1. The machines are coming and they’re better than us at creative briefs

This year’s Cannes Lions was dominated by a tension between humans and machines. Speakers swung between crazily naïve statements about artificial intelligence being useless in the face of true creativity as practiced by ad agencies and then gloomily forecasting the end of days when the robots take over.

One more measured approach was taken by Antony Reeves, former executive creative director at Amazon, who presented the results of an experiment with Deloitte Digital to see if AI could write better briefs for clients than people.

The results were unexpected. The AI briefs were approached with far less scepticism than the human ones. “You are paralysed with that white page,” said Reeves, talking of the pressure when writing a brief. By contrast, the AIs had no such emotional investment.

The AI briefs turned out to be more diverse, feature more narrative arcs and have a greater breadth of imagination than the human ones. Collectively, AI briefs increased the number of ideas generated by 57% during the exercise.

creatives on the beach

Antony Reeves, former executive creative director at Amazon, takes part in the Chief Creatives on the Beach panel.

2. Humans are still pretty good too

Apple’s senior vice president of retail, Angela Ahrendts, focused on the value of the brand’s store staff in a session thick with hyperbole about Apple’s mission “enriching lives” and “humanising technology”. Ahrendts was interviewed by Apple’s vice president of marketing communications Tor Myhren and she announced: “We are in the human business.”

“They’re our ambassadors, they’re our greatest differentiator. This is something that Apple has that Amazon and Alibaba and nobody else has – people on the front line,” she said, adding that retail stores are Apple’s largest product.

Ahrendts talked about how Apple store employees are not hired to sell, with no commission or sales quotas. Instead, she says they’re briefed regularly on the big vision. She added that staff are asked to keep learning and attending ‘Today With Apple’ education sessions at the stores. Ahrendts says that according to McKinsey research, 75% of people will shop online but 75% of business will still be done in stores.

“Retail is not dying, but it has to evolve. It has to continue to move and I think it has to serve a bigger purpose than selling, because anybody can do that faster, cheaper,” she said.

The company has created an internal social network for its store staff called Loop, which allows the company to measure how well it is doing by crowdsourcing opinions about how employees feel the stores are running. The retail staff are also entitled to the same $5,000 worth of teaching hours as every other employee at Apple.

While it may be the most famous tech company on earth, Ahrendts says that its real “secret sauce” are its humans. “Our retention rates have never been higher, our NPS scores have never been higher.”

apple store

Apple store

3. Consolidation is on the cards for everybody

Two interesting tales of consolidation broke during Cannes Lions. First, rival newspaper groups The Guardian, The Times and The Telegraph have come together to create a digital advertising business.

The Ozone Project means it will be possible for advertisers to buy online ad space on the Guardian, the Times, the Sun, and the Telegraph from a single site. The Ozone business will act as a standalone unit and the newspapers claim the project is in response to “brand safety, data governance, lack of transparency in the supply chain and ad fraud” following a number of online advertising scandals.

All of which may be true. But there is also immense financial pressure on publishers as so much ad revenue has now been absorbed by Google and Facebook. The two companies alone had more than half of all ad revenue globally by the end of 2017, according to eMarketer. This move gives the publishers some much needed scale across quality media sources to help compete with Google, Facebook and the increasing threat of companies like Amazon.

The news also leaked of mobile operator AT&T buying ad tech platform AppNexus. Brian Lesser, chief executive of AT&T’s advertising and analytics unit said: “Google and Facebook prove that platforms rule. When you make it easy for advertisers to efficiently buy at scale and generate performance, that’s what they will choose.”

AT&T also acquired the Time Warner business recently, giving it the ability to create another walled garden to compete with Google and Facebook. “Ad tech unites real-time analytics and technology with our premium TV and video content,” said Lesser yesterday.

So while the UK publishers are attempting to shore up their scale and compete with a joint initiative, AT&T appears to be following the route taken by Oath. Verizon acquired AOL and later Yahoo to form its own cocktail of technology and content to compete with Google and Facebook.

We are still waiting for the first part-human-part-machine powered only by ad tech algorithms to take the stage at Cannes, but judging by this year’s themes, it won’t be long.

Get down to the Festival of Marketing 2018 in London, October 10-11, for more about AI, innovation and martech.