Just because we can doesn’t mean we should: James Mok on the importance of finding the humanity in technology

There’s so much talk about innovation today and at Spikes Asia held in Singapore last week, innovation and technology were overwhelming seminar themes. But what is the relationship between innovation and creativity? And is innovation always creative? What should come first?

In Cannes this year, FCB hosted a presentation with the production house Framestore, which produced the Oscar-winning film, Gravity. Being such a great story and an eye-popping visual masterpiece, it was interesting to hear Framestore creative director, Tim Webber, talk about how they saw the role of technology in the creative process.

Tim explained that in the early stages of ideating the film, they were following convention; mostly live action filmed in front of green screens with a few wow scenes created in CGI. 

Then they realised that if they chose to produce the whole thing in the computer, not only would they have many more eye-popping scenes, the whole creative process would be opened up to more possibilities.

This reminds me of one of the more confrontational quotes from Edward De Bono: “There are many people calling themselves creative who are mere stylists, and what separates creative people from stylists is an enquiring mind. Not just people who want to reshape or restyle an existing solution, but people who say, ‘Why does it have to be that way?’”

Perhaps to know how to go forward, we need to go back.

In 1916, Albert Lasker, FCB founder and arguably the father of modern advertising, was in a meeting with his client, the California Fruit Growers Exchange. Their problem was very similar to the problems of clients today: they were producing too many oranges for the existing demand. So much so that they were cutting down trees.

Yet Laskar’s solution wasn’t limited by merely talking about the product they already sold. He looked further upstream on how to solve the problem of oversupply. He told his client that consumer insights showed more and more often, people were taking their whole oranges home and squeezing out the juice. So he introduced California Growers to his other client, the Van Camp Packaging Company, and created a whole new consumption opportunity for the growers: commercially packaged orange juice. Laskar’s agency then produced some communications to accelerate the trend, suggesting that we could ‘drink an orange’ instead of eating it.

Demand increased 100 percent. And that was innovation from an agency in 1916.

Perhaps it was ultimately the packaging technology that allowed the new product to be manufactured, but it was the creativity in the thinking that set it in motion. True creative thinking challenges conventional practice and established wisdom.

It’s this type of thinking every agency, and everyone who works in agencies today, needs to be embracing. And to remind ourselves that technology is a brilliant enabler.

There’s a lot of criticism in the industry about the dangers of masking a weak idea with cool technology. Just before Cannes, Australian agency, cummins&partners, released a parody case study to advertise the Creative Fuel Conference in Sydney. 

Titled, “The World’s First Crowd Sourced 3D Printed QR Code, Live Streamed Via Go Pro To A Smart Phone Or Tablet Device, Drone Delivery Ticket System Project”, this extremely funny video content was quite prophetic.

There was a palpable trend at Cannes this year where the best ideas driven by technology were ideas where the tech was never the hero. The humanity in the idea was. I heard that overly complex tech oriented ideas were brutally judged at Spikes too. And so they should. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

There’s no genius in this insight, but it’s remarkable how much we, as creators of ideas, can be seduced by tech cleverness and forget about the fundamentals of great communication. Time is precious and consumers aren’t going to reward us for making things complex.

When we bring creativity to the problem, we get more innovative answers. And when I say ‘creativity’ I’m talking about applying it right from the beginning of understanding the business problem. It’s not about innovation looking for a willing brand, as tempting as that might be. It’s about questioning what is possible and connecting the brand to an opportunity in a relevant and authentic way.

But clearly the answers today are different to how a lot of traditional work has been approached in the past.

  • It’s ensuring innovation is not just at execution stage. The solution might not even be an ad.
  • It’s about finding innovative ways to engage and interact with the audience.
  • It’s being relevant in the consumers’ world.

The following work produced by the FCB network over the last two years have come from asking, ‘What’s Possible?’

Sony ‘The Bottled Walkman’: by being innovative with a packaging solution, we were able to instantly dramatise the product benefit and make it immediately appealing where swimmers would most want it: where they train.

Oreo Thins: FCB Shanghai produced a scannable barcode from the actual product—the new thin Oreo—which linked to an e-commerce site to drive sampling. A playful idea for a playful brand.

Nivea Sun ‘The Protection Ad’: to conceive this year’s Cannes mobile grand prix winner, our Brazilian office asked themselves, ‘to enhance the relevance of this product, why does the product’s liquid protection have to be the only way?’ The innovative solution involved old school RFID technology that was given a new use, and made interesting and relevant. The mobile jury president said just before announcing it as the grand prix winner, that every jury member was struck by the emotional resonance of the idea because they were parents. Getting a jaded Cannes jury to momentarily stop being advertising professionals and react as human beings shows the power of the idea. I have no doubt the public of Brazil felt the same way.

UTEC Water and Air Billboards: the two pieces of innovation for UTEC, a new engineering university from Peru, challenges uninspiring advertising for the category. The team took a standard billboard and used the university’s engineering skills to turn the media into incredible product demonstrations. And while the engineering innovations are fantastic, it’s clearly the ideas that make UTEC seem so relevant to students looking for their next big step. Applications for the school increased dramatically and now a two-year-old university’s reputation rivals schools that have a 90 year heritage.

Coca Cola ‘ Rainbow’: as part of its ‘Open Happiness’ brand idea, Coke wanted to help celebrate South Africa’s 20th year as the ‘Rainbow Nation’. The conventional way would have been to produce some communications talking about the anniversary in a very Cokey, happy, colourful, rainbowy way, but the team questioned this (and to Coke’s credit, they’d never settle for anything less). So rather than create a picture of a rainbow, they dared to go one step further and use technology to actually create a real rainbow.

Brothers In Arms ‘Bank Job’: Getting sponsorship funds is a tough challenge for this small New Zealand charity. Conventional thinking would suggest fundraising or a public appeal, but given the size of the charity’s budgets, it’s unlikely that any momentum could be created. So the team found a more direct route to the people who hold corporate purse strings via the company’s bank statements. Innovative thinking: yes. Reliance on technology: no (unless online banking can be regarded as technology).

CNA English Language School ‘Speaking Exchange’: Who said English language students need to be in the same room as tutors, and who said the teachers need to be professional? The CNA Language School in Brazil intelligently uses an incredibly prosaic piece of technology—video calling—to bring two different groups of people together—Brazilian language students and retirees in an American retirement village—who have the same need: to talk. 

All these ideas have unleashed the potential of their brands. By deconstructing a problem and rethinking the approach, we can engage with consumers in ways that are really relevant in their world today. Technology is undeniably a powerful enabler and it helps us do things we’ve never done before. But how it’s used is only as potent as why it’s being used.

Last week, Simon Miles, digital director at Coca Cola Enterprises, spoke at a Global Academy of Digital Marketing event in London urging FMCG marketers to avoid being ‘blinded by technology’. Instead of using technology for tech’s sake, brands should always keep shoppers in mind first. And this is one of the world’s most celebrated companies for using innovative technology so creatively. 

The most important factor here is to be truly creative rather than creatively technical. When we do this, we create real behaviour change and unlock real value for our clients.

And all of us in this industry should not forget the most powerful technology we’ll ever have: our creative brains.

  • James Mok is the executive creative director Asia Pacific at FCB International. 
  • This article is based on a seminar entitled ‘Unleashing Potential: Creativity & Innovation’​ that Mok co-presented with Edward Bell, FCB Greater China chief executive, at Spikes Asia. 

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