The Past and Future of Digital Marketing: A View From the Cannes Cyber Jury

What a difference a decade makes

Some of this year's Cannes Grand Prix winners, like Whirlpool's "Care Counts," point to the future.

Things, we are relentlessly reminded, move pretty fast in the digital marketing realm. So 10 years in this world is practically geological, trilobites-to-goldendoodles kind of time, right?

I had occasion to think about internet ages, and what really, actually changes over 10 years in marketing as I chaired last week’s Cannes Lions Cyber jury—a role I was also honored to play a decade earlier. As I looked back at what we saw and didn’t see coming, I kept thinking of the famous phrase, attributed to someone vaguely “cyber.”*

“We overestimate what we can do in one year and underestimate what we can do in 10 years.”

Colleen DeCourcy

When you look at the big winners from 2008, you see work that was a product of its time. We had just a little more time for craft and whimsy, and—even more important—it was the pre-Big Platform era, when we were still building things for brands out of little pieces of the internet. The beloved, Grand Prix-winning Uniqlo “Uniqlock” was a great example of this, wonderfully weaving together web video, widgets, bloggers and creativity.

If one of the 2008 Grand Prix winners was a harbinger of what was coming in digital marketing, it might have been “SOL Comments” for Scandinavia Online. A copywriter penning relevant, real-time, funny comments into a multitude of ad spaces via a (then-newfangled) interactive tablet. That certainly seems like a precursor to the last few years of obsession with programmatic, as-near-to-real-time-as-possible social content publishing.

“Whopper Freakout,” a gold Lion winner that year, went on to become a de facto style of online “viral marketing” that birthed more than enough ostensibly real, “WTF will happen next?” videos over the ensuing years. Now, hidden-camera, reality-TV-style ad films seem to be dying off. In their place we watch uplifting human mini-docs about lives made better by Western ideologies, investments and laundry soap. The internet wants to teach good behavior and moralism through example—a social medium of video-laced humanity reaching upwards to the sky.

So, we’ve evolved in the last 10 years in terms of the cultural zeitgeist, in terms of media and in terms of some of the technology deployed. But I think the bigger lesson from the last 10 years might lie in the thing that hasn’t changed, and that’s our tendency toward incrementalism. I come back to that quote, and the industry-shaking things that have been made possible in 10 years, and I wonder if our industry is focused on recognizing, and producing, those things.

It’s a subject I also touched on recently in a piece about creativity and taking leaps. I noted that, as an industry, in our quest for relevance and attention, we can get distracted by outputs and channel-firsts.

As creators, we have to experiment. We have to test the limits of new technology. We also have to digest and reflect culture at unprecedented speeds. Among other purposes they serve, awards recognize this experimentation.

But this focus, if it’s the only focus, could limit us.

The brands and businesses that are really making change today, and creating news beyond award shows (and beyond advertising), aren’t just harnessing the latest tech and techniques in buzzy ways. They have a big idea in the largest sense, and they work relentlessly to manifest that idea in every way that’s relevant to their customers, over time.

Nike is no stranger to the ad awards podium. But its success is based on a long-term brand vision. Things like Nike+ and Breaking 2—things that win awards, yes—are products of that enduring and guiding vision. IBM’s Watson has already made movie trailers, dabbled in fashion and beaten legendary game-show contestants, but its creators note that the cognitive computing platform is “just the first step on a very, very long road.” GE decided to go all in on telling its science story via content 10 years ago, and last year made an iTunes-topping, Lion-winning podcast.

REI won big in Cannes last year for “Opt Outside,” but the idea that drove that monster PR moment has been driving the company for years. (See also: Patagonia.) Amazon’s head of devices was recently asked how the company got ahead in voice interfaces so fast (asked after Apple announced its late-breaking entry). His answer: The company had spent the past seven years actively studying machine learning. He also said: “We gave a rallying cry to engineers—think up hard problems to use machine learning that would be good for consumers.”

Whatever your views on Amazon, its long-term focus on customer experience does inspire awe (among many other emotions). Among this year’s Grand Prix winners, you could see ideas that looked to the future: in Cyber, a credit card designed to track carbon and create new behaviors; in Creative Data, a program that used the unlikely tool of washing machines to help kids feel better about school, and therefore do better there, and that tracked the data over time.

This kind of longer-term vision seems pretty important right now. The next several years will see the evolution of the idea of “mobile,” the increased development and application of artificial intelligence, and the explosion of virtual reality. These are complicated things, for what they represent to marketing, and to humanity; “because we can” shouldn’t be the only guiding principle around their deployment and development.

So where are we going to be 10 years from now? What should we be awarding? Are we creating the future, or artifacts? We can still celebrate the state of the art, stunts and freakouts, things that harness new tech in new ways. But we should be assessing not just the speed, but the direction of movement—and whether it’s toward creating things that people want, things that have relevance and value past the PR hit, things that are changing industries, or lives, in big and small ways.

Lordy, we don’t need another awards category, but since we’re going to get more anyway, something along the lines of Brand Vision might be good. Recognizing that we tend to get meaningful change when we aim at a horizon longer than the next award season, it’s only awarded to a company with three or more years of sustained commitment to an idea or ethos, expressed across platforms. Or we can just commit to thinking past the next quarter, the next year, the next campaign, the next show.

When I pull up to the Palais in my bionic zimmer frame to lead the Cyber jury in 2027, I’m sure we’ll all be reminiscing about 2017, when we thought it was all about publishing and community, when in truth we were about to step off the ledge into a 4-D virtual reality world and put lenses on our eyes that turned everything into a living OOH experience. Whatever that world looks like, I want to have grossly underestimated what we did as a creative industry in 10 years.

*Bill Gates, probably.