The innovation game

Post #100
14th June 2017

Welcome to the 100th post on the Weber Shandwick EMEA blog. Since we launched in 2015, we’ve featured an extensive range of topics and territories and produced a huge bank of communications thought leadership, and we’d like to thank all our readers and contributors for your support.

To mark the occasion, as we approach the 64th Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity and the third year of the inspirational Lions Innovation, we’re delighted to welcome Cannes Lions Global Head of Innovation Rob Dembitz back to the blog, joined by our Head of Client Experience EMEA Hugh Baillie and Charlotte Witte, Head of Marketing Communications & Partner at Prime Weber Shandwick, to talk all things innovation.

Q: What does innovation mean to you now, in the context of PR and brand communications?

Rob: For me, it’s about being open-minded about how we can do things differently, and having a real desire to change and find new ways of working. It’s not all about technology, but a lot of innovation is based on using tech, not for its own sake but to amplify, do things better, quicker, more creatively or smarter. It’s about technology applied to new ideas and ways of engaging with brands. As each new tech reaches a tipping point and goes mainstream – from the Internet of Things to AR games like Pokémon Go – we get less afraid and this opens up opportunities for brands to do more interesting things.

Charlotte: We need new ways of helping brands to engage consumers, but we need to ensure we bring value. Rob’s right: it’s about applying those innovative tools or approaches to create real value for brands. For us as an industry it’s so important, now, to break down silos and build bridges between marketing, comms and digital. That’s the only way to create innovative solutions that can really make a change for customers and our clients.

Hugh: I’d agree, and also say that the value PR and comms can add through innovation is that our content is now able to drive sales. Tech innovation is allowing PR to grow up – it’s no longer about likes and impressions and shares and column inches, but about brand entertainment and shoppable content that engages consumers, and conveniently and quickly allows them to go straight to purchase. It’s incredibly exciting at a time when clients are pushing for more value from their agencies and wanting us to demonstrate commercial benefit. Innovation means comms can build brands, and not just emotionally.

Q Which innovative technologies will have the greatest effect on creative brand comms over the next year or two?

Charlotte: Advances in data analysis are about to have a breakthrough. Award-winning case studies such as The Next Rembrandt and our House of Clicks work have been ad hoc AI and machine learning projects so far, but it’s easy to see a future where these ideas are scaled up, personalised, made longer and more integrated. We’ll definitely see data and comms blending together more in the next couple of years.

Rob: Voice tech is also fascinating. Adoption of virtual systems at home and the evolution of bots from text to voice-activated are already changing the way people do stuff at home, so will change the way brands will want to exist in kitchens and living rooms. I’ll be interested to see how many campaigns across the Lions Festivals this year feature Alexa, Cortana, Siri or Google Home.

Hugh: Allied to this is the broader trend in convenience: to listen to a playlist, for instance, we don’t even have to tap an app on our phone, we can use one voice command. AI is also starting to help us manage social media and digital conversations in really exciting ways.

Q And in the longer term?

Hugh: We’re still at the early stages of exploring the possibilities of AI, bots, data science and voice recognition, so it’s about embedding the latest tech rather than chasing onto the next thing. Alexa wasn’t officially even at CES this year, for instance, but was featured by many exhibitors. And we’re doing more pitches around VR; as that eventually becomes more accessible and affordable, we will see everyone experiment with it.

Charlotte: I think AR will really take off in the next five years but it still has a long way to go – everyone is struggling with technology and data transfer and the right applications for the technology. The latter challenge is where I think we’ll see that communications and creativity hold important keys.

Rob: In the longer term, I’m intrigued by the potential for autonomous transport. Will I need a car? Will a non-automotive brand suddenly become a car developer? Could I choose a beer-branded car to take me to a sports game, so I don’t need to drive or park? Car parks in urban areas may no longer be required, so could there be an impact on real estate and town planning? The impact on society of that one development will be really interesting. Further into the future, quantum computing, with incredible processing power, speed of decision-making and analysis, has the potential to change everything. We don’t even know what it can do yet. It’s one of the few things that could actually take society forward rather than just make things quicker and easier.

Q What are the main barriers to the introduction and application of innovation to creative comms strategy?

Hugh: It’s cost. When we’re experimenting and innovating, or if clients want to do something with VR or Alexa or build a bot, it costs money. Every business is under pressure and most clients are having to think about cost vs. value. The nature of innovation can mean it’s unproven territory, which is a scary place for clients to go, especially if they are risk averse, so overcoming the cost becomes a challenge.

Charlotte. Yes, and there are organisational barriers, too. Innovative work can fall between business roles and functions, depending on the definition and type of innovation. There’s often the question of who at the client company is responsible for innovation, and who has the knowledge and the budget. I think innovation and technology will be factors in a shift from short-term campaigns and projects to more strategic communications that is much closer to business strategy.

Rob: I’ve also found it fascinating as I’ve travelled around the world over the past 12 months that the concept of the democratisation of tech is just not true. Pepper the robot might be doing customer service in San Francisco, but levels of adoption of tech are different even in the UK and Australia. Even first-adopters of tech in Europe don’t all know about Alexa yet. The idea that we will all be embedding this stuff next year just isn’t true, not even in the West. This has major ramifications for brands: what’s tech-native for California is still a huge challenge in Europe, let alone further afield.

Q Which of the Lions Innovation sessions are you particularly looking forward to?

Rob: We’ve got a lot of live experiments on the Inspiration stage that will result in the cool moments people will be talking about, where they’ll see things they haven’t seen before. There are also some fascinating stories about data and creativity coming together, such as Alex da Kid, who produced a chart-topping track based on data from IBM Watson.

Charlotte: The highlights that you take home aren’t always what you expect at Cannes. The Labs look super-interesting, as does everything from China and Japan. And there are so many women in the speaker programme, and a wide range of ages, so it’s really reflecting our industry.

Hugh: I’m really looking forward to viewing the work. And I imagine the R/GA Start-Up Academy will be really stimulating.

Q How important is it, post-Cannes, to go back and inspire teams, whether agency or in-house, with great examples of innovation?

Charlotte: At Prime we’ve been coming to Cannes for ten years. The first year, everyone at the agency who didn’t go thought it was about being in the sunshine, but now everyone knows it’s purely hard work. We see as much of the work, go to as many of the sessions and collect as many insights as possible. We really dig in. It’s super-important to us: we see it as a great investment as everyone brings back best practice and shares it with the whole agency, so every year it helps us evolve and develop.

Hugh: It’s hugely important. We already have dates in the diary with our teams across EMEA to report back what we’ve seen and heard, and we’ll be talking to clients, too.

Rob: It’s clearly not realistic for everyone at every agency to be there, but it is vital that those who do come share the experience with colleagues. Even if you can’t go, everyone can look at the work on the Winners and Shortlists part of the website. In addition, you can catch up on Festival content via the full Cannes Lions Archive, available on subscription. This year at Lions Innovation, to help people summarise the most salient stuff for their teams at home, we’ve also introduced round-up sessions on topics such as the key themes at the Festival, such as brand partnerships and collaboration, and how to drive an innovation culture.

Q Finally, Rob, how has innovation in marketing and comms evolved since you launched Lions Innovation in 2015?

In the first year, we were advised not to go too “tech heavy”. This year, there’s absolutely no dumbing down. The industry is shifting and we’re part of that process: we’re championing tech and treating it more like creative, as a key element of Cannes content. We couldn’t have done our programme to bring technology start-ups to meet brands at the Festival on this scale three years ago. This year, three times as many CMOs and brands are speaking, because everyone wants to hear not just about the tech, but how to apply it: as in the industry, that’s the unifying theme.

We’ll be blogging live from Cannes next week, and in July we’ll be reviewing trends in the winning work with Weber Shandwick’s PR Lions and Lions Health jurors.

Lions Innovation runs 19-20 June and there’s still time to register: