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From College to Cannes

WVU students take a life-changing journey to the world’s biggest celebration of creativity in communications

Written by Rachel Johnson (BSJ, 2022), current student in the Journalism graduate program

WVU Reed College of Media students were among the approximately 15,000 delegates from more than 90 countries who attended the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in June. For five days, the fourteen students explored the best of marketing, advertising and creativity from and alongside industry giants like AB InBev, Ogilvy, BBDO, Apple and Meta. They were inspired by thought-provoking sessions, by examples of thousands of short-listed award winners, by new international connections and by each other.

“It’s where all the best minds in the industry come to network, learn and celebrate, and the sessions reflect the caliber of talent in attendance,” said Hannah Cebula (BSJ, 2016), a student in the WVU Reed College of Media Integrated Marketing Communications graduate program and a brand and product advertising senior specialist at Audi of America.

Ahead of the festival, Cebula mapped out a detailed itinerary that took her to Apple’s “Unboxing” of their key to strong, impactful creative; BBDO’s session on why brands need to make consumers laugh now more than ever; and Lupine Creative’s workshop on how to authentically work with the LGBTQ+ community.  

It’s impossible to see and do everything at the festival. Like Cebula, each student developed a customized itinerary that reflected their specific areas of interest. This process was part of a six-week online course led by Associate Professor Geah Pressgrove, during which students researched the history of the festival, cultural perspectives on creativity, and how to network in a professional sphere. But unlike most online courses, this one concluded with a week of international forums, panels with leading brands, skills-based workshops and beach sessions with top tech platforms.  

Group photo in cannes
Left to right: Julie Bush, Marleah Knights, Rachel Johnson, Mallory Sibble, Associate Professor Geah Pressgrove, Emma Magruder, Gracy Uy, Hannah Cebula, Grace Howell, Leah Deboe, Nicole Mitlehner, faculty advisor Erica Lindsay, Mackenzie Randall and Molly Kramer pose for a photo after a group dinner in the town of Cannes, France (submitted photo).

In a single day, a student could walk more than 20,000 steps and have a schedule that looked something like this:

9:30 a.m.
Start at Pinterest Beach to catch insights on top searches and pins, and do some Pinterest crafting by customizing a free belt bag
11 a.m.
Learn about brand authenticity from GenZ lifestyle icon Emma Chamberlain at Spotify Beach
12:15 p.m.
Grab a quick bite before reaching the Debussy Theatre where Patagonia’s marketing director gives an inspiring talk about prioritizing purpose over profit
1 p.m.
Head to the Palais Theater for a talk on diversity, equity and inclusion with Danai Gurira, UN Ambassador for good and star of Marvel’s “Black Panther.”
2 p.m.
Listen to the global chief strategy and creative officers of R/GA talk about creating a brand that is more adaptive to the world with underlying codes of purpose, design, and technology
3:13 p.m.
Back to Dubussy Theatre for a hilarious conversation with Lorne Michaels and cast members from Saturday Night Live
5 p.m.
Finally stop for a breather at the Terrace Happy Hour to regroup with classmates and share your favorite moments
Cannes Beach Just outside the main festival grounds, brands including Pinterest, Meta, Amazon and Spotofy lined the beach and featured guest speakers and interactive activities. Photo by Erica Lindsay. Cannes Jameela Jamil Students Michael Sevick, Rachel Johnson, Grace Howell and Marleah Knights gather for a photo with actress and activist Jameela Jamil after her session "Authenticity, Bravery, Creativity: How Audio Drives Connection" on the Festival Terrace (submitted photo).

Even with a jam-packed schedule, students could not begin to attend every single event, forum and workshop. In addition to sessions with leading marketing and creative professionals from global brands, the festival featured mega stars including who talked about the future of creativity and artificial intelligence, Kevin Hart who shared tips on incorporating humor into brands and Halle Berry who stressed the importance of having uncomfortable conversations when it comes to women’s health.

Beyond the star-studded speaker lineup, festival attendees also had the opportunity to get up close and personal with the award-winning campaigns. Nearly 27,000 entries were submitted to 38 categories including everything from classic advertising to innovation. Not only could festival goers browse a huge exhibition of the short-listed entries, but they could hear straight from the judges about how campaigns made their way from the shortlist to the award show.

“Seeing winning campaigns and hearing from the jury about why those campaigns won was the most insightful thing from the entire conference,” said Emma Magruder (BSJ, 2022), an Integrated Marketing Communications graduate student. “I got to see work from all over the world and how certain concepts or ideas transcend cultures and languages. It was a reminder that public relations is really about earned media and that simplicity sometimes makes the greatest impact.”

Outside of scheduled events, there were numerous networking opportunities with international media giants who would otherwise not be accessible to a group of students from West Virginia. One of these spontaneous networking moments presented itself when a group of WVU students were headed to dinner after a full day of festival activities. While leaving the festival grounds the group stopped by a pop-up event sponsored by Reddit and met Diana Wollf, the company’s global senior vice president of marketing. During the brief interaction, which included some gushing over Reddit, the students exchanged contact information and told Wolff about their work experiences with the Reed College of Media’s Martin Hall Agency. Not even the most meticulously planned agendas could have predicted that interaction.

“I went into the festival with a great deal of research on the history, speakers, events, and layout thinking that I had a good idea of what I was walking into. But, nothing could have prepared me for the level of inspiration I would feel surrounded by the top artists, creatives, companies, speakers and influential leaders from around the world. There was just magnetic energy that couldn’t be quantified or expected on paper before you attended in person.” NICOLE MITLEHNER Senior Multidisciplinary Media Studies Student
Patagonia at Cannes
Patagonia's Tyler LaMotte shares how the company's sustainability agenda is built into everything they do, including the brand. Photo by Erica Lindsay.

Mitlehner didn’t know any other students before signing up for the class and international trip, but the group, which included sophomores through graduate students, bonded over the experience — and each one took advantage of their time in France to see, and even meet, some of the giants in the industries where they hope to work someday. 

Ethan Hibbard, a sophomore majoring in advertising and public relations, had a “carpe diem” motto that got him in front of sports and pop culture icons, including DK Metcalf of the Seattle Seahawks, internet personalities David Dobrik and Josh Richards, actor Halle Berry and rapper Jack Harlow.  

“I wanted to have no regrets, to know that if I couldn’t get the most out of the experience, at least I had tried,” said Hibbard, who hopes to land a job in the entertainment industry some day. “Because of this, I came away with one of the best stories of my life.”  

Watch Mackenzie Randall's vlog of the Cannes trip.

Mikie Sevick, an Integrated Marketing Communications graduate student who works as an assistant rowing coach and recruiting coordinator for WVU, has a love for endurance sports and a passion for empowering women. She was admiring a set of bicycles parked on the festival grounds when members of the World Bicycle Relief Project struck up conversation and invited her on a 50-mile bike ride. As an Army veteran who spent time deployed in Afghanistan, Sevick was inspired by the organization’s mission to provide bikes to people in remote parts of the world. She was also inspired by the ride along the French Riviera.  

“I had to continuously remind myself to look around at the stunning scenery; I have never experienced the ocean on my left and massive Moab-esk red rock on my right,” Sevick said.  

While many students paired up when they had similar itineraries for the day, Sevick’s unique outdoor adventure interests meant she was solo most of the time, but she always made her way to the terrace to see everyone during the daily happy hour sessions. 

“I don’t doubt that I will have countless solo adventures (knock on wood), but having the space to engage with people sharing the same experience as you and wanting to hear what you say is unique and rare,” Sevick said. “Those conversations on the terrace … I wouldn’t trade those.” 

From endurance sports to legendary filmmakers and everything in between, there was something for everyone in Cannes. The Mountaineers made their mark in France and brought home new skills, knowledge, connections and experiences that will be influencing their future work for years to come.