AI, VR, and the future of advertising at the Cannes Lions

29 Jun 2016

Image via Eve Conboy

Eve Conboy from digital agency Radical immersed herself in the Innovation Lions in Cannes, where artificial intelligence and virtual reality were to the fore. She sent back this report.

I’m just back from my first visit to the annual Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, where the great and the not-always-good of the advertising world gather to share ideas, be inspired by seeing the top 1pc of global advertising work, and possibly win some incredibly sought-after awards.

15,000 attendees from all continents gathered for a week at the Palais de Festivals to listen to ad agencies and speakers as diverse as Iggy Pop and Anna Wintour talk about creativity, business, the future of the industry, and what inspires them.

Future Human

My own interest at Cannes this year, both as a cyber-psychologist and as a director at a digital ad agency, was the Innovation Lions. This year was the second Innovation Lions, tagged as ‘Data x Tech x Ideas’. It was a sub-festival running for two days within the main Cannes programme, and an oasis of introversion and good coffee, hidden from the constant chatter of the main festival halls.

So what does the word ‘innovation’ actually mean to the advertising industry? What are the opportunities for the wider tech and start-up community? And why should more Irish tech businesses, as well as agencies, consider going there next year?

VR, AI… and will robots take our jobs?

VR was everywhere.

Samsung had taken over an entire basement to showcase their range of hardware, most importantly their Gear VR, with 4D rollercoaster demos and smaller VR pods offering excited ad execs their first taste of an immersive virtual experience.

Google, Samsung, VR company Within (which won the Entertainment Grand Prix) and Accenture all had VR talks or display stands. It was certainly the buzzword of the week, and whilst VR does offer a wonderful new canvas to engage audiences with, I still struggle to see how we’ll be able to sell crisps, milk or shampoo with VR for some time to come… but I’m open to persuasion! The best VR executions were those that truly suited the purpose and emotion of the idea, and where the immersive possibilities of VR executed the idea in a way that 360 or even 2D video simply couldn’t.

Head judge of the Innovation Lions jury, Emad Tahtouh from Australian agency Finch, shared this campaign from the Australian tourist board that he felt demonstrated the potential of VR in advertising perfectly.

Chloe Gottlieb from R/GA, head of the Cyber Lions jury, explained why few VR campaigns had been shortlisted in 2016: “I just don’t think people have quite got what VR can be used for yet. The technology needs to be seamless, It’s not about the technology, it’s still about the idea, the experience, the story.”

So, my big lesson was: consider VR as part of a campaign, but not just for the sake of it.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) seemed to be where the most interesting conversations were taking place, and the best and most respected digital agencies such as R/GA and AKQA themed their talks around our increasing reliance on bots, AI and algorithims, and how this will completely re-shape the advertising agency model.

R/GA spoke of how conversational bot-driven commerce, and gestural or voice interfaces, will mean completely new creative skills being required. Their founder Bob Greenberg explained that bots are now where mobile apps were in 2007, and predicted that bots as a brand/commerce interaction will replace 80pc of mobile apps.


Image via Eve Conboy

The fear from many ad execs and creatives is clearly that ‘big data’ and algorithims are going to somehow replace human creativity. The misconception is often that AI is the same as human intelligence, capable of the same random, irrational and, sometimes, error-driven discoveries.

Just because an algorithim or machine learning can be used to sort and identify a set of photographs, or scan and analyse hundreds of books in minutes, does not mean that any creative connection can be made between those data sets being analysed.

The global ad community breathed a sigh of relief when founder and editor of Wired magazine, Kevin Kelly, explained: “It is in carrying out tasks where efficiency is not important that human intelligence and creativity will be even more valuable – science, innovation, art and experiences. In the future, we will be paid by how well we can work with AIs, not be replaced by them”.

He then introduced us to my favourite buzzword of the week – “centaurs”; meaning a human intelligence that works with AI to become even smarter, faster and more creative. Unicorns are so 2010s…

Agency and tech start-up collaboration

The most unexpected aspect of the Innovation Lions for me was the presence of some tech start-ups at stands and hosting demos, there to showcase their latest production methods (e.g for 360/VR), software or hardware that they thought could be useful to advertising agencies and creatives. I met young hungry tech entrepreneurs who were excited to showcase their new apps, social platforms or VR hardware – it was a delightful culture clash that I think we’ll see happening much more.

R/GA introduced their new agency accelerator, where start-ups can collaborate with R/GA teams to develop their brand and marketing presence, and the R/GA teams can likewise learn from the start-ups.

A discussion between San Francisco agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, and VC funders behind a number of Silicon Valley start-ups, brought to light the difficulties start-ups have in using their precious funding dollars to pay an agency for branding or advertising work, however, it also acknowledged that those tech firms that could afford to bring in creative and marketing expertise had benefitted hugely. The big question, which was left unanswered, was whether a different payment model of a stake in the start-up could be considered in lieu of the traditional by-the-hour ad agency fee structure. Personally, I think the co-creation model outlined by R/GA has huge potential.

What was completely clear, however, was that, for the advertising world, true innovation will mean reaching out to partners and collaborators in the tech and scientific communities to produce campaigns, product and platform ideas that go far beyond traditional TV ad spots and print ads. A look at the Innovation Lions shortlist shows campaigns of varying budgets that involved collaboration with space engineers to put Audi exploration vehicles on the moon ; what better way to showcase Audi’s world-class engineering and commitment to R&D? A collaboration with electromagnetic scientists to create a real-life Hoverboard for Lexus, and a small craft brewery called Saltwater in New York working with materials scientists and product designers to produce a six-pack ring for beers made from the leftovers of the brewing process, which biodegrades into fish food when dumped into the ocean.

The overall winner of the Innovation Lion Grand Prix was a collaboration between data, cognitive computing with IBM’s Watson platform, 3D-printing technology, art experts and old, old-fashioned creativity – the result was a new Rembrandt, to celebrate Dutch bank ING’s sponsorship of the arts.

It was this sort of genius that meant I left Cannes with a new love for the possibilities of the combination of ideas, tech and data to actually make products and ideas that brands and advertising can stand behind.

If you’re a tech company with an idea to share with the world of brands and advertising, I’d urge you to look into a trip to Cannes for a day or two next year – the possibilities are endless!

Eve Conboy

Eve Conboy is a board director at Radical, and leads on creative technology at the agency. She worked in design and branding agencies in London for 13 years before returning to her native Dublin to join Radical five years ago. She has just completed her MSc in Cyberpsychology.