Wednesday, June 14th, 2017 | 9 min read
This time last year, I was genuinely excited about the Cannes Lions awards. It’s my job to help agencies understand how important it is to actually use their clients’ customer data, and I was sure there would be a ground-breaking winner in the Creative Data category in 2016 that would help to get my message across.
Creative Data debuted in 2015, but the jury did not award the coveted Grand Prix prize because none of the entries were deemed worthy (a kick in the teeth for those that won gold, and a kick up the butt for the data industry). A year on, I was sure we would see some world-class creative ideas that were made possible by live customer data.
In anticipation, I wrote a blog post outlining what I thought agencies needed to do to win the Grand Prix (you can read it here). The gist of it: forget static data, embrace 24/7 fully integrated live customer data and use it to dictate business strategy.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. What was I thinking?
Rather than live data playing a starring role, it was relegated to the background. Was this a concerted backlash against the overuse of obvious technology?
The actual winner of the Grand Prix was The Next Rembrandt – a publicity stunt by JWT for Dutch bank ING where they taught a computer to ‘paint’ a Rembrandt-like masterpiece. The idea is pure genius, and worthy of any creative award, but I was hugely disappointed that it took the Grand Prix for Creative Data.
The more I thought about The Next Rembrandt, the more I thought that it was a fake. Not the painting, but fake use of algorithms. Did a computer really create the painting? Or did they measure a few basic data points like gender, whether the subject was wearing a hat, the size of their frilly collar, and get an expert to Photoshop it? If so, it’s not quite a hoax, but I’m very suspicious of the way it was reported as the work of a computer. There’s nothing that shows how they got from generating facial features to stitching together a face and a scene.
We’ll never know how much of it was machine learning tech and how much of it was humans, but I suppose that’s advertising. Like branded viral video stunts that get millions of views, 99% are obviously faked, but it doesn’t matter because they get results. And, when the agencies responsible enter those videos into awards, they don’t give away the details of how the visual effects were created.
If you want to win a Cannes Grand Prix, you have to play by their rules. It doesn’t matter if a computer painted the painting or not, what matters is that people believed that it did. Data was collected, and together humans and computers made something that went beyond advertising and became an international debate.
People who don’t care about art were amazed, art experts were delighted and offended, and it exposed a vast new audience to the client’s sponsorship of Dutch art. Job well and truly done. The Next Rembrandt is a worthy winner, but I suppose I had set my heart on a breakthrough for live customer data.
It is now obvious why no Grand Prix was awarded for Creative Data in 2015. The judges must pick something that represents the creativity of Cannes which will then be reported on around the world. At the moment, projects built on live data just aren’t on the same level – creatively – as The Next Rembrandt.
If an entry submission goes into detail about the tech instead of demonstrating the effect the idea has on people, it won’t win. A look through the submissions over the last two years shows that entries with their nuts and bolts showing, no matter how technically clever, can only win a bronze at best. This shortlisted entry, a very clever use of localized weather data to target ads for swimming pools, didn’t win an award.
In many ways Bronze winner Play Dow Jones is very similar to The Next Rembrandt, using historical financial data to compose music rather than paint, but the entry focuses on the tech, instead of the emotional response it created. You can’t win the top prize in a creativity competition if you don’t really have a creative idea. The tech or data have to be there to fulfill the category entry, but beyond that it’s all about creativity.
The jury president for the Cyber category (where the Next Rembrandt also won the Grand Prix) Chloe Gottlieb, ECD at R/GA, summed this up perfectly: “What we love about this idea is that the data isn’t the output of the creativity, the data is the beginning of the creativity.”
Last year we were just guessing; now we know what it takes to win. We already knew that data must be the starting point, but last year’s results show that visible tech is seen as a little bit uncouth at Cannes (even in the Cyber and Creative Data categories). If we’ve learned anything it’s that the tech must be impressive, but it also must be virtually invisible. Are the judges bored of obvious tech like VR experiences and social integration?
I said it was my job to help agencies understand the importance of customer data, but now I can see that my job is actually to get live customer data in the hands of the world’s best creatives. And the truth is, my job is far from done.
There is still a huge divide between the best agency creatives and live customer data. Although we now have a wealth of data sources to work with in business, if we think about how much of it makes it onto the desks of advertising creatives it’s just the tip of the iceberg. The most creative people in our industry are still spoon-fed tiny morsels of data. But I know if we can get the right tech in front of them, then we will see Grand Prix winning ideas that were made possible by crunching real-time customer data.
I don’t think we’re too far away from a future where automation, machine learning and algorithms will bridge this gap (this is where the very same deep-learning supercomputers that made The Next Rembrandt will make their mark on the industry). Soon computers will be able to read a brief, attend meetings, and watch over the shoulder of creatives as they go through the creative process.
Maybe they can’t paint a masterpiece yet, but performing the duties of a data analyst could be within their grasp. Data insights could be automatically generated on the fly. If a theme or idea is discussed in a meeting, the segment of the brand’s audience that would respond to the subject matter could be immediately shown on screens, and similar, more appealing topics could be suggested.
We’ve made great strides with data and creativity, but there is still another barrier to break down. Automation and machine learning will have a massive impact on agencies in the coming years and when that happens we will start to see truly great creative solutions based on live customer data. It won’t happen next year of course, but when we get there we’ll look back and wonder how on earth we came up with creative ideas without it.
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