Cannes Lions 2023: Opportunities and Challenges from Industry Experts

This year’s Cannes Lions Festival had it all – from parties and out-of-office ‘meetings’ to panels and discussions honing in on the trends, opportunities and challenges of the advertising industry.

With AI and creativity dominating the event’s discourse, and sustainability remaining a key focus of discussion, industry professionals shared their key takeaways from this year’s Cannes iteration, where innovation continues to be the driving force behind the ecosystem’s transformation.

AI experimentation and capabilities 

When it comes to generating a culture of experimentation, Lucia Mastromauro, Managing Director UK, Acceleration, a WPP Company, believes having an open mindset can further unlock AI capabilities: “The potential efficiencies and outputs of generative AI won the ad industry’s attention at Cannes, but the discussions around how our processes should evolve to maximize AI’s potential were even more captivating. Brands need to embrace a culture of experimentation to figure out where AI can provide the most value in their organization.”

Promoting creativity and innovation in the industry is key, however, Toby McAra, Chief Revenue Officer at Making Science urges the industry to not let the excitement overshadow the basic principles of its applications: “While the industry is clearly excited about all of this new technology, there is still a requirement to get the basics right, and the AI onrush needs to be distilled into a few simple and easy-to-understand solutions. AI is an essential tool for companies to stand out from their competition, enhance performance, and increase digital maturity and the accuracy of data analysis. Although there is a need for brands to do the groundwork when deciding on the platform they use, the clients that we talked to at Cannes, who have utilized our proprietary AI, are convinced of its proven ROI and ability to drive brand performance forward.”

There were also those that felt the true potential of AI wasn’t explored deeply enough. Tony Marlow, Chief Marketing Officer, at LG Ad Solutions, was “disappointed by the lack of meaningful conversations around its practical application within advertising.” He went on to say, “These tools can have a game-changing impact on our industry, especially for CTV – ad targeting, personalisation, and predictive modeling could all be transformed – but all too often AI simply felt like the latest buzzword. While many people were able to explain why AI could prove revolutionary, few seemed to want to talk about what that would actually look like for advertisers, and this education is needed for the industry to truly catch up rather than faking knowledge.”

(Generative) AI and creativity, friends or foes?

The rapid rise of AI tools and solutions in the advertising industry has sparked concerns over the impact it may have on creative jobs, but  Paul Thompson, Country Manager at Seedtag, sees this as an opportunity for the industry: “Generative AI was obviously a hot topic in formal discussions, but also within informal conversations at the multitude of social gatherings. Meta tried to hype up its vision of the metaverse, but I didn’t hear or see much excitement around this and it felt very much like a personal pet project for Mr Zuckerberg and not practical at the moment.”

“Some people were worried about the implications of generative AI, but the majority of others saw it as something to be embraced, and that the industry is at the beginning of something truly transformative.”

For Jill Gray, EVP Marketing & Enablement at VidMob, she believes those that embrace AI will be able to harness its capabilities to increase support for human creative teams and help deliver outstanding campaign results “AI dominated this year’s Cannes conversations, to no surprise. Some compared it to the launch of the iPhone, while others predicted AI would reach parity with humans by 2030, which will highly depend on differing regulations implemented by each country. The consensus, however, noted these are disruptive times that will force the industry to adapt and implement new ways of working to make the most of AI’s limitless potential.”

Carlo De Matteo, Chief Operations Officer at MINThighlights how AI already widely supports the industry beyond creative teams: “There were a lot of discussions about how OpenAI technologies such as ChatGPT and other Large Language Models will transform the world of advertising. With Cannes Lions being the Festival of Creativity, many conversations centered on how these tools can support creatives. But many of the best use cases — which also don’t risk devaluing human imagination — can be found on the strategy, operations, and media side of the process. LLMs can help to generate campaign settings, optimize process flows, orchestrate media channels, structure media plans, configure adservers, and so on. This is the most exciting prospect of such technologies: their potential to unlock human ingenuity by automating repetitive and menial tasks in advertising, rather than attempting to automate the creative processes that bring so much talent to the industry to begin with.”

The emergence of Connected TV (CTV) calls for stronger and simplified solutions

While conversations around AI and creatives are set to continue, Shirlene Chandrapal, Global Head of Commercial at Redmill Solutions, highlights the growing focus on CTV, the sign of a prosperous future for the sector: “While it wasn’t exactly CTV’s breakout year, the number of panels and discussions around the channel clearly signaled its continued importance within the media landscape. Like any emerging channel, questions around, targeting, scale and measurement are still being asked. As more money moves towards this channel, it will become increasingly important to find a solution for effective measurement and attribution so marketers can ensure they are optimizing their marketing effectiveness and have visibility across all media channels.”

Virginie Dremeaux, Vice President, Marketing and Communications, International at FreeWheel, underlines the need to simplify TV ad buying for an optimal viewing experience: “At Cannes, brands, agencies, broadcasters, and media owners discussed what was needed to craft a quality viewing experience that resonates with audiences – however and wherever they watch. While global audiences can access TV and premium video content from many platforms, reach remains paramount for brand growth, and advertisers can’t afford to treat these channels as individual experiences. There’s an increasing need to simplify their TV ad buying.”

Retail media soaks up some of the attention

Lucie Laurendon, Head of Product Marketing at Equativ, saw retail media networks as another focus of the event: “Increasing proof that retail media networks have profitable mileage has sparked major interest. Discussions were fixated on how to harness this fast-evolving and growing space, with retailers of all sizes looking to emulate the success and rich revenue gains of major forces such as Amazon. With access to valuable stores of first party data, e-commerce businesses have a strong hand to play; especially as third-party cookies approach their latest final deadline. Those seeking to tap growing advertiser demand, however, will have to ensure their network ambitions are built on firm foundations, including a strong base of unified and privacy-secure insight that can be easily activated on site, as well as off site in a controlled ecosystem, to drive effective ads and positive user experiences.”

Echoing the sentiment, Ed Dinichert, Chief Revenue Officer at TripleLift, agrees retail media is set for significant innovation in the near future: “Retail media was a big talking point at Cannes Lions this year – and its importance was highlighted by the number of major retailers attending the event – including Amazon and Walmart. The rapid growth of retail media networks provides a host of new opportunities for retailers, brands, and publishers – with spending in the sector forecast to pass the $50bn mark in 2023.”

Sustainability remains front of mind despite a lack of commitment

Despite the AI buzz, sustainability remained a hot topic this year, as Vincent Villaret, Chief Executive Officer at IMPACT+, highlights a disconnect stemming from lack of education: “Sustainability was still a relevant talking point at Cannes Lions festival this year despite AI taking the prominent lead. What was evident was a lack of understanding from some brands about the negative environmental impact of digital advertising, particularly between the reduction of emissions and offsetting. There’s a clear disconnect, with many still unaware of how they can reduce emissions without affecting core business KPIs.”

But the handling of the topic wasn’t without its critics, with Andrew Serby, Chief Commercial Officer at Zefr, calling for more commitment from industry players: “Despite the outward sustainability push at Cannes 2023, the continued chartering of mega yachts by some companies – which are known to emit huge amounts of CO2 even when idle – shows that the industry is not yet fully committed to tackling carbon emissions. This wastage is mirrored by less central discussions around misinformation and disinformation, which similarly continues to pollute society and the media ecosystem in its own right.”

Michael Brooks, Chief Operating Officer at Verve Group, spoke of the event’s success in addressing the sustainability challenges facing the industry and how companies can address these in the immediate future: “Cannes revealed excitement and trepidation around AI, as we expected. Conversations centered around AI’s applications in creativity and focused as much on the risks, fears, and safeguarding issues as the benefits and opportunities.

“Sustainability was another regularly discussed topic. Last year’s conversations focused on what we could do in the future. This year, the discourse shifted to already implemented steps with clear objectives, such as Cedara – a carbon management platform – outlining how industry partnerships can boost sustainable action.”

Driven by technological advancements and innovation, the advertising industry continues to evolve, as AI pushes the boundaries of what the sector can do. With a renewed interest in sustainability and a laser focus on what the future has in store for creativity, this year’s Cannes highlighted advertising’s ongoing transformation and all the moving parts experts should keep an eye on. What the future holds is yet to be seen, but one thing is certain – AI will remain front and center of digital advertising in the coming months.