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Dentsu emphasises need for broad, multi-disciplinary capabilities at Cannes Lions

The Japanese giant explored how design thinking promises to unlock new value for brands, and how agencies can redefine their creativity to change the way they work.

Brian Eno: told Togo Kida (left) and Koichi Yamamoto (right) that he felt ‘numbingly bored’ with ordinary music videos and needed their help to create a new concept for his latest project, The Ship
Brian Eno: told Togo Kida (left) and Koichi Yamamoto (right) that he felt ‘numbingly bored’ with ordinary music videos and needed their help to create a new concept for his latest project, The Ship

This year’s Cannes Lions festival saw Japan take home a Design Grand Prix for Panasonic’s "Life is electric" by Dentsu Inc. This was the work of Yoshihiro Yagi, winner of 28 previous Design Lions, proving that design is increasingly becoming a critical competence in business.

Yagi, who has travelled the world discussing different approaches with different designers, told Cannes audiences that the influence of design is not limited to the product, but also extends to the thinking process.

"Design is questioning," said Yagi, explaining that he adopts design thinking in all aspects of business that seem unrelated at first glance. This thinking provides a rich source of inspiration in all areas of creativity, from storytelling and technological innovation to the creation of new business models. 

Yagi’s work for Panasonic aimed to change people’s perception of electricity by charging 21 batteries in 21 different ways. Whether powered by hamsters or cheerleaders, the batteries were all charged with wit and imagination. 

‘Life is electric’: Dentsu’s Grand Prix-winning campaign for Panasonic charged 21 batteries 21 different ways

"When one can see what electricity is made of, one can appreciate the real value of it. This is far beyond the realm of marketing," Yagi said. "Design is about returning something to its natural state and bringing to life its inherent strengths, not simply about making something attractive in appearance."

Yagi screened a video featuring Akinori Kimura, a Japanese apple-grower who pioneered farming without pesticides or fertilisers. Kimura explained that his farm has overgrown weeds everywhere, because the crops are the "heroes" and he is "only the helper". Pesticides are not a sustainable solution, he noted; rather, humans should "try harder" to work with nature as it is. 

"The soil, and trees, and the weeds all form a great design," Yagi added.

Variations of such thinking have been applied to other areas of Japanese society. The ‘Chanpuru’ culture in Okinawa — a culture of hybridity — has led to craftsmen of Ryukyu glass intentionally leaving bubbles in the glassware. This approach renders the glass more attractive, as well as defining it culturally.

To Yagi, this is design logic, citing a further example of Menicon’s Magic contact lens series, which is designed "in a logical way so that the fingers do not touch the side of the lens that touches the eyeball". 

What is logical is also very simple, said Yagi, explaining he is a fan of Dick Bruna, creator of the famous cartoon rabbit, Miffy: "Simplicity means Bruna designed one tear instead of three tears on Miffy’s crying face." 

That calls for imagination, which is another design thinking principle that guides Yagi. 

In the "Beautiful Black List" project for D&AD’s 50th anniversary in Tokyo, which exhibited all black Pencil-winning works for the first time, Dentsu depicted various parts of a black whale in a sea of ink in its exhibition posters. "By not showing the full size of the whale, we let viewers imagine the size of it," said Yagi.

In another example, Yagi cited the props created for the film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. While viewers follow the overall story, each individual prop has a smaller story of its own. All these small pieces add together to help create the imaginative world of the movie.

Reimagining the music video
In a separate session, legendary musician, producer and artist Brian Eno talked about his thought-provoking collaboration with Dentsu Lab Tokyo to create an experimental music video based upon his acclaimed album The Ship, which was released a month before Cannes Lions.

"I am incredibly and numbingly bored with conventional music videos," he complained. "The point of The Ship project was not to produce something that repeats itself each time." 

This was why the artist chose to use Dentsu Lab Tokyo’s machine intelligence, as it is designed to create possibilities that arouse the imagination instead. The lab developed a bespoke machine intelligence program, which generated original ideas for the music video. Dentsu Lab Tokyo collected a century’s worth of historical images on public domains and made the machine "learn" about collective human memory on the internet. The machine compared that with a recent collection of news images for similarities.

Togo Kida, creative technologist at Dentsu Lab Tokyo, explained: "We decided not to deliver a music video, but software that constantly and serendipitously delivers poetical associations of historical images, connecting past and present with an ongoing sense of déjà vu, on top of the music itself."

Most interestingly, in terms of visualising a search for associations, machines are able to find similarities that a human cannot easily see, while being able to "recall" images from past events that are relevant — similar to human memory. The effect of merging those images with the music is striking.

The software engenders the music video imagery that would otherwise be mundane scenes in daily life, Eno said. Kida added that this provided a framework for people to reconsider themselves, which led them to experience Eno’s music in a more profound way. 

The project’s main premise was to ask what the origins of creativity were. Indeed, creativity has been broadening its playing field for years within Dentsu Inc. The agency has disrupted the definition of creativity and applied it far beyond marketing communications to fields such as venture capital investment and business operations, in order to accelerate innovation.

Creative in business
The third Dentsu session at Cannes Lions presented a bigger picture of how the agency has maximised the potential of creativity through Dentsu Ventures, a VC fund set up to develop new business models for the future. 

Dentsu Ventures managing partner Kotaro Sasamoto, who launched the fund last April, said that agencies can innovate their business by redefining their creativity and expanding their advertising creative skills.

"Traditionally, agencies do research and predict customer trends to sell products," Sasamoto said. "Collaborating with visionary start-ups helps us develop a vision for the next big thing to inspire stakeholders in the process." 

Dentsu Ventures: Kotaro Sasamoto casts his eyes over the future of creativity

Sasamoto offered Exo’s "cricket flour" protein bars as an example, describing them as a granola bar with a hint of cricket. "It may sound a bit strange, but it’s one of our ‘next-big-thing’ projects. Processing protein from crickets is more efficient than doing the same from pigs and cows, and alleviates food shortage issues in the world. It can replace wheat flour."

By redefining creativity for business, Dentsu Ventures moves on from big ideas that impress the audience to "big ideas that make money in a sustainable and scaleable way", said Sasamoto. "Creatives can train our business skills by thinking about a business model for everything we see in this world." 

In order to do that, they need to "orchestrate all the cross-industry players in the ecosystem", he advised. That is quite a step above just managing resources within the advertising industry. 

Sasamoto believes Jibo — the world’s first social robot for the home — could be a key case study. The robot has an open software development kit, which allows developers to access Jibo’s motors, speech technology, facial recognition, tracking, touch input and more features through animation and behaviour editors. 

"This openness is valuable," said Yasuharu Sasaki, head of digital creative and executive creative director at Dentsu Inc., explaining that this would open up new business streams for brands and builds relationships for start-ups at the same time. 

"Agencies can use their skills to connect brands and startups to add value to both of them, and to themselves," Sasaki concluded. "Innovation is within us. Our most precious resource — our own creativity — should be the driving force for our own agency’s business."

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