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Dissecting the Data Discussion at Cannes Lions 2018

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In the year that Cambridge Analytica and GDPR woke the world up to the ethics of data, LBB’s Alex Reeves asks how the creative community has responded

Dissecting the Data Discussion at Cannes Lions 2018
With Cambridge Analytica and the implementation of GDPR in Europe opening the public's eyes to the implications of sharing their data with brands, normal people are thinking about their data and where it ends up more than any previous year. So you’d think that there would be no avoiding the data debate at this year’s Cannes Lions… right? Surprisingly the question of privacy wasn’t necessarily as prominent as one might have expected.

But as president of the Creative Data jury Marc Maleh, Havas Global Director  summarised in a press conference announcing the winners from the category, there are still so many questions hanging over the topic: “A lot of the conversation [in the jury] was about ‘what is data?’ and ‘what is our definition as a jury?’ And the use of data. Is it for media, is it for targeting, is it for personalisation, is it data that actually creates products?”

They did well to start by asking these fundamental question, despite ideas of big data - the vast information harvesting by the Googles and Facebooks of the world - springing to mind at the mention of the word. As NAKATOMI (the innovation wing of FINCH) managing director Emad Tahtouh explains, the category could easily be one of the broadest in the Festival. “Everything breaks down to basic information. For me, data is the minimum amount of information relating to whatever you’re doing,” he says.

The questions marketers need to ask themselves on the subject can be quite profound. As Marc was keen to stress, the use of people’s data is inextricably connected to ethical discussions like the ones he and his jury found themselves engaged in. “Just because technology can do something, should it?” was one he said they often found themselves asking. “That was definitely a key debate at times.”

It’s a debate that we’ve gotten used to in recent months and creatives in Europe have been able to see it both from the perspective of an ad industry professional and that of a regular punter besieged with GDPR emails. “Brands are more and more accountable in more and more ways and of course data is one of them,” says Smoke & Mirrors’ global creative director Kenn MacRae. “One way of answering [the question about brands’ responsibilities] is how I respond to all those GDPR notices that come through and Facebook review. I’m the guy that clicks OK straight away because I don’t hold the conspiracy theory around brands being out to fuck me and get all my info with malicious intent.

“We work in a business where everyone mines and uses data and gets awards for data. And then when Facebook does it (which we engage with voluntarily as everyone seems to forget) we go ‘Hang on, they’re using my data!’ I welcome that customised experience. If I’m shopping for a new pair of kicks and it comes up on my Instagram feed exactly the pair I’m after, that’s cool.”

The public are going through a process of evaluating the rights to data they give to brands. 

Surprisingly, the conversations around data and privacy in the jury room were more philosophical than practical. “There were some ethical questions, but they weren’t GDPR related. It wasn’t so much on privacy but ethics were part of the discussion,” says Bas Korsten, creative partner at JWT Amsterdam and one of the members of Marc’s jury. 

Looking at the winners in the Creative Data category, it’s easy to see why ethics were relevant. Irish creative agency Rothco took home the Grand Prix for its groundbreaking work with The Times, JFK Unsilenced, using AI and voice reconstruction technology to allow Kennedy to make the speech he had intended to make on the day of his assassination. It’s a project that reveals the phenomenal, potentially dangerous, power of data and technology to create alternative realities.

“There was a lot of bringing people back to life. I’m guilty of that as well,” laughs Bas, whose agency cleaned up at Cannes in 2016 with ‘The Next Rembrandt’ for ING, using AI to digitally resurrect the painting style of the Dutch Master. This time round it was the turn of Kennedy and Louis XIV (brought back to life by BETC for CANAL+) to get resurrected - without their consent, of course. “There were ethical discussions on that,” he says. We’d have thought so. Putting words in the mouths of dead political figures is one thing, but who’s to say this technology couldn’t be used to so the same with living ones?

Marc sums up the conclusion of his jury on JFK Unsilenced and why, for them, it passed their ethical standards enough to take home the top Lion in the category: “With this body of work and JFK being so loved by the world, we felt that creatively and strategically for the brand, it made sense. They were able to connect the dots from a data perspective and a technology perspective, and our hope is this will move on and start to help people.”

A familiar element of the data conversation reared its head again in Cannes - the creative push-back against over reliance on it. As a large sign on a building across the street from the Palais des Festivals read: "Remember when creatives didn't 'do' data?" Those days, for most, appear to be over. But many creatives are resistant to the encroaching march of the data.

“Data is just about targeting the right people at the right moment,” says Rosapark co-founder Gilles Fichteberg. “Creativity is blasting storytelling to everybody - the most impressive and wonderful storytelling. So I don’t care about GDPR. From a creative point of view it’s not an issue right now. If you want to sell shoes, use that data; if you want wonderful storytelling, forget about data. You have to spread great advertising to the maximum of people, not just targeting precisely one or two who are fitting with your target group. If you want to be a loved brand, a great brand, you have to spread to the maximum number of people.”

The Creative Data jury reflected this point of view too. “We’re at a creative event and creativity and the results for all these things was also a large part of the conversation,” said Marc, on their decision to award the JFK project. “We wanted to be able to leave the room with a sense that we were not only celebrating the work that we saw but also inspiring people for future years. That was a benchmark we were looking for. We all wanted to be able to go back home and send emails about the winning work.”

In the Creative eCommerce jury too, while GDPR was raised it wasn’t a central theme. As a new category, the jurors were as focused on the ‘creative’ bit of the category name as the ‘e’ bit – and most of the entries took place pre-GDPR and Cambridge Analytica.

“We mentioned GDPR – it’s a good question, actually, because it’s a hot topic. But in fact, the types of entries we got were outside of that conversation about mining for information. It was much more brand led stuff, direct-to-consumer stuff that people were actively buying into as opposed to really cleverly served up activities that creep up on you,” says Fadi Shuman, Chief Digital Officer at Geometry. “I think the data category might have had some interesting discussions.”

It might strike people as a little odd that a project like JFK Unsilenced won in the most data-focused category in Cannes. It’s not using ‘big data’ as such. “When you look at work like this, you have to think about the fact the technique, the audio files and all that work that had to go into it, all those different signals from the audio are points of data,” says Marc. “Yes, they did this just for one person and one speech, but the technique is super interesting from a data science perspective because you can start to take those data points and now actually use those things to create other pieces of content.”

In the post-data-privacy-awareness world, it’s revealing to look at the work that was awarded for its use of data. JFK Unsilenced isn’t the only winner in its category that uses a relatively small, focused data set. Project Revoice by BWM Dentsu and FINCH, used a similar approach and technology to give someone his voice back - this time that of Pat Quinn, ALS sufferer and co-founder of the Ice Bucket Challenge. It picked up a Gold Lion in Creative Data, as well as a Grand Prix, a Silver and four Bronze Lions in other categories. Another Gold winner in the category, the Gene Project for Marmite by adam&eveDDB, used data from just 216 DNA samples to conduct genetic analysis, proving the existence the ‘Marmite Gene’. What does it reveal? In the end, none of these projects use what we’d commonly refer to as ‘big data’- each revoicing projects used data relating to one individual, the Marmite campaign was more akin to a scientific study, with a data set of around two people. 

For years, creatives have pushed back against the sometimes misleading influence of big data on ideas. Thanks to various developments in 2018, giant data sets are no longer in vogue. And looking at how the best performing campaigns in Cannes this year used data, maybe that’s for the best. Rather than looking for insights from vast, unfathomable piles of the stuff, many of the best projects used data in the service of a great idea. On the other hand, though, by focusing on great creative that happens to use a bit of data rather than the kind of work the industry does with big data day-to-day, perhaps it was harder to have a really robust debate around the sharp end of the data and privacy conundrum facing brands.
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LBB Editorial, Tue, 26 Jun 2018 15:27:40 GMT