Cannes Lions 2023: Debbie Ellison on the brave new world of Creative Commerce

This article featuring Debbie Ellison, Global Chief Digital Officer at VMLY&R Commerce, was originally published by Marketing Beat.

Ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes of a judging panel at the 2023 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity? How intensely do judges ‘debate’ when making those key decisions, how do they stay impartial when judging competitor ads and what really makes a good Grand Prix winner?

Fresh from the jury room, Debbie Ellison, global chief digital officer at VMLY&R Commerce, offers up her insights from judging the brave new world of the Creative Commerce category, which encompasses everything from subconscious ordering to Gen Z banking on Twitch…

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Judging at Cannes means immersing yourself in really great work and preparing for intense debates.

For me and my fellow jurors, days were long, but zipped by as we deep-dived into the best ideas globally to agree on the pinnacle of achievement in Creative Commerce.

The category, only in its second year, saw entries up 25% YOY and is transforming before our eyes. In the past, ‘Commerce’ at Cannes has tended to be an afterthought – now it’s increasingly the centre of marketing gravity with an aim to balance brand-building and sales-getting.

One of my biggest take-outs across the judging process was the power of diversity and diverse thinking. No matter how global you might think you are, your background, culture and geography inevitably influence perceptions of work. But with such broad expertise in one room from consultants and creatives to platform and commerce experts, all representing a variety of markets, the collective sees value through different lenses.

Here’s my take on the big Creative Commerce themes, how commerce is being reinvented and why we awarded the Grand Prix winner.

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Brand-building Commerce

Creative commerce is not just a lower marketing funnel activity, but a new way for companies to deliver growth while building brands.

A lateral example was Silver Lion-winner Self-Checkout from K-Lynn lingerie in Dubai. As K-Lynn observed, every lingerie website looks the same. So, it re-shot the site, turning every beauty pose into a visual guide to – of all things – self-check for breast cancer.

We loved the simplicity; no huge tech overhaul, no complex UX.  It was a great example of purpose and purchase – lifting mammogram checks while building the K-Lynn brand and increasing online sales by 23%.

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Closer Commerce

From generative AI to biometrics, tech has accelerated the race to capture first party data and deliver personalised commerce experiences. However, its application has often made user experience more complex.

Not the case of Stranger King.  In partnership with Netflix, Burger King tapped into Stranger Things’ fandom and using facial recognition, created an intuitive, telekinesis-like payment experience in its app – a first in Argentina.

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Inclusive Commerce

Purpose-driven entries were a topic of much discussion at Cannes, but in the Creative Commerce category, businesses unleashed the power of commerce for underrepresented communities at scale.

In 2022, UK food prices climbed 17.6%, impacting already stretched households. The Gold Lion-winning Iceland Food Clubwas a novel solution: Iceland was the first supermarket retailer to offer customers interest-free micro loans to address short-term food insecurity – and sustain families through tight weeks. Genius.

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Educational Commerce

Brands are connecting with hard-to-reach growth audiences by reframing products or services via educational commerce experiences. Case in point – Gold Lion winner Nxt Lvl from Canada’s Bank of Montreal (BMO).

Young adults hate traditional banks and BMO was being left behind. So, it established a “bank branch” on interactive gaming platform Twitch, staffed by a Personal Banker – a devoted gamer. The new generation staffer engaged with gamers on finance-related subjects. The response? A 24% increase in account openings.

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Commerce has been completely revolutionised by technology and creativity, and winning brands in Creative Commerce at Cannes are challenging convention in interesting ways.

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Platforms Reinvented

In 2023, what is a store? For KFC China, it was a virtual store that allowed real-life delivery. KFC Re-Store (Bronze Lion winner) was even more successful than its physical equivalents, attracting 19 million visitors, 300 million chats with Colonel Sanders, plus 4.3 billion interactions, many virtual – from selfies to digital clothing bought.

Another great case was eBay in the US. The shortlisted Wear ‘Em Out Store is a pop-up that rewarded sneakerheads for wearing their kicks out the front door (over grass, gravel and concrete), rather than hoarding them in pristine condition to make an obscene profit.

A miss for me was the lack of social selling or social commerce-first examples. This is a major opportunity for brands to harness advocacy to drive both on and in platform sales.

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Products reinvented

Two of my favourite cases were about re-framing core products. One was Silver Lion-winning Dream Bars from Ontario Lottery and Gaming – an innovative way to make tangible the riches of a lottery win.

The other was Lunchables, a staple of US school lunches. Gold Lion-winning Lunchabuilds created 31 unique food builds – from dinosaurs to baseball diamonds – using only the product. Sales grew 38% year-on-year.

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Promotions Reinvented

Promos are a mainstay of commerce, but Oreocodes was one Gold Lion winner which looked at the tactic anew. (This example is from my agency, but I was excluded from judging it, and it scored highly across jury rooms).

The insight is that milk and Oreo cookies pair naturally, and any milk carton barcode could be turned into a mobile-scannable Oreo offer. The activation drove increased store trips, units, and dollar sales.

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One Grand Prix Winner

Our Grand Prix, Subconscious Order expanded the principle that the inaugural jury established last year – that Creative Commerce can be transformational.

For the first-time, Hungerstation, a food delivery service in Saudi Arabia, introduced an app feature using advanced algorithms, face-tracking, and AI-driven food topic modelling to identify “what the subconscious mind is craving”.

‘Subconscious ordering’ gained 78,000 new customers in two weeks by reducing choice complexity – possibly changing category navigation and product selection forever.

This remarkable work should, I hope, serve as inspiration of the power in Creative Commerce for brands and their customers – driving meaningful engagement in the form of experience, at the moment of conversion.

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