Is data meaningless? What we learned from Lions Innovation this year

MBA's chief executive reports on the new tech and new opportunities that brands and start-ups revealed at Cannes Innovation Lions this week.

Having decided to forgo seeing such legends as Mario Testino, Reverend Jesse Jackson and Nasa so that I could blitz Lions Innovation for two days again this year, I was immediately struck by how fast Cannes's younger sibling has grown up in just 12 months.

How long before it will be subsumed by – or maybe itself subsume – the proceedings in the main Palais?

Still as relevant to our agency and clients as ever with its SXSW-inspired potpourri of the very latest in data and tech, more of this mini festival (even before its many outstanding awards) is beginning to take centre stage on the Croissette.

So what else particularly stood out for me this year?

1. More human software than new tech hardware

There were some exciting Hololens and VR demos, robot comedians, AI and 'bot convo' masterclasses, as well as cool start-ups.

But there was also a strong focus this year on having the right mindset to exploit these innovations.

Avery Baker, Tommy Hilfiger's chief brand officer, told us that the "unleashing of the inner entrepreneur" within everyone in the business is critical to the successful and swift launch last year of their direct from runway range TommyNow – complete with its AI powered bots.

London University neuroscience professor Beau Lotto's presentation "Data is meaningless" warned us to look at the meaning and context of data – not data per se – as "perception underpins everything we do as human".

2. Shiny new money beats shiny new tech

There was conscious effort to underline the ROI of new tech, such as Alibaba chief marketing officer Chris Tung outlining their end-to-end Databank, which tracks the customer journey right through to sale.

Meawhile, IBM chief digital officer Bob Lord cited IBM Watson successes as a top ten hit for music collaborator Alex Da Kid, and Mastercard chief marketing officer Raja Rajamannar celebrated the effectiveness of the brand's "storymaking" social and experiential strategy.

Meaningful data 'dashboards' also characterised both Cambridge Analytica's presentation on their research methodology and Dita Von Tesse's sharing of her Spotify playlist.

3. The digital experience of the product is the marketing

Halle Berry, in conversation with Interpublic's chief executive Michael Roth, told us how excited she was that she was now able to have truly authentic and rewarding two-way relationships with her fans through her own web and social channels.

Pernod Ricard showcased their customer satisfying, queue-busting, Internet of Things-driven 'Coco-nect' cups for Malibu (pictured above).

And Snap's head of creative strategy Jeff ("we are not a mobile first, we are a mobile only company") Miller emphasised how all their new ad formats, such as lenses and filters, have been developed by their same core product team to enhance and not interrupt the customer experience

4. Collaboration is almost normalised...

Large corporates collaborating with the start-up and inventor community has now become almost routine.

There were some good examples, such as Chevrolet's Virtual Passenger app to stop teenage texting while driving, Tiger Beer's Air-Ink initiative turning air pollution into artists' ink, and Shell's bio-beans clean energy solution

Other collaborative endeavours included the corporate-backed incubator Founders Factory present with senior marketers from Aviva easyJet and L'Oréal, as well as Sir John Hegarty's Whalar marketplace for creatives with influence.

Indeed this year the many excellent start ups present, such as TokyWoky, The Source and Globality, were discouraged to have stands but to network instead.

Even AI is now being cited as an example of a collaborator and not as a competitor or, as Bob Lord said, for "humans to see in colour".

5. ... but diversity is still far from normalised

The story continues. Adding to the significant coverage of diversity at the festival as a whole this year, we were inspired by: the World Economic Forum's Saaidia Zahidi calling for more young STEM women; initiatives from the large tech businesses such as Facebook's #SheMeansBusiness; Brit &Co's Brit Morin – one of Fortune's ten Most Promising Entrepreneurs – whose media company encourages women to be more creative.

There was also Stitch Fix's Katrina Lake who now works with over 500 designers offering women personal styling at scale (although Katrina did then remind us that 94% of the West Coast VC community were still men).

So, another year helping move tech and data closer to where they should be – at the centre of the marketing and creative agendas. As the man behind Minority Report Alex McDowell told us, we need to recognise that we all now live in a new world of "spherical storytelling".

Stephen Maher is chief executive of MBA and chairman of The Marketing Society

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