“The data isn't there to make the decisions. It's there to help us make decisions”: uniting two tribes at Cannes Lions with Anastasia Leng and Tom Goodwin

While generative AI will make waves at Cannes Lions this week, is technology in danger of reinforcing biases rather than breaking them down? PMW spoke to two experts in the field of creative data to find consensus among all the catastrophizing views.

Today will mark the first Cannes Lions since ChatGPT and Midjourney arrived on the scene, shaking up creative workflows, performance analysis and customer behaviour in equal measure.

Ahead of the 70th Festival of Creativity, PMW spoke to Anastasia Leng, Founder & CEO at CreativeX, an AI analytics platform used by the likes of Google, Unilever and Pepsi, and Tom Goodwin, Business Transformation Consultant and author of the book Digital Darwinism, to look into how creativity and technology are merging.

In this in-depth interview, the two experts discussed what to expect at Cannes Lions this year, alongside issues around AI bias, the democratisation of advertising and turning creative into commerce.

Q. Is technology and data in danger of amplifying existing biases and broken ways of working, rather than actually helping to elevate marketers' work?

Tom: "In terms of how we use data, the industry has been carved into two tribes of marketers. There's the kind that grew up in a world without that much data, who kind of ‘felt’ their way around the world and worshipped at the altar of big ideas. They talked about craft and film and things like that.

“Then about 15 years ago, a whole batch of tech and data companies came into existence, which created a different tribe of people that worshipped at the altar of the real time dashboard. They measure everything. I think a lot of the tensions that happen in the industry at the moment are about trying to navigate those two different worlds and trying to find commonalities.

"When it comes to biases, especially in the context of AI, where everyone's talking about how flawed AI is – this technology isn't creating the biases. It's just reflecting the biases; they are always there. If you use generative AI to say what a typical architect looks like, and it is a man, that's not the AI telling us that it thinks that an architect should be a man. It's just ingesting lots of data that's been labelled that way.

"So I think now is a really good time to take a bit of a step back and do a good job of marrying those tribes – understand the data that really matters and understand the purpose. The data isn't there to make the decisions. It's to help us make decisions. I think the work of Anastasia at CreativeX is a really good way for those two worlds to come together, where it is about making better advertising. It is about supporting ideas. It is about giving people the information they need to sell in better work."

Q. So how can we use data to stop this bias and instead see the world as it is and as it could be?

Anastasia: "Anytime you think there is a bias or a problem, the first step is always to understand to which extent it exists. I think most people don't really want to look at that, especially when we talk about data in the creative space. People often jump to the conclusion that that data must be used mainly for optimisation purposes or performance purposes.

“I think the first question is, ‘what are we actually doing right’? Let's take the example of what Tom was talking about, with architects being visualised as men. If we think about all the ads and content brands are running, how often are we actually showing men? Are we as marketers perpetuating these stereotypes? It's not yet a performance question. It's a reality question.

“Data is not necessarily always a predictor, telling people things that only machines can figure out, but it is more about helping us actually understand what's going on – and then using that insight to think, ‘what do we want to do about it’? In my opinion, and there are folks who will disagree with me on this, it will always require a layer of human translation and interpretation. Without which, we won't get to those really big creative ideas.”

Q. On balance, is generative AI going to change the world of marketing for the better?

Tom: “The world of data sort of presupposes there's only ever one correct answer to a question. And actually, often there are many humans in the loop in this discussion about generative AI that everything becomes so extreme. The media world is based on people having quite simplistic, fairly extreme sort of binary opinions where either data's useless or it's everything, or either creativity is nonsense or it’s the only thing we have.

“The answer is always, it depends but in this need to get noticed, people tend to say quite dramatic things. I saw someone the other day, I think on LinkedIn, saying, ‘the future, the next unicorn will have two people working there. Next week is going to be, ‘the next unicorn won't have any people’! And they outlined why we're going from an environment where humans make decisions, to ones where humans have more data to make decisions to one where AI will make decisions.

"And it just profoundly annoyed me. So being what I am, I just said; ‘a situation where AI is making decisions isn't that realistic, but it's also quite scary. Isn't the role of data and insight more [about] understanding to make those decisions easier to make, and to allow people to make decisions with more confidence’?

“I think this idea that we're going to remove humans from the loop is terrifying. Obviously not every single decision is necessarily that important. Should you open the blind? Should you turn on the air conditioning? These are not existential questions, but I think we should never seek to be in a situation where our jobs become to be in the background and we wait for something to go wrong.”

Q. What are you both most looking forward to seeing and discussing at Cannes Lions this year?

Anastasia: “What I saw last year was a lot of talks all about the metaverse. It was like nothing else existed. You were sort of an idiot if you weren't investing in the metaverse, insisting we divert all your research to the metaverse, which actually at the time turned off a lot of people because we were witnessing the start of the war in Ukraine. We were starting to see the conversation of economic turmoil. So there we were talking about this idealised virtual reality versus we have this other reality at home that we were completely ignoring.

“I expect this year we will get that on steroids because I think generative AI is slightly less divisive than the metaverse was, but I think the conversation will be that nothing else exists, which is why I'm really looking forward to hearing Tom shed some perspective and reality on that view."

“Sadly, we tend to extract ourselves from reality because we probably should be talking about the cost of living crisis. We should be talking about the impact on people being on phones all the time and not really talking to friends. We should be talking about lots of other issues.

“With generative AI, I worry that everything will become quite extreme, so it'll be followed. Copywriters are saying this is nonsense. No one can ever write as well as me. Then other people say you'll never need a copywriter again. And obviously the reality is, between the two, but I tend to think it's towards the former rather than the latter. And I think that the less people know about something, the less able they are to understand the flaws in it.”

Q. Do you think generative AI will help marketers do their jobs better?

Tom: "I'd like to think that we'll have more progressive conversations. How can this make us do better work? How can this make our jobs nicer to do? How can we use this to bring in more interesting talent into the industry that deserves to shine? How can we do much better work without overworking people?

“In particular I think it democratises good quality work. Social media basically allowed 10 million companies to place advertising, which before we would never have been able to do. Now you're allowing 10 million advertisers to actually make really quite good work ads. I don't think it changed Nike. I don't think it changed Coca-Cola. I don't think it changed Tesco. I don't think it changed BMW, because you've always been able to make great ads. But now for example, if you're a small chain of five gyms based in Sunderland, you can actually make a really nice ad.

“It's not going to be like Nike, but it's going to be something that you feel proud of. The people who work on it are going to feel good about it. That actually hasn't changed our jobs because big agencies would always have big clients. And if you work for a media buying agency, you were never going to get the account for a small leisure centre. You are never going to get the account for a little sausage company that's got a single burger van.

Q. So there's more companies advertising than ever before – but is there also now more choice of digital platform than, say, five years ago when Google and Facebook were more dominant?

Anastasia: “I'm of the view that more choice and more competition is always a good thing. What I look at is, can it be harder for advertisers to have to keep up with the fact that all these platforms are a little bit different, and the formats can be a little bit different, and what the user expects is a little bit different. That is something we have to learn to work around.

“But fundamentally, knowing that there are different platforms, we can reach our users and engage them in different ways. While it adds complexity to the ecosystem, it actually forces everyone to make better adverts, because all these platforms are competing with one another for ad dollars. They're not only having to retain their users, they're in a competition for better tools, better formats and to help brands deliver their message in more engaging ways. And I think that can only be a good thing.

“There's so many more people trying to advertise now, but the big agencies aren't really going to be interested in that big lower bottom of the floor there. That is what's being sucked up by these kinds of tools. I’m seeing a lot of smaller companies see good results on TikTok and they're not using agencies, they're just in-housing their production and ad buying with some really simple ads, but they can be quite creative.”

Q. How are the worlds of creative and performance converging?

Tom: "For quite a long time in the ad agency world, we felt like we were making films. It was our job to sort of entertain and we supplied copy. But I think it's slowly dawning on the industry that actually we're now more in the sales process where we're trying to get people to buy stuff.

“I think there's some really interesting movements ahead. The line between what is commerce and what is advertising is getting very blurry. The growth of Amazon as a media partner has kind of come from nowhere, even though it has actually been done for a long time in China with e-commerce sites over there.

This article is part of PMW’s new series ‘Cannes Versus Machine’ covering the latest news, views and awards winners on location at Cannes Lions from the perspective of performance marketing.