As we start the countdown to the first in-person Cannes Lions festival for three years, we face a time like no other – with a global pandemic persisting, a brutal invasion of a nation under way and many trusted media platforms once again becoming highly contested arenas between truth and lies.
There is seemingly very little space for the niceties of creativity when media is a battle zone for survival.
It is in this fraught context that my colleagues and I will be gathering to award this year’s Cannes Media Lions.
Typically, we look for work that is exceptional, that transcends the bounds of what media conventionally does in terms of reach and scale, and celebrate, instead, the most creative examples of game-changing channel strategies in action that create a deep connection with people and deliver real business results for brands.
This year, we will do the same, of course, as we seek to recognisze the most creative media work in the world. But we will also be paying new attention to the ways in which media is being hacked to unleash its potential as a force for good in the world.
We are seeing a flourishing of a brave new world of media creativity from the crucible of the battles around truth and lies that should alert us to new opportunities for the future.
What is changing, out of necessity, as we watch media narratives and social media memes get twisted with vaccine misinformation, conspiracy theories and Russian propaganda, is our passive pose towards the most powerful media sources in our world. We are no longer prepared to sit idly by and be the good students of social media any more.
We have spent the past years understanding the nuances and rhythms of every new social media platform as it emerged, learning to understand the uniqueness of each and finding ways to test the special properties that make audiences trust brands on those platforms as welcome.
We have played with the reality reframing lenses of Snap, the aesthetic perfection of Instagram, the quick retort of Twitter and the addictive musical sampling of TikTok. Our creativity in media has meant learning the codes of each environment and finding ways to express them authentically and imaginatively.
We have seen the power of these platforms exemplified by those people and brands who followed the rules and gave purest expression to the deepest intent of each new media property.
The viral sensation of 420doggface208 on TikTok sipping Ocean Spray cranberry juice while skateboarding to Fleetwood Mac, the Snapchat Vogue Noir filter that makes everyone a cover model or an ironic version of one and, of course, the epic Oreo Super Bowl blackout tweet “You can still dunk In the dark” in 2013 that showed the power of Twitter to cut through chaos and get everyone’s attention.
A shift in media creativity
However, something has shifted recently in media creativity, and it is something we should all celebrate.
Along with the amazing courage and resilience shown by the Ukrainian people in the face of a brutal military attack, we have also witnessed the flowering of tremendous creativity in the use of media to speak truth to power.
These extraordinary times have yielded a new frontier of media creativity where the urgent aspiration is to twist and mold the platform to serve the moral purpose of the creator. Otherwise known as the media hack.
The most recent ones are already globally famous:
In a brilliant subversion of Tinder, pictures of the atrocities of the war in Ukraine were sent to young adults in Russia. When they swipe right, instead of a fresh-faced potential date, they see someone who has changed their location to Russia and replaced their profile picture with a real, uncensored picture from the conflict. This media hack, from Slovakian agency JANDL, tapped into the deep hunger to speak to young Russians and have an honest conversation with them. And the best way to do this was on Tinder, where all pretence is dropped. Apparently, the conversations that were started, while not all cordial, were all conversations that had not happened before, and are centred on depictions of the truth about the war.
Reporters Without Borders and DDB Germany ingeniously hacked Twitter to create The Truth Wins project, using publicly available numbers from national lotteries. On Twitter, people drop winning lottery numbers (that are continually updated) into the search bar to unlock uncensored news in Russia, Turkey and Brazil, including news about the Russian invasion. If Twitter is blocked, then news journalists email links to the block-chain domain news sites that are unlocked by the winning lottery numbers.
There has been brave hacking of Russian-owned media directly: these include the Russian news producer who photo-bombed a live news programme on Russian state TV’s Channel One with a placard that said, simply, “No war”, the numerous hacks of Telegram with fact-checks against the Russian state propaganda that is circulating on it and the specific use of Telegram to showcase to Russian parents that their captured Russian soldiers are still alive.
Lastly, while not technically media, there has been the maverick use of Airbnb as a mechanism to send funds to Ukrainians by booking accommodation in Ukrainian cities from people around the world who don’t intend to stay but rather to support Ukraine, is so creative and inventive that it might well turn Airbnb into a medium for messaging and support in all war-torn places in the future.
These are all intensely creative, viral in all the right ways, signs of the times. The creative use of media for immense social good, which is a refreshing change.
Until now, we seemed to be living in a rather depressing era when media seemed to have become weaponised, driven by the terrifying power of social media to make lies, misinformation and disinformation swirl with ease, masquerade as truth in a “news feed” and where at least one social media algorithm has been shown to prioritise rage-inducing stories for viral sharing above all others.
But instead of feeling helpless, what the most creative media thinkers in our business are doing is striking back. Making “neutral” platforms find space for the truth and making us all feel empowered to bend technology to our human needs, rather than be lab rats in a vast social experiment created by computer science nerds.
Media hacks are happening everywhere. And they are only going to get bigger and more creative. They are the hope for a better future for all of us, where media is a force for good and a source of creativity in the world. Humans are fighting back in media. Let’s all pay attention and celebrate. I know we will be when we meet in June as the 2022 Cannes Media Lions jury.
Daryl Lee is chief executive of IPG Mediabrands and president of the media jury at Cannes Lions 2022