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Creativity vs algorithms: Adland and the new breed collide at Cannes Lions

By Matt Williams | Head of content

June 21, 2016 | 6 min read

One of the real fascinations at the Cannes Lions festival is the ongoing tension between the ‘classic’ creatives and the ‘new breed’ of data geeks.

Le Palais Cannes

But this isn’t an ‘out with the old and in with the new’ job. It’s not about traditional creatives refusing to change whilst the newbies come in and try and wrestle the focus and revenue from them.

It’s about dealing delicately with the balance of power and ensuring that clients and agencies use both sensibly to improve their overall product.

Sound obvious? Well from what I’ve seen at this year’s festival so far, it might be proving harder than you think. With the prominence of big tech companies at the festival – you can’t move for Samsung, YouTube or Facebook exhibits – and the seemingly endless desire for agencies to prove that they’re smarter than the rest, there comes across a burning desire to build algorithms and codes for everything.

Indeed we’ve all read the recent articles about agencies ‘hiring’ their first AI creative directors, and every campaign case study seems to highlight the large quantities of data trawled through to pick out the relevant insights.

A session hosted by Razorfish and Contagious even tried to turn winning a Cannes Lion into an algorithm this year. In a session titled ‘Cracking the code of creativity’, the agency revealed how it trawled through 15 years' worth of Cannes Lions data to spot trends and see if next year we could all win the top awards simply by following a set of instructions and ‘painting by numbers’.

There were some fascinating findings. Did you know for instance that, pound for pound, New Zealand is the most successful country at Cannes? And did you know that you’ve got the most chance of winning a Lion if your name is Marcello or Veronica?

But whilst this was all a bit of fun, the overriding answer to whether you could create a code for creativity was ‘No’. You could have a code of conduct for creativity, sure. You could put a series of practices in place to ensure your environment is most suited to producing great work. But there’s no simple formula. No algorithm.

A victory for our creative heroes, then. And this backs up another of the more interesting sessions I’ve seen at Cannes this year, focusing on the Art of Curation. Here, we had three creative people from the worlds of media and art come together to champion the role of the expert and quash the slavish drooling over big data.

"Silicon Valley think of algorithms as the big heroes of the piece, but they’re not," Adam Weinberg, the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, explained. "They’re a tool for the curator, but ultimately it’s the person who makes the decision."

So whilst McCann and friends are coming up with robots to have the final creative say, there are plenty arguing in favour of the human. You have to have human experts there because they’re the ones able to take risks. They thrive most on serendipity.

An artist’s job, Weinberg pointed out, is to mess up the system. They don’t know where they’re going, but they’re not satisfied with the moment. That’s when great creative work is truly produced. "There’s no algorithm for cool. No algorthim for beautiful…algorithms are correct, but the very best artists make mistakes. That’s not accounted for."

In many ways, I really applaud this thinking. If we did everything based on likes, we wouldn’t have been exposed to so many of the most important artists, filmmakers and writers of the past hundred years. There’d just be an awful lot of cat videos.

So how does this apply to agencies? I’d argue it has been our forte for years. And as disciplines like content and mediums like VR become more important, our expert eye and role as creators and curators are more valuable than ever.

As said in the talk, "the best creatives in the world see their job as being to stop people sleepwalking through life". What this means is that it’s sometimes ok to be elitist. To ‘care for objects’ (that’s what curating literally is) and build trust with your customer base by proving yourselves as experts whose judgement can be relied on. That’s what gives you a better chance to build your brand long-term.

Don’t ignore the algorithms. Certainly don’t kill them off. But remember that amid all the Silicon Valley excitement that gets injected into the Cannes festival in greater and greater quantities every year, they can’t be the be-all-and-end-all. Algorithms should work for the curator, not the other way round.

Matt Williams is head of creative content at Partners Andrews Aldridge

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