Is the Lion an Endangered Species?

Nurturing creativity in the age of robots

A Lion hunter and his trophy, last Saturday in the Palais at Cannes

On the first night in Cannes, strolling along the harbor, we pass an overflowing, raucous yacht party. A banner that reads “Programmatic buying!” is draped from the boat’s stern, announcing what all the fun is about. The beachfront is wall to wall with the big nouveau media platforms hosting “experiences,” including that big yellow Snapchat Ferris wheel that graces the entrance to the Palais. Names like Greenfly, Taboola, Immersion, OpenX, LogoGrab and hundreds of others you wouldn’t recognize float up from the festival like Periscope hearts. And—oh right, almost forgot—through the front doors of the Palais, an award show is taking place that celebrates the leading edge of advertising around the globe.

It’s almost as if there are two festivals happening in parallel this year—one meant to showcase and inspire creativity in advertising, and a second, much bigger gathering that is in pursuit of something very different.

Brian McPherson

Like an exclamation point comes the surprise midweek announcement that moving forward, the largest submitter of awards has banned its agencies from participating next year. Publicis Groupe will instead take that money and create advertising’s most modern-day artificial-intelligence-collaboration-performance data platform.

I have the privilege of catching up with an old client who is now a tech heavyweight. We are joined by another tech heavyweight, and 24 seconds later, the conversation shifts to much more exciting talk. Brand safety! Data collection! Privacy! Advertising, creativity and its purveyor fade into the background.

I’d paint media agencies into this portrait of domination, but as someone flippantly remarks over a glass of rosé, “They’ve got about five years left before the robots come for them.” It’s been hypothesized that media buying will be the easiest to fully automate.

As the champions of creativity, how do we avoid the robots coming for us as well? How do we avoid fading out of the cocktail-party conversations? Maybe most important, how do we get to party with those programmatic dudes?

To start, I know the answer is not “Marcel.” The top-down holding-company initiative might present some useful tools, but it won’t change human behavior. That will need to be a grassroots affair. Individuals beget change; holding companies do not.

Keith Weed, always an inspiration to hear speak, said that while Unilever is investing in programmatic from a media sense, there is opportunity for them to do so from a creative perspective. And yes, I can hear creative people from all over the world groan.

The point, of course, has nothing to do with programmatic media.

The point is this: We creative people need to aggressively strive to put more creative things in technology and performance-driven channels that—let’s be honest—could desperately use our help. Retargeted banners, dynamic video, pre-roll, VR, AI and mobile marketing only begin to scratch the surface. Don’t do it as a creative stunt for a case study; do it for real at scale. Don’t do it because a holding company is forcing you to; do it because you selfishly see the creative opportunity in it. The best things sometimes come from the worst briefs. When television came along, the first TV spots were bad radio ads read by a spokesperson standing at a microphone.

And for clients, I also have a suggestion. The easiest way to make your media plan 20 percent more efficient is to put executions in it that are 20 percent less annoying. Many of the new trends in marketing are based on tiny incremental improvements in performance. Optimization is important, but at some point, if you need to make a $10 million media plan seem like $30 million, or you want people to really sit up and take note, creativity will be your most effective weapon. Cannes rewards creativity, but the golds and the Grand Prix go to things that made a (decidedly nonincremental) real-world impact.