data-driven and cost effective. But that really hasn't happened anywhere, at least not completely. Instead, as the world digitized, we just got new gatekeepers, new middlemen, and new hangers-on.

Even though we have all given ourselves over to data, human relationships lubricated by human pleasures still matter to every industry. Indeed, they matter more, because the few humans not replaced by machines have more power now than ever before.

As went the ad business, so will go the rest of the economy: The robots may take over, but for a certain class of moneyed titan, the beaches will always remain topless, the drinks bottomless, and high-end schmoozing will never die.

I came upon this epiphany in a conversation with Michael Kassen, founder of a company called Media­Link, as we sat on the beach outside his firm's massive Cannes meeting space.

"Cannes is anything but a boondoggle," declared Kassen as his chief of staff popped open a bottle of rose. "There is a fair amount of fun that happens here. But from our perspective, it's the toughest week of the year because there's so much business getting done."

Kassen's company is the poster child for the rising importance of human relationships on a data-centric planet. A decade ago, Cannes Lions was a sleepy festival devoted to creativity in marketing. Kassen was one of the mavens who saw its potential as a place where real work could happen. MediaLink is now the industry's most important connecter, and Cannes is its biggest stage.

This year MediaLink built a beachfront villa the size of an airplane hangar where, over the course of the festival, the company arranged more than 1,000 meetings between different clients.

True, it is in Kassen's interest to talk up the value of relationships sparked at events like Cannes Lions (in 2017, he sold MediaLink to Ascential, the British company that runs many industry festivals, including Lions, for more than $200 million.) Few industries have been altered more completely by the Internet than advertising. In the popular telling, advertising went from a Mad Men-style business built on cocktails and intuition--a business where half of your money was wasted, you just didn't know which half--to a scrupulously measured, data-driven industry ruled above all by spreadsheets tracking the magic letters ROI: return on investment.

And yet in every conversation I had at Cannes, I caught a major whiff of skepticism about whether the data that lie at the heart of the ad business were really telling the whole story.

As Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter and other ad-driven tech platforms weather scandal after scandal, the people who run major brands feel increasingly adrift. They need to make gut calls about where to spend their money, about what their brands should stand for, and about how to navigate sensitivities like race and gender inclusiveness in a world ruled by social media outrage.

That's where the schmooze, consultants, middlemen and intuition come in: to help companies make high-dollar gut calls about data. A certain amount of fear-of-missing-out also holds sway: If your competitor is sending a lot of folks to Cannes, shouldn't you be there, too?

There is obviously something conspicuously icky about the excess on display. One morning, everyone in Cannes woke up to The Verge's investigation into horrendous working conditions at a contract facility that hires moderators to monitor Facebook. It was a study in contrasts: The moderators complained of bathrooms covered in feces and menstrual blood. At Cannes, Facebook bought a piece of the beach and built a coffee bar, meeting space and private boat launch to entertain its clients.

It's not true that the Internet is eliminating every job for humans. There are humans everywhere in the social media supply chain. Some of them suffer. Others get to schmooze. The Internet changed everything. It also changed nothing.

Editorial on 07/07/2019

Print Headline: The global economyruns on luxe parties

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