The We Are Social leadership team, from offices in ten different countries, come together once a year to discuss social thinking and creativity. This year, we took the opportunity to meet in Cannes during the Lions Festival for a week of innovation, inspiration and the occasional celebration.

N.B. I am not one of those detractors who disses Cannes as just a big fat jolly. Obviously, that’s part of it, but if you get beyond the jeroboams of rosé, there’s so much insight and inspiration to be had.

The festival offered literally hundreds of keynote addresses, tens of thousands of award entries, and many showcases of technology. Having tasted a good number of each, here is my summary of the seven key themes coming out of Cannes:

  1. THE RISE OF THE PLATFORMS: I had not been to Cannes for nearly ten years, and the transformation has been quite remarkable since my last visit. It is now completely dominated by the platforms and technology brands, rather than the heritage media owners and production companies of the previous era. And with the exception of Snapchat, who had a rather underwhelming presence given the heat around the brand right now, others are doing a great job of positioning their brands, engaging the industry, and generally showcasing their smarts.

  1. VIRTUAL REALITY IS THE NEW REALITY: If you’re still on the fence about whether VR is the industry’s ‘next big thing’, Cannes convinces that it is. Not only did its innovations win awards, but seven keynote sessions included VR in the title, countless others referenced the technology, and hands down my most notable experience on The Croisette was a demo of Google’s Tilt Shift. The wider world is still questioning whether it’s a genuine innovation or just another fad innovation. Not in our minds – for us, Cannes confirmed our prediction that VR is here to stay. As our Strategic Planning Director Carlos de Spinola put it, “we are in the throes of a VR renaissance, and in the long run the technology has the potential to humanise social networks”. However, it is still nascent. Wired’s Co-Founder, Kevin Kelly, made the point that at this stage in its life “no one is an expert”. For industries such as education and entertainment, VR’s influence is already apparent. But when it comes to its role in marketing, it’s still innovation without real application, and even Cannes’ most brilliant minds couldn’t advise on how exactly to capitalise on the technology or harness its transformative powers to create a more human, empathetic marketing approach. For now, watch this space!

  1. EMPATHY IS THE NEW INSIGHT: ‘Empathy’ was another word frequently on the experts’ lips, and even the old Fresh Prince himself, Will Smith, took a moment to emphasise how important it is to empathise. He had the house captivated as he recounted a touching story of how he came to truly empathise with his ten-year-old daughter, Willow, whilst on tour with her in Ireland. However, not before she had shaved off her ass-length hair in the throes of her ‘whip my hair’ tour to support Justin Bieber.

  1. DON’T MISTAKE TECHNOLOGY FOR INNOVATION: Technology alone cannot identify or fulfill unmet needs, and Cannes highlighted the importance of distinguishing raw technology from innovation – two overlapping ideas we feel are often conflated. Technology is simply about invention, but innovation is about the ability to create change and address needs. Another thought – not new, but cemented here – was that ‘Purpose is the new P’, which is an idea that Smith summed up in one sentence: “The only reason to do things is to improve lives”. With that truth top-of-mind, Unilever stood out as a brand that truly harnesses this ideology and lets it drive every campaign that they run.

  2. DATA CONTINUES TO DOMINATE: Similar to what We Are Social’s Simon Kemp stressed in his discussion at the recent Vivid Ideas, data-driven insights are essential for informing winning marketing strategies and inspiring great ideas. We heard a similar sentiment echoed in many Cannes’ sessions and noticed that many winning campaigns shared a common theme – they were intrinsically rooted in data-driven insights. Don’t underestimate the power of data. It slays.

  1. Like data and insight, A SOLID DISTRIBUTION STRATEGY is also essential for successful campaigns. What good is impactful, insightful creative without an audience to appreciate it? According to Prof Byron Sharp, big brands have big audiences, which may seem like an all-too-obvious truth, but it’s one we believe cannot be ignored. While most award winners tend to focus on inspiring creative or impactful campaign messaging, reach is an underlying element across all successful campaigns, and distribution is still incredibly important.

  1. INFLUENCER MARKETING IS MAINSTREAM: Based on the volume of Influencer chatter, Cannes confirmed that the phenomenon of engaging influencers in marketing campaigns continues to grow. And why wouldn’t it? Influencers help bridge the gap between branded messaging and entertainment by disguising ads as content that fans actually want to consume. Smart brands like Adidas and MLS learned early and applied often, but it’s our view that there’s still a long way to go in mastering the art of leveraging influencers. The rise of influencers contributes to another common Cannes theme – the convergence of marketing and entertainment. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between the two, as many brands have recognised fans’ insatiable appetite for entertainment and with the rapid rise in ad-blocking, acknowledged the fact that people are starting to reject marketing messages. Sophisticated brands like Red Bull are becoming content creators themselves, and with the proliferation of content, an age-old paradigm is being put to the test: can we now expect the trifecta of good, fast and cheap? Wendy Clark from DDB Worldwide suggests there is a new world order, where ‘new media’ has set a new expectation that cheap, fast, and good are all highly obtainable as a package, with top forward-thinking agencies and brands cracking this efficiency code. Those who are slow to adapt to this new reality may struggle to survive.

For more on actual award winners and Cannes campaign highlights, consult our interactive Cannesogram.