Tham Khai Meng's look ahead to Cannes Lions: Lunch with Obi Wan Kenobi

As I write this I can still hear the dying reverberations of a fight that broke out on social media recently. It was an argument between two celebrity models.

Nothing particularly unusual about that, you might think. It happens all the time. Yes, but this was unreal. Because both models were artificial digital creations. The more famous of the two, Lil Miquela, is a Spanish – Brazilian American social media ‘influencer’. She has over a million followers on Instagram and her own music on Spotify.

Not bad for someone who doesn’t exist. In a few years’ time, with advances in software, you won’t be able to tell the difference. The only giveaway will be that, like Dracula, she doesn't have a shadow.

The cause of the dispute was another digitally-created model on Instragram who had accused Lil Miquela of not being human. This caused Lil Miquela a lot of soul-searching, because she had started to believe that she was real. And judging by many of the comments from her followers, a lot of them seemed to think so too.

It's hard to imagine a story which more precisely captures the Zeitgeist than this. It comes at a time when Cannes Lions has been doing some housekeeping with award categories to keep up with the dizzying pace of change. Five new Lions are being created. (Creative eCommerce; Social & Influencer; Industry Craft; Sustainable Development Goals; and the Brand Experience & Activation.) And three are being ‘retired’. It’s ironic that one of the retirees is ‘Cyber’, which must have seemed achingly futuristic only a few years ago. Now it’s old hat.

As the example of Lil Miquela makes clear, we are all hurtling headlong towards a new reality. All the big tech giants are involved in creating new digital worlds for us to visit. Amazon, for example, recently unveiled their Sumerians, which are digital avatars who will help you create 3D virtual reality worlds in your computer. Building such worlds used to be expensive and complicated, but this venture by Amazon essentially makes the tech available to all.

It's clear we are going to be spending less and less time in the analogue universe and more in the digital one. In fact, using the word ‘digital’ already makes you sound like a Luddite. Brands will need to get into this brave new world. And it will be our role to act as pathfinders, armed with our dogma-busting ray guns.

I am quite excited about the possibilities. We all know that for much of its history advertising has had an image problem. We interrupted people while they were doing something else. We annoyed them. But now it seems we may be able to give people things they really want, valuable experiences, things they may have always dreamed of doing. As long as the branding is subtle, and relevant, few people will mind.

We will be the purveyors of these alternative realities, we will be more like dream-sellers. We will take fantasies, which hitherto had been unachievable, and make them available to the audience. Commercials will be more like vacations in parallel universes.

Imagine if you could select a branded, fully immersive 3D world experience, the same way you might pick up a DVD from the store. The sky really is the limit. In fact, you can go a lot further than the sky. You can walk in space, you can have a little vacation to the Turks and Caicos Islands during your lunch hour. Men will be able to experience giving birth, an adventure offered to them by a baby care product perhaps.

Despite advances in AI, our services as storytellers will be more in demand than ever.

Why do I think that? Well, take a look at the argument Lil Miquela had with her rival. It seems to me that, faced with the possibility that the digital avatars might get boring, the makers resorted to the oldest storytelling trick in the book. Conflict. It’s the stuff of all good fiction.

Conflict, actually, is probably the most overlooked ingredient in the history of human success. Yes I know, you only have to look at the TV news to see the negative aspect of it, but at the same time there probably wouldn't even be a human race were it not for conflict. It’s perhaps the best defence for award shows there is. The work we see at Cannes each year is frequently nothing short of genius. How is it that creatives can break the mold like this year after year? It’s because of competition. Between brands, between agencies, inside creative departments and—as anyone who has been there will tell you—inside the jury room.

Struggle brings out the best in us. Those proto-humans who stood up at the first camp fires to tell stories must have instinctively recognised this. Because all stories are about a hero struggling and growing in the process. The difference is, in stories we love it when things go pear-shaped. Stories turn conflict and trouble into pleasurable experiences. That’s why we love to cry at movies.

Now as we gather round digital campfires, we can only speculate about what wonders lie in store for brands and advertising. It’s impossible to predict, many familiar award categories will disappear. But there is one thing we can say with certainty. Cannes will continue to be the home of creative brilliance, innovation and disruption.

I think we are in for a feast. I don’t know about you, but I'm already looking forward to the time when my local deli has a special offer.

Have lunch with Obi Wan Kenobi.

Khai Meng Tham is the worldwide co-chairman & chief creative officer for Ogilvy

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