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Cannes Lions

Beyond the buzz at Cannes Lions, AI becomes the new norm

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Illustration by Robyn Phelps / Getty / Shutterstock / The Current

What a difference a year makes.

This time last year, as the ad industry looked ahead to the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, the topic of AI loomed large. It featured heavily on the official agenda and dominated conversations up and down the Croisette. For those in the business of creating award-worthy content, would it prove a friend or a foe? For those tasked with buying media, how would it help drive performance?

This year such questions are academic: AI is here to stay and is already being deployed by creative shops, holding companies and media agencies alike, even as many in the industry are left breathless by the pace of innovation. The genie is out of the bottle. For the first time this year, the festival has introduced a new mandatory question asking entrants to disclose whether they used AI in their work or not.

“We are shifting into is a kind of AI 2.0 space where, to my mind, that means AI is no longer the idea. It’s an underlying technology that enables an idea in a powerful way that we don’t even really need to talk about because it’s ubiquitous,” says Iain Thomas, chief vision officer at Sounds Fun, a creative agency focused on new technology.

In short, the gee-whiz factor around Generative AI is waning and giving way to its utility.

Nevertheless, AI will likely take center stage again at Cannes Lions, says Dave Kersey, the chief media officer at GSD&M, part of Omnicom. In the rush to plug the tech into their operations, major holding companies have been investing in partnerships with AI companies. It’s already being applied on the media side, though some clients are still just curious about it, says Kersey.

“I would say what we’re trying to think through for our media clients, and even social clients, is how can we get to insights quicker, how can we get to performance or spending allocations or optimizations quicker so we can be more agile in our decisioning, so we can use a lot of our brand power and resources for that strategic thinking,” he says.

As Cannes Lions evolves — last year it turned 70 — the ad tech presence has grown. Kersey jokes it’s like the Consumer Electronics Showcase by the Mediterranean. Still, he’s hopeful that we’re seeing a reemergence of creativity, supported by media activations that fully leverage technology.

“Bringing it back together, being more intentional with decisioning based on the brand and the audience, is critical for brands to succeed. And we’re starting to see that at these types of festivals,” he says.


A buzzword doing the rounds ahead of this year’s Cannes Lions is “commerce” — as in commerce strategy, which includes shoppable ads. As the customer journey from discovery to purchase becomes more complex, agencies are looking for ways to engage shoppers at different touchpoints along their journey.

Recognizing these changing market dynamics, the Cannes Lions festival introduced the Creative Commerce Lions in 2022 to celebrate “innovative and creative approaches to online and offline commerce, payment solutions and transactional journeys.” Since its inception, the Creative Commerce Lion has seen a growing number of submissions, as agencies and brands place stronger emphasis on the commercial aspect of their creative work.

“Whether that’s AI in creative production of deeper first-party audience insights, better solutions to evaluate creative performance and pipe those learnings back into continuous optimization, or by connecting the dots between brand and performance media activations […] we see data as a way to supercharge creative, not constrain it,” says Michael Mothner, the CEO and founder of Wpromote.

To that end, shops like VML have integrated commerce to marry data and creative, another indication of how ad tech is changing advertising. “Having an agency that has a weaponry to do advertising, customer experience and commerce all interlinked, it’s not just efficient and impactful, it’s also redefining how a brand is built,” says Jon Cook, the global CEO of VML.

For more insights on Cannes Lions 2024 from VML’s Jon Cook, listen to his interview with The Current Report.

“In the past, a brand was built through advertising and then pulled through commerce and transaction or customer experience. And the truth is all those things are contributing to the way that you think about a brand. We’re trying to think about creativity that way,” he adds.

Digital-first media

The newly appointed president of the Stagwell-owned Doner agency, Ben Grossman, agrees that a digital-first media landscape is inspiring work that’s “more data-driven, less interruptive and authentically connecting with everyday people.” To that end, the agency has submitted selected work for award consideration in this commerce category, “inherently built for nonlinear, digital-first storytelling,” he says.

For instance, the agency created an app-based platform for Saucony to encourage users to move their feet more than their thumbs scrolling through digital feeds, called The Marathumb Challenge. Another example is Chrysler. The auto company inspired digital headlines and social conversations by inventing Calm Cabins to support the needs of travelers with autism. Lastly, The UPS Store targeted the next generation of Gen Z small-business owners by creating Main Street Moguls, a game in Roblox.

“Digital media is forcing creatives to think beyond the conventional, pushing them to integrate technology and storytelling seamlessly. The result is campaigns that are not only more engaging but also more effective in capturing the audience’s attention,” says Amir Sahba, CEO at Thinkingbox.


And this year, the major streaming platforms will have a more conspicuous presence at the festival than ever. Last year, Netflix made its first official appearance at the festival hosting guests on a rooftop space at the J.W, Marriott, where it showcased vignettes from its major titles. This year, the heavyweight streamer will likely build on that, especially now it has scaled its ad tier, which now has a reported 40 million users signed up. The programmatic space around this kind of inventory is, in Mothner’s phrase, “one of the most exciting frontiers in tech.”

“CTV [connected TV] and retail media are particularly fertile ground for innovation because tech is responsible for bringing new solutions to the table as demand for improvements from advertisers is on the rise, including better ad products to make the most of inventory, more and better audience targeting capabilities that maintain privacy, and stronger measurement that ties media activations to overall business outcomes,” he says.