CANNES, France—In an apartment overlooking the Mediterranean, Jerri DeVard strapped on a high-tech Samsung headset Wednesday morning. The chief marketing officer of ADT Corp., the burglar-alarm company, wasn’t playing a game, but rather taking a virtual tour of a trendy store in New York’s SoHo.
The exercise on the sidelines of the Cannes Lions advertising festival left Ms. DeVard thinking of ways to incorporate virtual-reality technology to make her own brand’s advertising more “emotional” and “immersive.” Perhaps, for example, prospective customers could walk through a virtual house where ADT could demonstrate home-security issues.
“This kind of technology allows you to bring the consumer into the experience,” said Ms. DeVard. “When I can see it and feel it, it helps you sell.”
Ms. DeVard was among the throng of marketers who descended on the shores of the French Riviera for the industry confab, now in its 62nd year. Their mission: To sip rosé, party on yachts and—hopefully—learn something to help cope with the technological changes upending the $531 billion global advertising business.
The ever-growing list of digital advertising platforms promises to give brands more options and control over their messages, and a way to reach elusive young audiences. But the multiplying possibilities also can be overwhelming.
At Cannes, marketers learned of new smartphone-specific ad formats for Facebook; were counseled on the power of “vertical video” ads on phones; watched demos of a digital-image projection system from Microsoft (think Princess Leia hologram from “Star Wars”); and digital agency SapientNitro demonstrated Samsung’s virtual-reality technologies.
Agencies whose main skill has long been crafting 30- or 60-second TV commercials are now expected to churn out six-second Vine videos for Twitter, to formulate silent ads for Facebook’s auto-play videos, and to create branded virtual-reality experiences.
“Digital has changed our industry completely,” said Maurice Levy, chief executive of advertising giant Publicis Groupe. “If you don’t change you are out of the picture.”
Meanwhile, new-media companies like Vice Media and BuzzFeed are encroaching, showing how they can serve at least some of the functions of agencies, such as creating branded content.
“I like the fact that competitors are pushing us,” said Mr. Levy.
Teaming up with digital gurus is one option. Ad giant WPP PLC, for example, is one of the partners in Truffle Pig, a joint venture Snapchat Inc. announced on Tuesday. The venture, which also includes the Daily Mail, will create for clients content such as vertical video, which is meant to be shared on social media.
The new venture could potentially compete with WPP ad agencies, which are also trying to position themselves as creators of sponsored content for brands, but WPP CEO Martin Sorrell said the change should be embraced. “At some point in time, you do cannibalize what you have,” he said. “I believe in eating your own children.”
Vice announced a tie-up with digital scrapbooking site Pinterest Inc. aimed at creating branded video content for Bank of America Corp. Pinterest co-founder Evan Sharp said his company has started a division called Pinsight Labs, through which a team of strategists analyze data from its platform to find insights for brands and other partners to help inform their marketing efforts.
“What’s happening now is partnerships you’ve never seen before” said Vice Chief Executive Shane Smith during a panel session on Thursday. “You have new alliances forming.”
Marketers are putting a premium on the ability to unearth data about consumers to improve ad-targeting. Hundreds of attendees stood in a long line for the seminar “The New Engine of Creativity: Data Science,” where executives from Coca-Cola Co. and Louis Vuitton described how they are using location data to help them create ads that are more relevant. For example, Coke could send an ad to a mobile device that promotes a nearby restaurant selling Coke.
Marketers say ad agencies aren’t the only ones who have to adapt—the media companies and publishers that sell ads do, too. And all sides need to have a firm grasp on the technologies now at their disposal. “Usually it is when you take your agency and bring them together with the best publishers and the most sophisticated ad tech that you get what you really need for your brand,” said Shiv Singh, global head of digital and marketing transformation at Visa.
The technological takeover of Cannes—between ad technology firms, data nerds and the would-be moguls of the new media world—isn’t sitting well with everyone. Some industry veterans are nostalgic for the days when creativity of ads towered over the plumbing systems of digital media.
Jeff Goodby, co-chairman and partner of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, bemoans the fact that the ad business is no longer about doing things that are “big and famous” but instead dominated by “content delivery systems,” and “astonishingly targeted things that chase us all down like wild dogs.” According to Mr. Goodby, Cannes is now more like a “industrial roofing convention” than a festival of advertising creativity.
Some executives said creativity hasn’t lost its edge, despite the appearances. “We can talk about digital, we can talk about new media, we can talk about fragmented media,” said Michael Roth, who heads ad holding company Interpublic Group of Cos. “But in the end, creativity makes it all come together and really is the secret sauce to what we do.”
Mike Shields contributed to this article.
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