CANNES, France—Cannes Lions 2016 has its first truly cringeworthy moment, in the form of a party invitation seeking "attractive females and models only."
The email went out to a number of festival participants who planned to attend The Wednesday Party, an event sponsored by digital agency VaynerMedia and media company Thrillist Media Group with a musical performance by Wyclef Jean.
UPDATE: Thrillist founder and CEO Ben Lerer responded to the controversy via an internal staff email that appears in part at the bottom of this story.
A female agency executive tells Adweek that she and two female colleagues received the email while having lunch in Cannes on Tuesday. One of them forwarded it to women's advocate and agency veteran Cindy Gallop, who subsequently shared it on Twitter and wrote, "It's 2016, @vaynermedia @thrillist. This is not how you party at @cannes_lions."
— Cindy Gallop (@cindygallop) June 22, 2016
The email was sent by events company iGetIn. Its key section reads (emphasis via the sender of the message): "Thank you for your interest in attending!! Please be aware that this specific list is for attractive females and models only."
The note, which was also shared by members of the public Facebook group Cannes for Cannesseurs, then instructs male attendees to "contact the PR departments of the respective sponsors" if they want to get into the party.
It requests that women interested in attending send "recent untouched photos and/or your Instagram/Facebook links for you and each of your additional female guest [sic]," adding, "once we have reviewed we will send you specific entry details."
The message does not clarify what this review would entail or who will determine whether invitees qualify as "attractive females." Also, if the whole thing is a joke, it's a poor one—and there's no wink in the email to indicate that it is a joke.
The email has become a minor scandal at a festival that has included messages of female empowerment from speakers such as Madonna Badger of #WomenNotObjects fame. Before forwarding it to Gallop, one of the executives in question called the number listed, where a representative told her that such demands are "a totally normal practice."
VaynerMedia founder and CEO Gary Vaynerchuk quickly responded to Gallop and others on Twitter with multiple videos shot while he was walking around the festival. In the first, he said he was "mortified" by the email and, as the agency's CEO, took responsibility for it.
— Gary Vaynerchuk (@garyvee) June 22, 2016
In a subsequent video response to another party, Vaynerchuk said he is "trying to get to the bottom of it." Lerer was defensive about the email, tweeting, "Guys, this is promoter spam. Would appreciate a little more credit."
A spokesperson for VaynerMedia tells Adweek that—as Vaynerchuk said in his video—the agency was not directly involved in hiring the company that sent the email and the message itself was not reflective of the company or its culture. The female executive who forwarded the email said Vaynerchuk also reached out to her directly to apologize.
A Thrillist spokesperson stated the email blast was not a legitimate invite to the event, writing, "A third-party promotions company sent this email without us knowing. We apologize to anyone who was spammed with this, but it didn't come from Thrillist or Vayner. The guest list for the party has been closed for some time and will not include anyone who replies to that email."
In an internal email sent Wednesday afternoon, Lerer wrote, "Just wanted to send a quick note around explaining the situation and our response. To produce an event of this scale in a foreign country, we needed to hire a bunch of vendors to help in different capacities. One of these companies was a production group we've worked with multiple times in the past in the US. This company then went on to hire several other companies to help with various aspects of the event."
He continued, "No one at Thrillist (or Vayner for that matter) knew anything about what this vendor was doing and we are clearly appalled by it." Lerer added that the company will no longer work with the vendor and that it plans to "become significantly more stringent" with such partners in the future. "We clearly need to be mindful of how the behaviors of companies that are associated with us can reflect back on our brand, even if they are operating outside of our knowledge," he wrote.
Adweek has reached out to representatives from iGetIn but has yet to receive an official response. At this time, it is unclear how the company acquired the contact list it used to push out the email blast.