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Cannes Lions Live: How creative bravery powered by data can accelerate brand growth

Ben Jones, Creative Director, YouTube Unskippable Labs, explains how algorithm needs more help from the imagination to open up new ways of storytelling. He shared video clips of interactions with Jon Halvorson, VP, Consumer Experience, Mondelez International and Valerie Madon, Chief Creative Officer, VMLY&R Asia to dive deeper into the topic

Ben Jones

On the last day of Cannes Lions Live, Ben Jones, Creative Director, YouTube Unskippable Labs, took a look at the new opportunities — and challenges — that 2020 has revealed and how the algorithm needs more help from imagination to open up new ways of storytelling.

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Jones explained to the audience how Covid has unveiled the relationship between creative bravery and data. He shared bits from the conversations with Jon Halvorson, VP, Consumer Experience, Mondelez International and Valerie Madon, Chief Creative Officer, VMLY&R Asia, to explain the topic in detail.

Chapter 1: The great narrowing

Jones said we were on our way to build data-led worlds. Data would have ruled out the last few stubborn mysteries of storytelling and change consumer perceptions, but then the pandemic happened and led everyone to create safe and similar creative ads. He said, “A new world was just over the horizon, and then the world went dark. We got lost, we forgot how to read maps in these unprecedented times. We all froze. We made the same ad, the same music, the same shots, the same VO, the same sentiments.”

He said, “We feared for our creative lives as one wrong step could banish us and land our clients to the land of the clueless, tone-deaf or the clumsy opportunists.” In such times, data came to the rescue. Without data, brands can’t even trust their instincts about the messaging in ads. 

Chapter 2: What got revealed

It became even more inevitable for brands to look at communication pieces with more sensitivity. What could and not be said in the ads. “Clients clamoured for data. They had to think if they could show people touching their faces, if they could show people out in public without masks. But data suggested that one shouldn’t worry about these things in ads,” said Jones.

According to reports, more than 90% of the effective ads made no reference to the crisis at all. They showed ordinary lives and regular behaviours. Jones said, “Theses brands were not being punished for being instantly current. In a rush to be relevant to the moment we were all experiencing, we forgot a little what we were there for. Data helped see what we were missing.”

Chapter 3: The business imperative

Jones asked Mondelez’s Halvorson about how the company managed to do personalisation at scale in the past couple of years. Halvorson answered, “A few years ago, after talking to the Chief Executives across the Mondelez offices, we realised that mass communication is not going to get us there. Doing mass communication could only fulfil single-digital growth, while we aimed at double-digit growth.”

He went on saying to say that Mondelez looked at the growing companies, which made them realise gaming companies have a hold on consumers’ activities throughout. “Gaming companies know 100% of the time what is happening between the product and the consumer. That made us wonder why can’t CPG (consumer packaged goods) companies do the same. Gaming companies have data loops. If we have one of those then we could also the gap between the consumer and the brand.”

It is then Mondelez decided to sell Oreo in targets. The brand created a feedback loop, which helped increase sales.

Jones then asked Halvorson that if the product is not customisable, then how one can even customise it for anyone.

He answered, “The products are the same, but people have become more heterogeneous than ever before. People are weird, and they want the product to reflect that.”

Chapter4: How did we get here?

Jones said when we ask people if they like an ad, they try to compare it with their perception of what makes a good ad. Then they end up telling the ad-makers what the brands want to hear, which eventually gives birth to weird ads. “Those ads are made of a lot of reasons to buy that nobody really finds convincing. It’s an artificial veneer of a life that no one is really living. Then those ads are then hammered by the brands and agencies at so many levels that life is eventually pulled out of it in exchange for the idea what we think life should be.”

The tools to figure out what creative works have not been great. Jones commented, “Looking at 40,000 effective ads on YouTube, we realise that these weird odd and funny ads do well. Simple and straightforward advertising works. Simple ways of showing the products and solving the problems work for the brands.”

He said that great production value turned out to be just another tool in telling stories, and it is not the only way in which stories can be told.

Chapter 5: Blind spots and opportunities

VMLY&R’s Madon told Jones in the interaction that to assume that one can create regional ads without knowing deeply about the consumer behaviour of that region while sitting at some other place is a blind spot.

“If you don’t analysis the consumer data of that region, then it’s a problem. Data gives us live research in a sense. For the first 10 years of my career, I was thinking of myself as a digital person. I thought of myself being very objective. But we were not trained to step back and see the bigger picture. We were not clued on the emotional side of the things. We could do something that people can use, but not create something that they could feel.”

Halvorson said that when Mondelez started with its personalisation journey, it was a very media-led approach and missed out focussing on the power of great ideas. “It was about identifying segments, feeding those segments into briefs, create ideas developing those briefs. We got so obsessed with targeting the right people; we forgot that first one needs to have a really great idea.

Madon added, “That’s the power of a great idea-led campaign. You love it and don’t even know why. If the client wants too logical ads, then why would a client even come to you?

An important point that Halvorson made was that brands personalise to scale empathy and not scale messages. He said great ideas are very basic and deeply human. It’s not supposed to be reflective, but something very simple that represents daily life.

Chapter 6: The vanilla ice-cream problem

As the world moved on with more and more automation, it also gave rise to new problems. Jones said, “If we feed the machine with thousands type of vanilla ice cream, we get better vanilla ice-cream. Similarly, if we feed a thousand ads, we can get slightly better ads. Our media diet is not vanilla ice cream, but our ad diet is. We watch more and more different types of content. Our screens are filled with new kinds of voices and experiences. But ads are, in large part, still the same.”

Chapter 7: Catching up to people

Last year, Google used machine learning to drive research with the Geena David Institute, which revealed the gap in representation in ads. In 2.7 million ads, accounting for 550 billion views in over 51 markets, it was found that female characters in the ads had 44% screen time in comparison to 56% male.

This year, Google focused on beauty ads and found out that ads featuring people across diversity, ethnicity and gender were more effective than the ads that did not.

Jones said, “With better data, we can make better ads faster. But we need to make sure we are asking different sorts of questions. We need to find ways of seeing what we aren’t seeing and understanding where are we holding ourselves back.”

Chapter 8: Once you build the tunnel, no one will climb the mountain

When we delve deep into data, we realise that the demographic data is the weakest among all. There is much more power in what we have, love doing, what’s happening in our lives than in age and gender. With more data in hand, brands can go beyond demographics.

“Three different ads than the same ad three times work better. Different ads work differently for different audiences than the same ad for everyone. We need more diverse stories, voices and imaginations. We need more than vanilla ice cream,” said Jones.

Chapter 9: New tools make new art

The mobile phone has expanded the boundaries of creativity in different formats. We can use mobile phones data across diversities, cultures and demographics and power it with creativity to create impactful ads. We need new imagination to understand how data feeds creativity and how creativity feeds data.

Chapter 10: Getting it done

Halvorson said that whenever one personalises something, he must consider three types of costs: The creative cost, media cost and data cost. Data has helped Mondelez personalise across 800 brands.

Chapter 11: The age of acceleration

Jones concluded that we have more data coming in the future, which will help tell better stories across diversities. “We can excel by opening creatively and accelerating operationally, not by narrowing. Our businesses are facing immense challenges, but we also have powerful tools to meet them. We must use data not to avoid risk, but to ensure we don’t fail twice for the same reason. Ships in harbour are safe, but that’s not what ships are for.”

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