Blogs & Comment

Art and Science are waging a war for marketing’s soul

Advertising’s two dominant camps have never been so at odds. Maybe it’s time to call a truce

World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee giving his keynote at the 2015 Cannes Festival

World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee giving his keynote at the 2015 Cannes Festival. (François G. Durand/Getty)

If you have to observe Armageddon, the Côte d’Azur is a nice place to do it. Not that this year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity promoted itself as such, of course—but it’s certainly how it felt to be there. Look beyond the giddy throngs of advertising wunderkinds, and you’ll find clear signs that the industry’s eternal conflict is lurching toward some kind of finale. Advertising’s war between art and science seems on the verge of going nuclear. Who will prevail remains uncertain, but if there are clues to be found anywhere, it’s probably there.

If you’re a marketer, Cannes matters. There was a time when the festival was cringingly self-congratulatory, a bacchanalia where overfed creative boffins went to collect trophies and escalate salaries. Expensive to enter and too much fun, it drove marketers crazy for what it said about the ad industry’s real motivations. But over the past few years, it’s become pointedly relevant. There are awards for almost every kind of promotion, now, not just ads. Technology pervades. Speakers are culturally significant. And rather than disapproving from afar, serious marketers now attend in droves.

For a taste of science’s postwar vision, there was probably no better place to be than at a presentation given by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. That the inventor of the World Wide Web could fill an auditorium at Cannes was not a surprise; that he should do so for a talk about artificial intelligence was—given that, by his own admission, he’s not an expert on the subject. Still, people lined up to get even a hint of what marketing will look like when perfectly objective, omniscient machines do it.

Berners-Lee exemplified the digerati’s faith that flawless execution is just over the horizon and won’t rely on talent. “You learn to write copy simply as a function of what works and what doesn’t,” he told a private audience after his keynote, and therefore so can an algorithm. After invoking Stephen Hawking’s warning that AI might spell the end of humanity, the session’s sponsor excitedly added, “the cross-platform targeting potential is absolutely immense.”

If that irony was too painful, the case for art was represented in an equally packed session with irony-free Pharrell Williams. The Grammy Award–winning creator of “Happy” held forth on themes dear to the hearts of the event’s young audience: collaboration, connectivity, gratitude, being special by being different. But everyone’s iPhones came out to take notes when it got down to how he manages his own brand. Consumers, he said, have a keen ear for “intention” and “what’s real,” and are merciless if they sense anything else. That theme was echoed by other celebrity speakers: If you’re not authentic, nobody will pay attention. “I don’t want to be Mr. Promotion,” Williams said, deflecting questions about his next project, as if to say nobody should assume that role.

The schism between artful persuasion and the empirical method is as old as advertising—but it has never been as confrontational as it is now (or made a marketer’s life so miserable). On one hand, science that’s hard to understand; and on the other, art that’s hard to believe in. And it’s all intended to chase a consumer bent on ignoring you either way. A CMO could be forgiven for picking a side. This job is hard enough without having to be ecumenical too. You don’t need to fly to France to see that.

Except that nowhere will you see the advertising industry trying harder to make it work. That hit me at a press conference promoting Facebook’s Creative Shop. For a solid hour, effervescent Facebookers quoted advertising legends like Bill Bernbach, discussed the “craft of film” and being “on brand,” and showed us heart-tugging commercials—all without once using the word “algorithm.” Like a lot of the best work you see at Cannes, it was an earnest effort to erase the distinction between art and science in the honest pursuit of results.

Which is how it has to be. If either side wins the war for advertising, marketing will lose. It’s détente that will save it—and finally justify all that self-congratulation on the Riviera.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee on Advertising and Artificial Intelligence