Chris Daniels
Jun 16, 2023

It's AI's time in the sun at Cannes

Artificial intelligence probably won’t win a Grand Prix but it will be the hot topic of conversation.

It's AI's time in the sun at Cannes

Agency leaders are packing their bags for France, where the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity will be a lot more than rosé all day. This year, Cannes is set to take a geeky turn, with AI as the ubiquitous topic of conversation. 

“AI will be mentioned by most panelists on most stages along La Croisette, from Le Palais to the Gutter bar,” says Gail Heimann, CEO of the Weber Shandwick Collective and jury president of the PR Lions in 2020. “I expect AI, even in its creative toddlerhood, will be well-represented in entries and take a few silvers and golds.” 

She cites the Heinz AI Ketchup campaign as a possible winner. It uses a text-to-image generator to show that even AI prefers the brand. It’s proof: when the bot draws the word “ketchup,” the result always looks like a Heinz bottle.

Will AI win its first Grand Prix? Probably not yet, Heimann says, predicting AI-driven ideas will fall “victim of its conversational ubiquity.”

This year’s gathering, which runs from June 19-23, will include more than 400 speakers and between 10,000 and 15,000 delegates. It will also be the scene of several awards ceremonies, in which brands and agencies vie for coveted Cannes Lions, including in the PR category. 

Julianna Richter, global CEO of Ogilvy PR and Social and CCO and CMO of WPP Open X, agrees that AI will be the big buzzword. 

“It’s hard to go an entire meeting without someone bringing up AI, but it’s interesting to see the different approaches agencies and brands are taking in this space,” she says. Richter adds that WPP recently inked a partnership with Nvidia to develop an AI content engine that combines product and design data with generative AI to enable creativity at scale. 

On the WPP Beach, the holding company is planning a session called, The Art of the Creative Prompt: How to Get the Best out of Generative AI. It will feature David Raichman, Ogilvy’s executive creative director and AI creative lead. 

AI-related discussions at Cannes will go beyond using the technology to enhance creativity. Richter says “responsible AI” will “be a big topic this year,” and says Ogilvy PR is “reviewing how we use AI responsibly including areas like influencers.” 

James Ferber, executive creative director at Marina Maher Communications and RXMosaic, says AI and how the technology is being used will be top of mind. 

“The biggest trend to watch for at Cannes is AI and its real-world value in creative communications,” he says. “With generative AI’s barrier to uptake as low as typing a few words in a box, the opportunities for marketers are truly endless.”

Of course, there will be other important topics up for discussion, including COVID-19-related work.

“There’s so much being made about AI right now, but let’s remember that all of the case studies being awarded this year were produced during the pandemic,” says Rob Bernstein, chief innovation officer at Ketchum. “While the future of automation will be under the Cannes heat lamp this year, let’s pay particular attention to how creatives and makers delivered transformative thinking under the most challenging of circumstances.”

There’s a debate taking place about whether cause or social purpose marketing will be as hot of a topic as it was in years past. This year’s PR Lions jury president, Jo-ann Robertson, CEO of global markets at Ketchum in London, says that she was excited to see entries this year that were “pure-play brand work, that doesn’t rely on a cause or a purpose.”

“It’s what we [PR agencies] do for the majority of the time,” she said on a recent PRWeek podcast. “It’s the hardest thing to do. And I don’t think it’s celebrated anywhere near enough.” 

Other executives disagree. “Purpose will continue to shine at Cannes, as it should,” says Heimann. She adds that it won’t just be “extraordinary work from NGOs and other nonprofits,” like in the past.

“I expect we will see more brands in the purpose space this year…that engage us meaningfully in the issues and inequities that have defined the last few years and moved the business world to stand up and, in many cases, take a stand,” she says. 

Lisa Rosenberg, partner and president of consumer brands at Allison+Partners, plans to be in the audience for one of the festival’s headliners, “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels. The longtime entertainment executive will be joined on-stage by some of the show’s cast members to answer “how creativity and comedy has driven authenticity and relevance for half a century.” Rosenberg has also circled the session featuring BBDO Worldwide president and CEO Andrew Robertson, “But Seriously Though — Why We Need to Make People Laugh,” on her agenda. 

“I am really interested in this notion of laughter and the impact it can have, and how we can make it a part of people’s lives,” says Rosenberg. 

The program this year includes several sessions with the word “risk” in the title, like From Missteps to a Billion-Dollars: The Journey of Creative Risk-Taking, Virtual Influencers: The Future of Creative Risk-Taking and Taking Risks—and the Route Less Traveled. This is an area that Rosenberg is looking to gather insight. 

“There is a line that brands walk, and I’ll be curious to find out what I’ll learn,” she says. 

Rosenberg is part of a team from Allison going to Cannes to introduce the firm’s AI-powered cultural relevance brand tool Brand Geist IQ, which launched in the U.S. last year, to U.K. clients. She is also on a panel organized by the World Woman Foundation in partnership with the Cannes Can: Diversity Collective about marcomm’s role in creating an equitable future. 

Meanwhile, Ketchum is planning a session on infusing trauma-informed creativity into storytelling.

What else is Richter keeping an eye on? “The democratization of influence is taking its place on the Cannes stage in 2023,” she says. “It’s not just rising podcast talent or platform creators on the sidelines, but facilitating critical conversations about the growth of this not so new frontier.” 

“It’s arguably the most potent cultural force today, particularly when you look at the rise of TikTok, but it also spans the unexpected, like B2B influence and AI influence,” she says. “This brings tremendous opportunity and new ways for brands, agencies and creators to collaborate—something we are focused on at Ogilvy PR and will be facilitating conversations at Cannes.” 

PR Lions: Same old story? 

PR agencies had a decent showing on 2022’s PR Lions shortlist, but failed to win as much hardware as creative shops in their own category. It’s the same story every year, though PR firms occasionally win in non-PR categories.

“The PR Lions are always a favorite subject of conjecture,” says Richter. “But I think it’s important to look beyond who is credited for the ideas, and focus on the work itself that’s winning in the category. It’s almost always ideas that are conceived to be shared—by people, communities, media—and ideas designed to earn attention. It’s work that is culturally relevant and timely to something happening in the moment. Most importantly, it invites the audience to engage or act, and not just be passive recipients.” 

Heimann agrees and predicts winners outside the PR Lions will also be earned-media-driven, which is a positive for the PR sector. 

“I expect that 100% of the Cannes Lions top winners will effectively be earned-at-the-core campaigns, meaning that they are in culture and move it with coverage and conversations, but I expect that will be lost in the-standard-creative-agency-Cannes-domination translation,” she says. “I believe that it will be a good year for earned-first organizations like The Weber Shandwick Collective. We have a powerful group of entries in which we are the idea lead.” 

Saying she doesn’t want to jinx anything, Richter didn’t cite any entrants specifically, but says earned media campaigns from other WPP agencies like Mammoth Meatball, for Australian food-technology brand Vow, by Wunderman Thompson Benelux, have momentum. 

Anthony Chelvanathan, chief creative officer of Edelman Canada, cites work from last year’s festival, such as Dole’s “pineapple leather” campaign, that pushed the work “beyond traditional advertising.” 

“In the PR category, there used to be a line drawn between PR agencies and creative agencies. Having been in the PR judging rooms with a creative agency background, I feel it doesn’t matter where the ideas come from,” he says. “The best idea should win. We need to combine the best of PR and creative agencies to make work that pushes boundaries, innovates our industry and creates impact.”


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