Crying at Cannes

June 26, 2023

By Harris Wilkinson

At around the 20-minute mark of a panel featuring Liz Taylor (Global CCO at Ogilvy) and Mike White (creator of The White Lotus) chatting about creativity driving culture, a coworker leaned in and whispered, “Are you crying?”

…I was.

Image credit: Raysa Peres

It was only a little, but if we hadn’t been in the Debussy Theater, surrounded by between 1,000 and one million people (I’m bad at math), I might have wept.

It’s taken me days to sort out exactly why.

No one will be surprised to hear this year’s festival was all about AI. It came up in nearly every presentation—though at times the connection was tangential at best. The panels truly focusing on it attracted lines that snaked up and down the steps of the Palais. There was even an oversized Roomba robot whirring in circles on the second floor, tracking me with its WALL-E eyes every time I slunk past.

But in the same way the real meetings in our industry take place after the official meetings end, the honest chatter about AI was echoing in the hallways, at the happy hours, and on the yachts.

I would split this into three camps; the truly tech-forward are salivating in anticipation, the Luddites are spun out in a frenzy of existential dread, and the rest of us, now including myself, are a mixed bag of excitement, awe, and worry.

Which brings me back to crying at Cannes.

I started out as a copywriter. Even now, in the CCO role, I’m on the page and in the words every single day. And outside of advertising, I still write for film and television. I know I will continue writing something — honestly, probably anything — until I draw my final breath.

Lately, I’ve worried that one of my life’s single greatest joys would eventually be taken away by code.

But then I saw Mike White and Liz Taylor.

Their talk had literally nothing to do with AI, and yet, it had everything to do with AI. White discussed the sheer brutality of every single step in the creative process and the exhaustion that comes with it. However, mysteriously, the siren’s call draws us all straight into the cliffs, again and again. And in his fidgety, awkward, and disarmingly honest way, Mike White sucker punched me squarely in the feels.

Because creative is as much a compulsion as it is a passion, and White was reminding us all that while the tools to go from the blank page to the artifacts we make have changed (and will continue to change in dazzling and unimaginable ways), creating something out of literally nothing will always be an agonizing, blissful, and utterly human endeavor.

Harris Wilkinson is TMA’s Chief Creative Officer.