Inspired by the International Film Festival which had been staged in Cannes since the late 1940’s, a group of worldwide cinema screen advertising contractors (SAWA) felt that the makers of advertising films should receive similar recognition just like their colleagues in the feature film industry.

In order to promote the cinema medium, SAWA established the International Advertising Film Festival. The first Festival took place in Venice in September 1954 with 187 film entries from 14 countries competing. The lion of Piazza in San Marcos in Venice was the inspiration for the Lion trophy. The second Festival was held in Monte Carlo and then Cannes in 1956.

After that the Festival took place alternatively between Venice and Cannes. The films in the competition were split into two categories: TV and Cinema. They were judged according to technical crafts. There were, for example categories for commercials of different lengths, live action and animation.