The juror’s view. Nadya Powell
Issue 44 | September 2017
Way back in April 2011 Ben Malbon, Director of Strategy at Google Creative Lab, posted in his blog a question - do Ad Agencies really need Chief Innovation Officers? This question sparked off an unruly debate, one that had clearly been simmering for some time, over whether innovation has a role in an industry built on a stable and successful formula of commercial creativity.
On one side, the believers stated that without innovation the advertising industry would fail; and, indeed, hadn't advertising sprung from some of the biggest innovations of the 19th and 20th centuries – print and TV media?
On the other side, doubters stated that advertising was now an establishment business and expecting change was not realistic. Innovation, they said, had no future in advertising.
Connecting creativity, data and tech
And then Cannes Lions joined the fray. In 2012 Cannes introduced the Innovation Lions, further enhanced in 2015 by the Innovation festival. Whilst the innovation role in agencies struggled, Cannes Lions made a clear statement of intent: creativity, data and tech are inextricably linked.
Of course, many innovation stalwarts scoffed. What does Cannes, the bastion of advertising, know of innovation? But rather than scoff, as an Innovation Lions judge this year, I would suggest the 2017 Innovation Lions could provide some peace to the affray. For they provide the clearest indication yet of what innovation actually is and how advertising can join it in happy wedlock.
First off, allow me to poke some fun at where the advertising industry has got innovation horribly wrong. Sometimes it is as important to understand what something is not, as much as what it is.
I have observed a behaviour where an individual, typically from the upper echelons of an agency, demands his business innovate. "Do something innovative!" he cries to his bemused tech and strategy team.
This is not how it works.
Always start with a business problem to solve, rather than the desire to innovate. Otherwise you will fall foul of two common mistakes; creating something that is not needed or creating something that is not viable.
The pregnancy test for men
A classic example of this is the pregnancy test for men. Yes, seriously. Google it. This was based on the insight that it is lonely for women to discover they're pregnant whilst alone in the toilet. So, this particular tech-fuelled pregnancy test texts 'your man' so he can phone and let you know if it is positive or not.
This innovative idea makes so many misogynistic assumptions, I could write 10,000 words on it. But suffice to say the fundamental flaw is the man (or woman or whomever) could simply be in the toilet with their partner whilst the test is taken. There is no problem to solve here. FFS.
Another common mistake is thinking evolution = innovation. The 2017 Innovation Lions received countless entries from ad-serving platforms that had – wait for it – made their ad serving platform better.
That's not innovation, that's simply doing your job.
And then there is the 'it's a really new and brave way for us to communicate' misunderstanding. Take LG, they have a new cordless vacuum cleaner with the strongest suction ever, yet vacuum cleaners are hard to make exciting. The solution: to invite an extreme climber to scale a skyscraper using only the suction of said vacuum. That's not innovation, that's a (debatably) good campaign.
So where has the advertising industry got it right? By growing potatoes on Mars. The evolution of this work is a text book case on how advertising and innovation can become happy bed fellows.
The International Potato Centre in Lima (I giggled too) had a problem. No-one cared about the humble spud. Yet it is one of the most nutritious foods and is incredibly resilient so can grow pretty much anywhere. With a food crisis in so many parts of the world, the potato can save lives.
Genuine problems need genius ideas
To raise its profile, Memac Ogilvy in Dubai asked the question: could you create a space spud and grow potatoes on Mars. The reasoning was, if you can grow potatoes on Mars, you can save lives on Earth.
A genuine problem to solve, a genius idea and then they did the brilliant next step. They recognised they could not solve this alone, so they approached and teamed up with Nasa.
Without advertising's strengths in creativity, collaboration and connection the creation of a potato that can grow on Mars simply would not have happened.
Advertising also made roads honk. The roads of the Himalayas in India are the most dangerous in the world, comprising multiple hairpin bends where drivers approaching each other cannot see each other until it's too late.
The government had tried signs (ignored), mirrors (didn't work) and the deaths continued. Then HP Lubricants approached Leo Burnett India to ask for new ways to raise awareness of their brand. The answer, to create a piece of technology on these bends that senses when two drivers are approaching from opposite directions and then honks. Very, very loudly.
This solution pulls on an already existing behaviour in India, honking a lot. The tech is indestructible, able to survive temperatures between -30 degrees and +40 and can resist any sort of vandalism known to man or beast.
All deaths on the hairpin bend where the tech is installed have ceased and Nepal and Dubai are now investigating the idea.
A wonderful marriage of creativity and tech that could only have come from advertising brains.
Insight meets methodologies
Innovation can be defined as an endeavour that solves a genuine problem in a new way with the potential to scale and/ or have impact. Is that fundamentally different from what advertising has ever sought to achieve?
So, let's call peace between the two houses. Advertising provides insight and genuine understanding of a consumer problem plus the creative idea to spark the solution with an often-brilliant take-to-market plan.
Innovation provides the tools and methodologies to prototype the solution, manufacture it and build out distribution.
They are not opposed but rather stand together, as John Willshire puts it so brilliantly, in seeking to "make things people want, not make people want things".
Of course, this is idealistic. All too often advertising is caught suckling on the reassuring teat of financial security that television provides. Innovation is all too often found seeking quiet solace in the basement of tech. But the 2017 Innovation Lions show that when they unite to solve a problem, these star-crossed lovers can create something truly wonderful and, most importantly, world-changing.