‘AI disrupts, but humanity, heart and humour shine through’

Marie Stafford shares VML Intelligence insights from Cannes Lions 2024

Marie Stafford

Global Director VML Intelligence


As the sun sets on another year of the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity and the clinking of rose glasses becomes a distant memory, VML’s Nina Jones and Marie Stafford share the key trends and takeaways emerging from a week of talks.

This year’s event urged the industry to embrace courageous creativity, reminding us that although advertising will undoubtedly be reshaped by AI, some things will always remain essential: humanity, humour, emotion and human connection.

1. AI co-pilots

The transformative impact of AI on creative industries was once more a central theme at this year’s Festival. But thus far, AI’s main contribution seems to center on efficiency and timesaving.

Tech executives were keen to underline how AI could work in tandem with creatives. Alex Schultz, chief marketing officer and vice-president of analytics at Meta, argued that “by harnessing AI, we believe we can free ourselves from mundane tasks and focus on the aspects of our work that require genuine creativity,” adding that “we need to remember that we are the drivers, AI is the copilot.”

Microsoft’s corporate VP of AI at work Jared Spataro said AI would “lift the drudgery, empowering us to reclaim valuable time and energy” and summed it up as “a tool to broaden the creative aperture, giving you more time, more space, more capabilities to bring your stories to life.”

Google also focused on AI’s support role. “The future of creativity isn’t just about AI, it’s about AI and us,” said Vidhya Srinivasan, VP and general manager of ads. Google showcased its text-to-video AI tool, Veo, and Project Astra, which the company describes as “the future of AI assistants that can process multimodal information, understand the context you’re in, and respond naturally in conversation.”

2. Future creAItivity

There was a consensus that AI will be a powerful tool for creativity, but humanity, emotion, messiness, and realness are enduringly creative, and offer the most authentic way to connect with consumers. Indeed, the authenticity of humanity is something that many speakers argued AI can’t replicate.

Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer of P&G underlined the importance of emotion and “spine-tingles” in the work. “Even with all the technology that's available to us, the answer will not be found in the data or the algorithms,” said Pritchard. “[The] answer is in the idea, which comes from the heart and the soul. AI doesn't get the spine tingles. Humanity matters.”

Writer, director, and producer Lucia Aniello, the co-creator of Hacks, noted that a joke lands “because it's true, and you know it's true because you feel that it's true, and it's a human thing…So to me, anytime I'm getting any AI…in the way of that….it's just taking the humanness out of the art, which to me, is antithetical to the purpose of why I would make it and why you would like it.”

Echoing this view, Kyle Chaka, author of Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture and staff writer at The New Yorker, added that “AI is essentially automation, and I just don't think culture can be automated…like, I don't need 1000 separate TV shows spat out by ChatGPT.”

Also extolling the merits of human, hand-made creativity was production designer James Price, speaking with Shona Heath, production designer and set designer. The pair, who collaborated on the Academy Award-winning movie Poor Things, described how they embraced analog methods of model-making to create the film’s sets, even resorting to “just getting the photocopier out and photocopying things, coloring it in. Some of it was in Photoshop. Some of it may have even been with crayons.”

The Cannes Lions organizers shared data showing that AI was used in 12% of entries this year, so for 2024 at least, human creativity still leads – but what of the future? One dissenting voice was again, Elon Musk, who told Mark Read he is convinced that AI is capable of both creativity and originality, and that we may end up questioning our own value as a result. The tech entrepreneur predicts, “I think there will perhaps be a crisis of meaning - if the AI can do everything that you can do, but better, than what is the point of doing things?”

3. Brand showmanship

Advertising is in the midst of a “dullocalypse” according to eatbigfish’s Adam Morgan and System 1’s Jon Evans. Their session “The extraordinary cost of dull” revealed that more than half of adverts tested rate as ‘dull’, in that they trigger no emotional response, either positive or negative. This comes at a cost, said Morgan and Evans, because neutral work is less impactful. For these ads to achieve the same market growth as work that is emotionally engaging they said, would demand additional investment in the region of $189 billion.

What’s driving the tedium? Speakers pointed to the role of technology allied with the quest for scale and efficiency. Author Kyle Chayka noted the internet’s tendency towards “iterative culture,” where anything that succeeds is scaled, “is not going to result in unique, interesting culture. It's going to result in the lowest common denominator.”

Disco-themed dolls launched to coincide with Barbie™ movie, courtesy Mattel, Inc.

At a fireside chat with Sir John Hegarty, Orlando Wood, chief innovation officer at System 1 called on brands to bring back showmanship, a plea that chimes with VML Intelligence data which finds that 65% of people in China, the United Kingdom and the United States now “want brands to wow them.”

Technology, said Wood, has helped us “become very efficient at things, and efficiency leads to homogeneity,” adding that “if you look at advertising and how it's changed in style over the last 20 years or so, you see this shift from advertising with narrative and characters and dialogue, that finds the magic in the product, towards the style of advertising that's very close up and very [much] relies on words on the screen, very rhythmic.”

Architect of arguably the biggest wow of last year - the Barbie movie - was Mattel Inc’s chairman and chief executive officer Ynon Kreiz, who was named Cannes Lions Entertainment Person of the Year. In his remarks, Kreiz outlined the scale of ambition behind the Barbie phenomenon, saying “This [was] not about trying to make a movie to sell more toys. It's not even about making a movie. The goal was to create a cultural event, to create a societal moment. And this was…the way we defined it from the outset.”

4. Comic connections

From the slapstick viral moments of McDonalds’ Grimace Shake to the relatability of Wendy’s social media persona, there’s a growing appetite for levity and lolz, continuing a trend VML Intelligence observed last year.

In the year that the Festival awarded work for its use of humor for first time, System 1 analysis found that 75% of UK or US Film award winners were intentionally funny, up from 52% in 2023. Fittingly this year’s Titanium Grand Prix winner raised a smile too. DoorDash All-the-Ads offered viewers of the Super Bowl the chance to win all the products advertised. The payoff? To do so they had to enter a comedically long promo code, 1,813 characters long.

Humor can be hard to get right, but social media can provide the perfect testing ground to experiment with tone according to VML’s Debbi Vandeven, who highlighted the example of fast food chain Wendy’s. The brand developed “a sassy voice” for its social media persona, “that has led to all the other work being this way.”

5. Creator economy rising

This year Cannes acknowledged the growing power of the creator economy with the launch of the Lions Creator experience to foster learning and networking between talent and agencies. In a release announcing the launch, Festival CEO Simon Cook cited figures from Goldman Sachs which estimate the creator economy could reach a value of $480 billion by 2027 and the growing presence of celebrities, influencers and creators at Cannes underlines this growing significance. Grace Kao, Spotify’s global head of business marketing, summed it up in an interview with Vogue Business, “For brands, creators represent a direct-line into new and engaged audiences and a chance to ride the wave of our ever-evolving culture.”

Creators have long been a presence at Cannes, but this year saw a new dedicated content track of programming in collaboration with Viral Nation. Talent speaking at the special track included podcaster and former monk Jay Shetty, gen Z historian Khalil Greene, comedy sketch writer Steven He, comedian Jake Shane and lifestyle influencer Tinx (aka Christina Najjar).

Influencer and talent agencies were also a notable presence alongside the social giants, with Influential and Whalar among those taking space on the beach, while Captiv8 hosted daily conversations at the Carlton Hotel.

B2B is also getting in on the influencer action. LinkedIn jetted in a slew of business influencers while this year’s winner of the Grand Prix in B2B, JC Decaux, turned a centenarian Spanish grandmother into an influencer for its Meet Marina Prieto campaign.

6. Elevating the everyday

As VML Intelligence called out in our 2023 report The Age of Re-Enchantment, there’s a movement toward finding awe in the everyday, and magic in the mundane. Kenneth Carter, Charles Howard Chandler professor, Oxford College of Emory University commented in the report: “it’s those everyday sensations that make the world beautiful.”

Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer, P&G, talked about “finding creativity in the everyday,” noting that P&G’s personal care products – among them diapers, laundry, soap, toothpaste, body wash and toilet paper – “offer huge opportunities, because everyday moments are rich with creative potential.”

And elevating another humble moment, Koji Yanai, group senior executive officer, director of the board, Fast Retailing Co., Ltd., related how he had created the Tokyo Toilet project, which commissioned a series of creators to redesign some of Tokyo’s public toilets for the 2020 Paralympic Games. This in turn led to a film by Wim Wenders, Oscar-nominated Perfect Days, which depicted the life of a Tokyo toilet cleaner, with Wenders telling the New York Times he saw the character as “a beautiful sign of reduction,” as his routine is stripped down to “a few essentials.” Yanai pointed out that the film “perceived [the] toilet as a quiet and holy space in the busy city [of] Tokyo, and also recognizes the cleaner as a kind of monk to protect such a holy space.”

In a nutshell, Cannes Lions 2024 celebrated the transformative impact of AI and technology while emphasizing the indispensable role for humanity in the creative process. Echoing an idea expressed by several speakers, Deepak Chopra summed it up as: “The key to creativity is your soul.”


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Guest Author

Marie Stafford

Global Director VML Intelligence


Marie loves to tell inspiring stories about the future and how people and the world are is changing. As Global co-lead for VML Intelligence, she regularly shares future visions with international audiences, translating trends into compelling insights and actionable opportunities. She has been widely quoted as a futures expert in outlets such as the Financial Times and the New York Times among others. She writes regularly for VML Intelligence on the intersection between culture, consumer behaviour and innovation. She has authored award-winning research on themes from inclusion to emerging technology and co-leads the annual VML Future 100 trends report, now in its tenth year.

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