Cannes Lions Innovation Rewards the 99% Perspiration

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This year’s Cannes Lions awards for innovation and creative data showed the festival’s most mature attitude yet and, once again, sends brands clear signals on where they should put their efforts.

It’s not about campaigns

Of the 35 award winners, only a quarter were campaigns. BETC’s AiMEN campaign, promoting the new Canal+ series The Young Pope, stood out for its scale: its IBM Watson-powered bot generated a million replies to Twitter posts, using a database of 39,000 bible verses to find something relevant to say. The lack of campaigns does not reflect a dearth of good work: for a festival of creativity, campaigns rarely provide a big enough canvas for ideas to shine.

Aim high

Many of the winners set out with properly ambitious goals and were rewarded for making great progress. McCann’s Yournalist aims to counter filter bubbles and fake news by surfacing the broadest range of views on a story. Y&R Italia’s Chat Yourself and F5 Shanghai’s Know You Again for Baidu both aim to keep Alzheimer’s sufferers independent for longer by providing support for their failing memories in real time. We Believers’ AI Buddy provides a companion for children who have a parent sent to war, and helps with the difficult transition for those unlucky enough to have a parent die. These are difficult problems that none of these pieces of work have solved completely.


Finding the right partners to help tackle a problem frequently makes the difference between success and failure. Memac Ogilvy got CIP to try create potatoes that will grow on Mars. Why? Because doing so created more robust varieties for use here on Earth, and which are already in use in Bangladesh. What better partner for this than NASA? To help Stockholm Pride create the Los Santos Pride mod for the violent cult game GTA5, Garberg went to the gaming community to marshal a team of volunteers that created it without ever meeting. Grey Brasil’s The Colour of Corruption is a browser plug-in that annotates any mention of a politician’s name with a link to a catalogue of evidence about her/his corrupt behaviour. Having created it, they recruited a network of 20,000 students in Brazilian universities to keep it up-to-date every day.

Look for impact

Similar to last year, a strong thread through the winners was real impact. Leo Burnett India’s Roads that honk for HPCL brilliantly co-opted existing driving cues to tackle dangerous roads. Their low-cost roadside pillars sit at either end of blind corners and make traffic-horn sounds when vehicles approach from both sides at once, immediately slowing them. Leo Burnett Melbourne’s Reword tool reduces online bullying by spotting hurtful language as young people type and drawing a red line through it, shaping their behaviour.


The Grands Prix for innovation and creative data demonstrate perhaps the most important thing for brands to bear in mind: persistence. DigitasLBi’sCare Counts for Whirlpool was a response to the insight that many children from poor families miss school when they don’t have clean clothes. They put washers and dryers into 17 schools and instrumented them to understand how access to the machines in schools would improve attendance rates and students’ performance. It took a year of solid data to demonstrate the impact, which has led to a dramatic expansion of the program. Åkestam Holst’s Humanium for IM Swedish Development Partner was a simple idea — reduce violence by generating revenue for weapons destruction programs by creating and selling products made from a metal created from destroyed firearms, which took years to make real. Creating an international supply chain, with the participation of manufacturers and governments, is indeed an impressive achievement worthy of the Grand Prix.

Thomas Edison famously described genius as “one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” After last year’s Lions we advised brands looking for success in innovation to favour real solutions to real problems over stunts. This year, they have raised the bar and rewarded longer-term ambition.

Disclosure: I work for Publicis Groupe, which owns the agencies Leo Burnett and DigitasLBi mentioned in this piece. 

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