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The ad industry must take innovation more seriously

26 Jun 2018  |  Tracey Follows 
The ad industry must take innovation more seriously

Cannes Lions Judge and futurist Tracey Follows warns that the industry misunderstands what really counts as innovation

Whether you were there or stayed at home, last week’s focus was Cannes.

The festival has come in for some criticism over the last few years, some of it justified, but much of it vacuous political point-scoring by holding companies who want to overly influence its direction.

Cannes Lions has taken on board feedback from delegates and has changed the awards tracks, the duration of the programmes, the themes and the cost. But whilst Cannes has listened to its ‘clients’, can we say the same of the agencies who attended?

One of the things that agency clients have been asking for, perhaps for nearly a decade, is more innovation. Innovation in the media channels through which we connect with consumers, innovation in the creative partnerships and technologies used to break new ground creatively, and innovation in the very business models that lie at the heart of the ad business.

Maybe we would see much of this coming to fruition, in Cannes?

Or maybe not.

I was judging the Innovation Lions. A privilege and a pressure. This award, along with the Creative Effectiveness award, should arguably be the two most difficult to win. Creative Effectiveness demands proof of the result of the campaign - measurable, real-world, proof.

Innovation demands some kind of proof that the idea is really ‘innovative’ i.e. not just different, but better. Better than what existed before. Innovation demands ‘substitution’. An innovation needs to replace the solution we had before because this one is so much more practical but also more magical.

We saw some recurring themes.

1. A focus on CSR rather than a commercial brand initiative
2. A tendency to apply the innovation to very similar, small communities
3. A lack of clarity about what the innovation actually was

In 2016, Dot set out to give the visually impaired access to mobile communication with the first Braille smartwatch and won a Gold Lion for its innovation. This year it was back with a smart media device for the visually impaired, which used AI to translate any text into Braille. Again, it won a Gold Lion.

NeuroDigital, a tech start-up in Spain, wanted to showcase the implications of virtual reality haptics. When the agency came on board, they decided to carry out this task by demonstrating how it could be used to give blind people access to museum artworks through touch. A bronze.

Good Vibes allowed the deaf-blind to communicate through Morse code delivered as a haptic output on the smartphone. And Project Revoice, gave ALS sufferers their voices back through the message banking of their real voices and then, via a partnership with Lyrebird, the cloning of their voices.

To the former a bronze, to the latter a short-listing, though it did win the Grand Prix for Good.

There were some new uses of new or existent technology too. Lightpin was a solar powered clothes peg to solve the midnight light source problems in refugee camps. The Echo of Help tried to integrate an SOS command into Alexa for use in situations of domestic violence.

And MyLine, the overall Grand Prix winner, took a landline telephone that Colombians could call and made it something of which they could ask questions.

MyLine would speak back to the caller by phone, sort of like a search or digital assistant. The innovation gives those with no internet connection, connection to the services the rest of us get to enjoy every day.


Adidas got a Silver for its customised trainer, but brand cases were few and far between.

And this is where the challenge lies for agencies in proving their innovation chops in the future. It’s all well and good to create these very laudable CSR cases but they are not mainstream in application or showcasing better solutions brought to us by brands.

It is incumbent on agencies to use their ingenuity and apply it to the brand for which they work, for the benefit of loyal consumers or as a way to introduce it to people anew. And it is incumbent on clients to give agencies the resources to enable them to do this.

At times, it was almost impossible to point to the agency’s input"

One of the themes of the live presentations was a lack of clarity about the agencies’ involvement. In a few cases, it was crystal-clear that a close partnership between client and agency was in operation. At other times, it was almost impossible to point to the agency’s input.

It was hard to work out whether the agency had substituted the management consultancy with its business planning, or the digital platforms with close consumer analytics, or the PR partner with the mere virality of the idea?

Because the big question about innovation that I am left with after this is, and especially given the dual threats of the management consultancy upstream and the AI technologies downstream: have creative agencies really achieved ‘substitution’ themselves?

Let’s hope the innovation we see in 2019 resoundingly answers that question next year.

Tracey Follows is the founder of Futuremade and writes on the subject of strategic foresight each month for Mediatel


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