A Muse for Creativity
I headed to Cannes this year with a fair amount of optimism. Not that optimism was a widely available commodity — the world of advertising of late wasn’t exactly a fun place to be. But being part of the jury for the first time gave me hope that I would get to see what our creative output as an industry had been over the last year or so.
And my category was interesting to say the least: Creative Data or, the description I favored, Creative Usage of Data. This was the second year for the award and no Grand Prix had been awarded the previous year.
Invariably when I mentioned to anyone that I was a creative data jury member, I would be bombarded with questions: What’s creative about data? What’s data? Are you only looking at programmatic data sets? How do you define excellence in a field where every case claims billions of impressions, millions in sales or large percentage points in brand lift? Don’t you get bored?
I’ll tell you what; I didn’t get bored. In fact, I would heartily suggest that if you are going through a crisis of faith in your advertising career, or find your enthusiasm waning, get yourself to Cannes. Skip the rosé and the meaningless parties and see the work.
In surveying the offerings at Cannes, you’ll see novel ideas elevated by quality execution. The New York Times virtual reality app, winner of the Mobile Lion, and the Burger King McWhopper campaign, winner of a Media Lion, are two such examples. The first is a brand with a celebrated legacy trying to find itself and its readers in an unconventional format that it is entirely undiscovered country. It took courage for the Old Gray Lady to take a leap into the unknown. The latter is a brand which exhibited extraordinary courage in reaching out to its rival and offering to create a new product – a prime example of ‘out of the box’ thinking. Truly great work is where you struggle to find the boundaries; after all, creativity has none.
The judging experience itself is quite unique. Sequestered in a room overlooking the Mediterranean for three days, surrounded by peers, looking at case films and arguing merits or demerits of various pieces of work is manna for the soul. It reaffirms your faith in both the science and art of advertising. And you do come away with some realizations.
Yes, data is boring. It is in many cases meaningless, existing solely for the sake of existence. It comes in many forms and sizes and refuses to be categorized in neat silos. And no, data is not creative per se. But it can and does inspire creativity. If you can see the boring numbers and read the underlying story, you can come up with inspired solutions.
Creativity is often held up as an individual entity, supreme in itself, a standalone output of either brilliance or mediocrity. It is the origination, the journey and the destination. When we raise creativity to the altar of greatness, we tend to forget what most artists and poets would tell you that they couldn’t do without: a muse. Data is a muse for creativity, one of many, but critical nevertheless.
When data analysis and its output are married with a creative spark, you get fire. The reason why we don’t produce so many such fires is because often the data that can act as inspiration sits at the disappearing end of a long and arduous activation process when it really needs to be in the hands of a creative team that crafts ideas. Agencies and brands that reduce the distance between data and the creative process create great work.
At the end of the judging process, we came up against an important question: Is there any work that deserves a Grand Prix? We were torn between two pieces of work: Field trip to Mars, a VR group experience that allowed school kids to experience Mars on the streets of Washington DC and Next Rembrandt, the 347th painting of Rembrandt created by a computer.
Given my belief that the human race needs to focus on colonizing other worlds and exploring space rather than blowing each other up and discussing open vs concealed carry permits, I favored Mars just a bit. In the end though, we decided to award the Rembrandt. What better way to thumb your nose at the notion that creativity can only come from human beings and their inspired imagination? Granted, an algorithm still needs to be written but in a way without the algorithm, there is no idea.
Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have all warned about artificial intelligence and its potential impact on humanity. While it might not seem significant in comparison, a machine learned how to paint like Rembrandt. It may not be long before computers can paint better than Rembrandt.
I for one would be happy to turn up at Cannes again and judge the work of AI driven machines, immersing myself in the products of data-fueled creativity. I may be replaced by a C3PO by then though. Those considerations aside, the fact that I could forget about ad fraud, viewability, ad blocking and other such mumbo jumbo and think about the aesthetic takeover of machines in a rapidly transforming world on the beaches of France is the intellectual inspiration I got from Cannes. One that I treasure and bet many of us need.