Cannes Lions Innovation: A 20 Year Old Vision of the Future

We recently sent two brilliant storytellers from Level to the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in France. They took us behind the scenes on Snapchat, captured live events on Twitter, and documented their overall experience. Read on for thoughts from Sterling Rose, Art Director at Level.

We went to the Cannes Lions Innovation Festival. Yes, it was part of that huge, week-long, rosé-soaked advertising festival where thought leaders and celebrities are flown in to give inspirational talks on creativity, and the advertising industry sloshes between parties on yachts and hotels on the beach. It was part of that annual love song to commerce in the same way that the driver’s manual is part of a car: it comes with it and is filled with interesting nuggets of information, but it gets tucked away and mostly is referenced when you’re kinda just sitting around waiting for your next appointment and forgot to charge your phone.

The InnoFestival at Cannes focused on the world of emerging technology as interpreted by advertisers. Basically, in this context, Innovation = Tech. There was a “Startup Village” where people could rent space to show off their startup, network, and answer questions about the technology they were developing. There were even special Innovation Lions awards, which had their own unique structure “modeled after how startups work”, and lacking any of the traditional ranks of bronze, silver, and gold medalists “just those who would and would not get funding.” During the awards ceremony the presenter said that they were described as the “fun jury.” Yeesh.

If you are looking for the typical story of a wild 3 day party odyssey in the south of France, I sadly can’t provide that. I saw a couple of famous people, decided to leave them alone, went on a yacht with our CEO and a bunch of important people, and attended this weird satellite festival at the Palais des Festivals.

From that festival, though, I was able to weed out a few common themes from the feverish glossolalia of buzzwords that came out of every PA system in the building: the phasing out of screen time, advertisement as an entertainment medium, and data-driven everything.

The screen is dead, long live the (VR) screen.

Several presenters at the festival harped on the idea that we’ve gotta stop looking at our phones. It’s annoying, it’s a bad experience, we’re tired of our friends bitching about it, and there’s gotta be a better way to talk to each other, entertain ourselves, and of course, buy stuff. WIRED UK’s editor David Rowan described this as “removing friction from commerce.” Friction… gross. He also made a reference to a book called Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson which contains a vision of a future internet that mimics our real life meatspace, and claimed that this “Metaverse” was just around the corner for us. More on that later.

Wearables and VR were also talked about as delivering us from our adolescent phase of being augmented humans. John C Fremont of Fjord stated that his hope for digital and wearables is that they will transition to enhance the human experience.

VR was talked about a lot, specifically about its immaturity, and how, for it to really come into its own, we’ve got to think of it as its own medium, not an interpretation of other mediums. The point was made several times that for this to happen, we’ve gotta start making experiences that are internally consistent and create an imitation of life (verisimilitude if you want to be a fancy pants about it).

The idea of removing the friction of commerce is interesting though. And I kept coming back to it throughout the first day of the festival. So much of the consumer experience is having the agency, or, if you’re like me, the chore to choose what brand of phone, car, or sugar water we want to consume. What happens when that choice is streamlined? If voice is the new way we interact with our computers to buy things, how does buying something without even looking at a picture of it affect advertising and brand competition? What will brands do when consumers no longer have that visual cue to help them distinguish which brand of energy drink, crewcut sock, or deodorant to buy?

If you wait till the end of the credits, there’s a scene where Captain America sells you a car.

No matter what brand was being showcased in the talks we attended, one thing was consistent: everything was entertainment. There weren’t really any hard sells in the campaigns we saw, just… stories. I don’t think I’m unique in the fact that I hate being advertised to. Nothing bums me out more than seeing an ad interrupt what I’m watching, or having to close an ad on whatever game I’m playing on my phone. Advertisers seem to get this based on what we saw in Cannes, and their solution to make you stop skipping ads was to make them more entertaining. Now, making ads entertaining isn’t really a new idea, but what is new is the approach.

CokeForward gave a presentation on how they engaged Reddit for creating their latest Super Bowl ad for their Coke mini cans. Their strategy was to basically just put all their cards on the table and ask the Reddit community what kind of a commercial they wanted to see. Turns out, all you have to do is ask, and the internet will let you know exactly which superheroes from the Marvel Cinematic Universe they wanted to see duke it out over a can of the real thing. Needless to say, the ad was a huge success despite breaking the usual ritual that brands have of releasing their Super Bowl ads ahead of the big day.

The best example of this idea of making advertisements into entertainment was Mondelēz International’s Heaven Sent campaign for Stride Gum. The basic premise behind this campaign is that instead of trying to interrupt people from watching content with ads, just make your ads into content people are willing to pay to watch. Yep, Mondelēz developed a campaign where you have pony up to watch.

There was a big question asked and then immediately answered by most presenters talking about making ads for the future.

“How do we figure out what will entertain people enough to watch our ads or buy stuff?”

Give us this day our daily data.

The biggest and probably most contentious topic was data, and procedurally assisted creativity (robodesigners). There was a lot of dancing around the subject for the first part of the festival. Lots of talking about analysing emotional facial cues, tracking consumer behavior, good old fashioned surveys, etc.

The dance ended midday through day 2, when a presenter whipped a sheet off of a painting made by a robot. Not a painting replicated by a robot, an original painting made by a robot. Long story short, some folks took a scanner to the Rijksmuseum and analyzed a ton of Rembrandt masterpieces, showed them to an algorithm they named “The Next Rembrandt” and asked it to paint a new subject in the style of Rembrandt. For real though, the painting was a solid B+. It looked like a very good imitation of Rembrandt, and as far as technical skill, that robot can paint.

Another presenter nervously offered “that’s impressive, but the data still comes from a human being” to which I would say “yeah, but most people just ape other artist’s styles anyway, this robot made up a person from scratch and gave him a funny hat and one of those weird fluffy collars.”

We were given some consolation in multiple talks, that human creativity wasn’t going to be replaced, just that it would be augmented by the new shiny data we’d be able to access and wield in our creative endeavors.

Bummer ex machina.

It was the end of the second day of the Innovation festival, I was sitting there, eyes glazed over thinking “this is such a load of dookie, all these advertising people think they can just have their cake and eat it too and that it’s all just gonna work out once we have all this new tech to help streamline making ads and moving units” when I heard the speaker say “techno-serfdom.”

“Techno-serfdom? Like, slaves to technology? That sounds bad…”

I was back.

Techno-serfdom, as he put it, is a future social strata of people who will work for algorithms (or computers, or robots, or whatever you want to call them). That’s right, according to the creator of an algorithm designed to infer things from content created by humans, people, in the future, will end up working for the machines. Harsh toke.

The speaker was Sean Gourley, CEO and Founder of QUID, a company/piece of software specializing in analyzing the contents of a given set of documents and drawing connections and extracting common ideas from them… i think.

Gourley consoled the crowd by saying that most of us (i.e. people in the room he was speaking in) won’t have to worry about working for an algorithm, and that most of us will enjoy free use of algorithms, or better yet, will be able to employ algorithms to work for us and make us more than human.

It wasn’t a new concept, the idea that someday humanity will be enslaved by computers, but when Gourley flashed up a photo of a Chinese woman sitting at a desk with 20 iPads joylessly interacting with them for pay, I remembered why I was so bitter about everyone looking forward to a glossy and automated future of funny ads that people pay to watch.

Gourley went on to mention another book by Neal Stephenson called, The Diamond Age, referring to a central piece of technology in the book referred to as “The Young Girl’s Illustrated Primer.” This is essentially a self-organizing interactive book that is meant to teach a young girl all the way until adulthood. He used this as an example of what the ideal alternative for how algorithms would work in world filled with augmented humans.

There he is again, Neal Stephenson…

Now, as far as I see it, there are are only two ways in the English language to end a conversation faster than saying “You should read the books first.” But there we were, at the Lionfest of Innovation, observing thought leaders in advertising talk about how technology is going to shape both the future of advertising, and the future of our society, and, I really hate myself for saying this, but you should read the books first.

Lemme explain:
In 1992, Neal Stephenson published Snow Crash, a postcyberpunk epic about religion, ethnicity, language, computer programming, anarchocapitalism, the nature of human consciousness, and the economics of weaponized pizza delivery. The book is set in a near-future version of California where the US government has lost most of its power to corporations, which function like sovereign nations spread over hundreds of thousands of tiny plots of land (think McDonalds as a country, with its borders being the edge of every parking lot that it owned). In this version of my home state, personal vehicles rule the (privately owned and politically sovereign) road, GPS navigation is standard for almost any trip to anywhere, citizenship and your ethnic identity is loosely tied to your employment or subscription to various franchised corporations, hyperinflation has ravaged the US dollar, causing people to use electronic currency or other more stable forms of cash, and the tech industry has matured to a point where programmers (styled hackers in the book) no longer have the same occupational prestige they did in the late nineties and early oughts and have been relegated to production level workers that work on small components of a larger whole. To someone living in current day California, parts of this description may not seem futuristic.

The first time I read the book was in 2011. When I finished it, my brain folded in on itself and flopped around in a messy pile of Wikipedia articles on neurolinguistic programming, cryptography, memetics, ancient Sumerian religion, cryptocurrency, and “what other books did this dude write?” because — straight up — in 1992 he predicted the world we could soon be living in.

Talking about Neal Stephenson’s prescience is a dead horse that was well-beaten before I was ever asked to write about my experience. You can find tons of articles talking about how he either predicted or inspired a bunch of technologies that we take for granted today. His work was explicitly mentioned during the festival after all, so I make no claims to being the first person to draw connections between the current state of technology and advertising and his writing.

To paraphrase the famous alchemist Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of [Neal Stephenson].”

What makes Snow Crash so relevant over 20 years after its initial publication isn’t the kind of technology that it predicted, but the kind of world it predicted. There is a consistent failure to talk about a very prominent part of Stephenson’s stories, that being the human cost of technological growth. Sean Gourley’s concept of techno-serfdom was the only honest appraisal of how human beings — the ones that all of this innovation and new storytelling is supposed to be for — are going to be affected.

Both Snow Crash and The Diamond Age contain rampant examples of techno-serfdom, but Snow Crash’s version of this has two flavors that both feel like they deserve a mention. Some people like the main character, thoughtfully curate content for people to access later, submitting it to a monetized version of the Wikimedia Foundation and getting paid every time it is accessed. There are also people who shotgun it and wear every manner of recording device possible to upload anything and everything they can in the hopes that it will make them some money. You could kinda argue that we already do this. Being a contributor on the internet means generating information on tons of platforms. The difference is we don’t have to pay to use most of those platforms, for now.

It feels like we’re already moving towards an economy where we don’t have to own stuff at all, just licenses to use it. It also is starting to seem like every major tech corporation is starting to make everything from cars to TV shows. We might after all, be moving towards a world where the “food-rent-subscription service” wallet-burning scheme expands past Netflix and the Creative Cloud, and into more vital things like access to information and infrastructure and, if Neal has anything to say about it, citizenship.

As the distinction between what kind of products we want to buy becomes blurred by convenience, speakers at Cannes Lions made it seem like the only thing we’ll really be left caring about spending money on - is information. Data was the belle of the ball at the fest, and everything else that was talked about was related to telling stories. Stories about cans of Coke, sticks of gum, nonprofits, cars, robots that can paint, and everything in between. All of this, whether real or imagined, is just information. And like the future that Neal Stephenson imagined in ’92, it’s all anyone can talk about right now. I just hope I can get in on the ground floor for Wikipedia citizenship when the time comes.

Sterling Rose is an Art Director at Level, a purpose-driven digital design firm.

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