What I Learned Judging the Innovation Lions, Where Actions Are the World’s Best Ads

'Will it endure? Can it change lives?'

Cannes Lions was born out of the Cannes Film Festival in the 1950s. And so, unsurprisingly, its origins were in narrative filmmaking—it awarded good commercials. Billboards weren't added until nearly 40 years later. And this, apparently, was considered such an act of heresy that only extensive deployment of the Heimlich maneuveron the Carlton Terrace prevented an entire generation of agency bosses from fatally choking on their fois gras.

Over the following two decades, the festival evolved, along with our industry, into a sprawling, multi-headed hydra rewarding all types of communication. Except one.

Shaun McIlrath

Until recently, in common with pretty much every other ad festival in the world, Cannes did not reward innovation. Yes, it awarded innovative communication, but it didn't have a category for pure innovation.

And yet, innovation is communication. For far too many years, our focus as communicators has been on speaking eloquently. But nothing is more eloquent, or more telling, than an organization's body language. The things we do say so much more about us than the things we say. Or, to put it another way, the amazingness of our actions is the best advertising we could ever create.

The guys behind Cannes got this before any other ad festival, and three years ago they created the Innovation Lions. This year, innovation's importance was again underlined when they elevated its status further, creating Lions Innovation, a new festival within the festival.

This festival is not just entered by agencies and brands, but by startups and tech companies. And, uniquely, shortlisted entries get to pitch in person to a jury made up of tech guys, VCs, media experts and yes, quaintly, even the odd agency creative.

Now, I've sat on many juries over the years, but I've never experienced a process like this before. So, what did I learn?

Well, first, convergence is real. While everyone on the jury had different backgrounds and viewpoints, everyone shared a common philosophy, which made the judging much easier and more fun. And what little jargon there was, was synced. Finally.

I learned that guys who have been doing the rounds with VCs are a whole lot more buttoned-down and drilled than agency types. I was reminded that if you love your subject, and your subject is tech, it's very easy to get overinvolved in the intricacies and forget about real-life application. And I witnessed advertising stunts posing as business ideas fall apart under a cross-fire of questioning about IP, scaleability, etc.

But at the root of all our questions were a few simple premises: Is it a breakthrough? Will it endure? Can it change lives?

The standout ideas were pretty much all about innovation in the service of people and communities.

Sure, it could be argued that the Talwar Bindi—a bindi that delivers a daily dose of iodine to Indian women, preventing birth defects—does not use a new technology. But in this case, the innovation was in the cultural application. Iodine supplements were either prohibitively expensive or simply weren't taken. But this elegant solution—to a problem affecting 9 million women—was relevant, cheap and used an existing behavior.

Talwar Bindi, Life Saving Dot

Entrant: Grey Group Singapore


The BioRanger crop-testing device from Diagenetix is a hand-held biology lab designed to detect gene markers and give immediate feedback, making it five days faster than the conventional method of sending samples to labs. This enables farmers to manage blight implications there and then. Better still, data gathered can enable farmers to plot the spread of crop pathogens and, if necessary, prepare. It's a big idea, with huge implications for the agricultural industry—and that's before you start exploring potential applications for home-testing DNA in other areas.

Diagenetix Bioranger

Entrant: R/GA, New York

ACH2O, in association with Panasonic, caused a lot of debate. In a nutshell, it filters the water created by your air conditioning unit into a drinkable product. It's such a simple idea that it was almost too easy to dismiss with a "Yeah, but do you really want to drink air-con water?" or "What about Legionnaires' Disease?" Big questions rooted in today. But put in the context of a future where by 2050, 40 percent of the world will suffer from water shortage, questions that need answered. Given that this could make your home or company water self-sufficient, it's a potentially enormous idea affecting millions. Imagine Vegas as a water self-sufficient city, all because it installed a new type of air-con unit.

Panasonic, ACH2O

Maruri Grey

Guayaquil, Ecuador

Luxottica's "Penny the Pirate" is a brilliant storybook and app that enables parents to screen their children's eyes at home. This turned a scary medical procedure into a warm educational experience for both the child and the parent. And honorable mentions go to Owlet Baby Care for their connected baby sock, which will relieve the anxieties of millions of parents, and Clever Buoy, which will save the lives of many swimmers.

Luxottica, Penny The Pirate

Entrant: Saatchi & Saatchi

Sydney, Australia

But there can be only one Grand Prix. And it was hotly debated.

It's sometimes difficult for us to understand the implications of the fact that 75 percent of the world suffers from complicated, inconsistent or non-existent addressing systems. But it means that 4 billion people are effectively invisible. It means that in remote locations, water facilities can't be found, or fixed, schools and refugee camps cannot be precisely located and aid or assistance cannot be delivered.

What3words is a universal addressing system designed on a 3-by-3-meter global grid. Each of the 57 trillion squares has been pre-allocated a unique three-word address, which is then turned into precise coordinates by a geocoder. It's more accurate than ZIP codes and, unlike longitudinal/latitudinal coordinates, so simple that it can be remembered by anyone and used by everyone. Businesses are adopting it, and communities like the favelas in Rio are already benefitting from it.

3 Words To Address The World

Entrant: What3Words


It's a big, simple idea that doesn't just "address the world," it addresses the very real everyday problems of billions of people.

And let's be honest, when was the last time an ad did that?

—Shaun McIlrath is joint global creative director at Iris Worldwide