In a quieter, more consolidated year, big tech dominance, diversity and influencer scrutiny were among the key themes at Cannes.

Digiday estimated turnout at 25% less than previous years. Pundits dubbed the mood “pensive” and “quiet.” Still, the star factor was high. In town for the event were Olympic skater Adam Rippon, Thandie Newton, Jon Bon Jovi, Queen Latifah, David Schwimmer, Girlboss’s Sophia Amoruso, Ellen Pompeo, Naomi Campbell and many more. There were plenty of concerts, glittering displays of opulence and fireworks to entertain them.

As in recent years, tech brands dominated the more lavish beach spaces. Pinterest, Twitter, Google and Facebook all took coveted beach spots. Newer to the fray this year, with a slew of announcements (not least new original podcast content), was Spotify.

Apple and Amazon—the former largely absent from conference circuits, the latter usually under-the-radar—both featured in the line-up. Hulu also made its debut.

By now, the winners and losers are well storied. See Creative Review’s full round-up here

Key themes among the winning projects were social activism and political commentary, and transformative innovation—with an emphasis on innovation with real impact rather than tokenistic change. Inclusion and diversity featured as well. Channel innovation was also a key theme—Apple and Google both incorporated voice assistants in some form in creative work.

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P&G's The Talk

For social activism and commentary, see P&G’s highly emotive winning campaign The Talk, which explored the history of racial bias in the United States in startlingly unvarnished form. Libresse and Bodyform also won for an edgy campaign which broke taboos in feminine care marketing, not least by showing period blood in red, rather than blue, with evocative bursts of close-up moving red matter.

Award-winning My Line, powered by Google and Mullenlowe SSP3 Bogota, showcased the growing transformative roles of Google Assistant and other voice assistants in giving developing markets and consumer groups in rural areas new ways to access the internet. The project features a landline telephone number that users can phone to effectively ask the internet a question using Google Assistant. (Google Assistant will be able to understand 30 languages soon, if not already.) Apple was also an award winner for Welcome Home, starring FKA Twigs—the video kicks off with the singer and artist arriving home after a long day and asking Siri to play her a song before she embarks on an expressive dance around her apartment.

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Artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been a rising nemesis and the subject of countless panels in recent years at the festival. This year the theme continued, but with a more optimistic bent. Accenture-owned creative agency Rothco won for its JFK Unsilenced project for the Times, which recreated a previously “lost” John F Kennedy speech using AI. Adobe announced a tool, Attribution IQ, that “taps the power of data to fuel marketing strategy and creativity.” Publicis Groupe staged a talk, Marcel One Year Later: AI, Creativity and the Future of our Industry, exploring its Microsoft-created AI tool designed to “connect 80,000 creative minds—and help them learn more, share more and create more.”

Elsewhere there were talks on the ethics of AI, including Fjord’s panel. To make users feel comfortable with AI’s liability, transparency, security, bias and values, AI design will need an ethical code. What does that look like?” the company asked.

Influencer backlash

Influencers have supplanted celebrities and brand endorsements. When it comes to earned media, many influencers have become more important than traditional media channels. Social influencing has become a highly evolved and highly commercial machine, with influencers commanding millions of dollars for their endorsements. But what if that influence is fake?

Earlier this year, the New York Times published The Follower Factory, an influential investigative report exposing the grey market of paid-for followings. Its introduction to the practice of paid-for influence was punchy: “Everyone wants to be popular online. Some even pay for it. Inside social media’s black market.”

Because of this and other criticism of undefined or regulated influencer practices, influencer backlash was a key theme at Cannes. “Celebrities are less trusted now. Influencers are. But nobody really knows what they’re getting,” said Edelman CEO Richard Edelman.

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Keith Weed, CMO of Unilever

Keith Weed, CMO of Unilever took this further, calling for “urgent action now, to rebuild trust before it’s gone forever.” Weed wants take action to clear up bad practice in the space, from bots to fake followers in what he called “dishonest business models.” The FMCG giant announced that it will now not work with influencers who buy followers. It has promised its own brands will never buy followers. It said it will also prioritize partners that increase their transparency and work to eradicate nefarious practices throughout the digital ecosystem.

China tech

China had a bigger presence than ever at Cannes this year, illustrating the rising global influence and reach of China tech brands; China’s lead in communication, payments, and consumer tech products; and its growing soft power and influence. There were Mandarin language tours. Thursday during the week was given over entirely to China tech. Huawei staged a talk exploring the changing perception of China and quality brands. Formerly known for knock-offs or near-term imitations, the country is now becoming a leader on the world stage of innovation, the brand said. Huawei boasted 32% revenue growth in 2016 and has also started catching up with Google and Apple for its cultural brand activations, from partnerships with Dazed Media to extensive festive campaigns for its products in global markets. Edelman China hosted a talk exploring the world of e-sports and gaming, which is exploding for young men and women in China. It highlighted innovations by L’Oréal and Yum Brands in wrapping their brands into gamified campaigns. Tencent hosted a session entitled Onward and Upward: Where Does China’s Innovation Take Us Next?

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Seng Yee Lau, Chairman of Group Marketing & Global Branding and Chairman of Advertising, at Cannes Lions 2018

Gender and diversity

Needless to say, as with every conference in 2018, the #MeToo global movement was a key subject of discussion. In a panel entitled Redefining Miss America in the age of #MeToo, high-profile former Fox News presenter (and Roger Ailes whistleblower) Gretchen Carlson said of #MeToo: “it’s all about how we raise our sons … It’s about empowering our boys to respect women from the very beginning in the household, when they get to college and when they go into the workforce. That will be the final tipping point of the #MeToo movement.”

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Gretchen Carlson speaks with Y&R North America CCO Leslie Sims at Cannes

Unilever continued its Unstereotype campaign, announcing an alliance with Simon Fuller’s XIX Entertainment and Rexona. Dove also announced a partnership, with Cartoon Network. Both are commitments to rethinking stereotyping in entertainment for young people.

The crisis of masculinity is currently a growing theme. Faith Popcorn and the BrainReserve hosted a panel on the subject in the #MeToo era and a climate in which men’s suicides and cases of depression continue to rise. The talk, entitled The Death of Masculinity and its Impact on Creativity, featured academic and masculinities expert Michael Kimmel, Amy Sterner Nelson, founder of women’s professional club the Riveter, and drag queen Violet Chachki. “We know we cannot fully empower women and girls without engaging men and boys. Gender equality is not a zero sum game. It’s a win-win,” said Kimmel. He added elsewhere that changing masculinity will require a paradigm shift in how we frame what it is to be a man. “Men are living lives that would be unrecognizable to grandfathers. They are loving and kind with kids,” he said.

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Violet Chachki and Faith Popcorn at Cannes

London-based futures consultancy LS:N Global has announced new research in a project entitled New Masculinity, asking whether brands can help detoxify masculinity.

Intersectionality and gender were big themes at many talks, from leadership to representation to experiences on the internet. Amnesty International recently published a study framing women’s experience on Twitter within human rights terms, describing the platform as “toxic” and criticizing it for failing to do enough to protect women using its service.

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Whitney Wolfe Herd, founder and CEO of Bumble

Whitney Wolfe Herd, founder and CEO of Bumble, spoke with Hearst’s chief content officer Joanna Coles about how the problem of female harassment inspired her to set up her female-friendly dating app. Bumble was established as an antidote to the more male-centric Tinder, which she originally cofounded and later sued in a much-publicized lawsuit. Bumble has nearly 26 million users worldwide, and Wolfe was in town, she said, to explore advertising on the platform. Bumble is run by a majority-female executive team and is now reportedly valued at more than $1 billion. Wolfe described being attacked online by strangers and said she “wanted to reinvent the internet from a woman’s point of view.” She added that the problem with many online platforms is that they “miss an accountability piece.” As such, Bumble has strict due diligence practices for removing members who exhibit bad behavior, and carries out ID verification.

Sound

Unsurprisingly, given the proliferation of voice assistants and voice recognition technology, sound was a key trend at Cannes Lions 2018. Bongiovi Acoustic Labs’ ARIA, a collaboration with J. Walter Thompson New York, was shortlisted for an innovation accolade. The 3D-printed digital stethoscope device delivers advanced and highly nuanced recordings for diagnosis; at a fraction of the cost of previous digital stethoscopes on the market. Elsewhere, the creative applications of sound were explored: Soundbranding hosted a session about sound design in vehicles, entitled Triggering Memories and Connections through Sound. “If you don’t hear motor sounds anymore—just the wheels or the drivetrain—all of a sudden sound becomes much more important in the overall picture,” the introductory text explained. “This session will explore how the future of mobility opens up a whole new universe of possibilities in the sound and music industry.”

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Bongiovi Acoustic Labs' ARIA

Cars in general are set to become a media and marketing portal, not least as 5G enables the connected car to truly become a reality. Renault and Volvo were among the brands to explore this. Renault hosted a session entitled Life on board: turning the Car into Media. Volvo and co-working brand WeWork hosted Smart Cities: changing the way we live, work and innovate.

Beauty

The future of beauty was a rising theme at Cannes, perhaps because—as the beauty industry continues to boom—it represents a key advertising sector. At the same time, beauty is increasingly becoming blurred with the burgeoning health and wellbeing space, which is a key part of the line-up at Cannes. Lubomira Rochet, chief digital officer at L’Oréal, hosted a session entitled Technology is at the Heart of Beauty, exploring how technology is transforming the beauty industry with new tools to drive commerce. L’Oréal has been at the forefront of this, from creating connected diagnostic hairbrushes with Kérastase to inventing UV sensors you stick on your nails to inform you when you need to apply sunscreen. L’Oréal recently acquired Modiface, the leading augmented reality app that allows users to virtually try on make-up and various styles.

Big tech v government, creativity, humanity and beyond

It had to happen, given the current “tech lash”—the cultural pushback on big tech’s giants. Big tech as a specter and a threat to humanity was a key theme during Cannes Lions. The Economist hosted a major debate entitled The Power of Big Tech Platforms, featuring author and journalist Evgeny Morozov, CEO of UM Kasha Cacy, and Unilever CMO Keith Weed. Scott Galloway of L2 (and author of recently launched bestseller The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google) gave a keynote speech, The Break-up of Big Tech. “For the past decade, the loudest arguments waged regarding the Four (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google) were about which CEO was more Jesus-like or should run for president. However, the worm has turned against big tech. Facebook denies the responsibilities of a media company, more people subscribe to Amazon Prime than voted in the 2016 US presidential election, Google owns 90% market share in search, Apple controls content and distribution via one billion active iOS users … and we are starting to question how much power and influence is too much,” argues Galloway.

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The Economist debate: The Power of Big Tech Platforms

Elsewhere technology’s impact on our psychological wellbeing was also a key focus—again, mirroring bigger trends in critical thinking. Jean Twenge in The Atlantic penned a highly influential piece about the connection between tween social media use, and their growing sense of isolation and depression. At Cannes, this manifested in the session entitled Addicted to Likes: Consumers in the Age of Attention Armageddon, featuring Scott Hagedorn (CEO of Hearts & Science) and Tristan Harris (former design ethicist, Google), discussing the problem of attention maximization and how to create a more ethical framework for internet use.

Until next year…