Cannes Lions 2016: Magic and the machine - can data drive creativity?

Seth Barron / June 2016

In another fascinating Lightning Talk from the YouTube Beach in Cannes, a panel of planners, creatives and brand advertisers explore whether or not data has a role in creativity, and do their best to separate the magic from the machine.

Wednesday’s second Lightning Talk began with a provocative statement from moderator Nick Vale, Global Head of Planning at Maxus. Framing the conversation for the three other panelists, Nick said: “I personally have this feeling that over the last three years, in the delivery of media we’ve had a complete revolution in the way that we do it... I don’t necessarily think that I’ve seen that reflected in the way that we’re developing creatively.”

In 2010, Dimitri Maex, President of Ogilvy One New York, wrote a book called Sexy Little Numbers, which set out to demystify the role of data in growing businesses and creating better customer relationships. Six years on, Dimitri says that things have not progressed as far as he’d hoped they would, with conversations around data still focused more on technology than application. “If there’s one thing from the book that still applies today, it’s that you should start with how you use the data, start with the applications, start with the types of questions it can help you answer, and then let that inform your technology discussion.”


Turning to Seth Barron, Head of Creative Business Partnerships at ZOO Americas, Nick then asked for a view on whether the appetite for data-driven creative has changed recently. According to Seth, while the desire for data and data-driven methods has increased, the transformation is not happening fast enough. “A lot of marketers are stuck thinking about an online and offline paradigm which is totally antiquated. I’m not sitting in front of a computer, but I’ve got a mobile phone in my pocket, so I’m online.” According to Seth, brands and agencies should be aiming to use data to create more meaningful experiences for users, and to rid themselves of a campaign-driven mindset that has no counterpart in real-world user behaviour.

"A lot of marketers are stuck thinking about an online and offline paradigm which is totally antiquated. I’m not sitting in front of a computer, but I’ve got a mobile phone in my pocket, so I’m online."

Seth Barron, Head of Creative Business Partnerships, ZOO Americas


While Dimitri and Seth both question the extent to which data is being applied, there’s no question that over the past couple of years, the amount of data businesses have access to has increased enormously. Suzanne Cole, EVP Media at Universal Studios, picked up this thread, describing the difficulty in differentiating between data that is important and data that is simply interesting. With Universal Studios substantially increasing their digital and video budgets, the challenge for her remains separating between signal and noise, especially in an environment where one of the brand’s biggest target audiences - young people - are increasingly trying their hardest to avoid advertising altogether.

Next, the panel tackled the question of the difference between measurement and insight, with Dimitri Maex observing that in the main, data is mostly still used for the low-hanging fruit of post-campaign analysis. The bigger challenges - involving personalisation and complex programmatic creative - are still a way off, though there’s optimism that things are changing, as a new generation of more data-literate creatives enter the industry.


On the subject of data and programmatic as tools of digital storytelling, Seth Barron is unconvinced, arguing that we do ourselves a disservice by removing human intuition and imagination from the equation. “Brands are not commodities, they are ideas,” he says, and as such, consumer behaviour is driven more by emotion than logic. For Seth a story has to be more than a collection of marketing touch-points, and the solution to ad avoidance is simply to stop showing users content they don’t care about. When we care about what we’re looking at, we don’t mind where the content came from, and with data, it’s possible to understand exactly what people care about.

Looking forward into an ideal future, Suzanne Cole says she is pinning her hopes on data providing 20:20 attribution, where collaboration between technology and media partners provides a complete picture of the audience. For Dimitri Maex, the next step is to start integrating data into products and experiences, using personalisation and visualisation to make every communication and interaction genuinely meaningful. Summing up the discussion, Seth Barron predicts that data’s future will be in helping us get more of the content and experiences we want, and none of what we don’t want - an outcome in which brands, marketers and audiences will all emerge as winners.

Cannes Lions 2016: Unleashing the power of creative people