Cannes Lions proves this is the summer of AI in advertising

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The recently concluded Cannes Lions festival on the French Riviera showcased plenty of diverse uses of artificial intelligence to communicate, persuade, and further the ambitions of the advertising industry. This summer, expect creative types to plumb the winning Cannes Lions entries as inspiration for their own offerings. And expect them to use the words of festival speaker John Hegarty, the founder of BBH, as their guideposts: “We’ve got to remember that technology enables opportunity, but it’s creativity that enables value.”

There’s no doubt that artificial intelligence, or at least the presentation of it, will get warmer and fuzzier as a result of Cannes. On the most literal level, advertisers will imitate the world’s first emotionally responsive billboard, which analyzed the emotional content of tweets with the Cannes hashtag and displayed advertising that appeared to pick up on those emotions. Chatbots, recently foregrounded by Facebook’s platform, will need to become more emotionally intelligent in order to be more convincing and, of course, useful, as discussed in the session “Will a Robot Win a Lion?”

Cultural integration

But for those on the creative side, the best creative projects this summer will conspicuously avoid the science-fiction aspects of AI. Two campaigns at Cannes made intense and obvious use of artificial intelligence, picking up three Grand Prix awards between them. ING, which won in the Cyber and Creative Data categories, used a slew of data about Rembrandt’s paintings, including height maps of the brushstrokes themselves, to 3-D print a “new” Rembrandt. Google’s AlphaGo project, which beat the world’s best player of the ancient game of Go, took the Grand Prix for innovation. The industry trend will be to join powerful artificial intelligence with cultural referents that are both ancient and familiar, making the technology itself seem more transformative and less threatening.

Hegarty’s words about the primacy of creativity came to life in an ambitious project from Saatchi & Saatchi: a music video “directed” by an AI. Actors were cast by a computer that matched their brain data with the emotions detected in the human-created music track. Computers directed cameras on drones to shoot footage, and decided where to make cuts based on the emotional content of the music.

The technological accomplishment is impressive, and clearly hints at new possibilities in video. But it also shows that technology on its own doesn’t impress as it once did, and that tying technology to music that already sounds somewhat modern might not be as persuasive as digging back to more universally-shared referents.

Behind the scenes

There is also huge potential in the use of AI in programmatic advertising. The hope is that advances in technology will help advertisers create work that people actually want to see, removing irrelevance, clutter, and interruption. The trend here won’t be to hook AI to something well-established and well-loved, but instead to bury it far beneath the surface.

A Gold Lion win by The Economist, in the Creative Effectiveness category, showed how advertisers might use AI to make their work more relevant and appealing. The campaign itself brought attention to stories from The Economist that went beyond the expected politics and economics coverage. But it used technology to bring tailored versions of that campaign, created in real-time, to relevant intersections in readers’ digital travels. The Economist said the campaign generated 5.2 million clicks, and also, importantly, 64,000 new subscribers with a projected lifetime revenue of about $67 million. And you can bet none of those new subscribers realized just how much technology, and data, was brought to bear in convincing them to sign up. The most impressive industry use of AI may be the one the audience never sees.

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