In a contemporary ad and tech landscape dominated by constant chatter about the wonders of AI, the urgent need for sustainability and a variety of other trends, the challenge for marketers and advertisers is not merely to join the cacophony, but to transcend it with genuine innovation.

And amidst a sea of buzzwords and trendy narratives, the quest for visibility and impact demands a strategic blend of creativity, authenticity and foresight. Or to ask the question more directly: What the heck is innovation anyway?

During the 2024 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, MM+M editor-in-chief Stephen Madden interviewed Mark Pappas, EVP of Innovation at CMI Media Group to get some clarity.

Madden: How do you define innovation within the context of modern advertising and technology?

Pappas: It is driving meaningful change and not focusing on a lot of buzzwords and shiny objects just to do something different. We want to make sure we’re actually driving something that’s measurable for brands.

Madden: How can creativity, authenticity and foresight be harnessed to drive true innovation in advertising and marketing?

Pappas: Innovation is finding ways to sidestep what the competition is doing and reach a target audience in new and different ways to cut through a lot of the noise.

An example, in partnership with Uber, we took over the entire Uber app around the largest conferences in the pharma space. It drove a ton of buzz and we ended up winning Digiday’s award for Best First-to-Market Strategy.

Madden: In what ways can marketers differentiate genuine innovation from mere trends or buzzwords?

Pappas: A lot of companies say they’re sustainable and they throw a green signature on everyone’s email instead of looking at ways to leverage data partners that are offsetting what they’re doing.

One of the things that’s mind-blowing is that the ad tech industry generates more carbon than all of air travel combined. Brands can get to the root and go a little bit deeper than doing some of these surface things that only check a box. It’s more than following the latest buzzwords.

Madden: How do you navigate the balance between embracing emerging technologies such as AI and maintaining authenticity in marketing efforts?

Pappas: Everyone’s trying to shoehorn AI into whatever they’re doing. But is that actually serving a purpose and doing good?

There are companies that are driving change in behavior. Open Evidence is a new platform that takes in all the medical research in the world and if a doctor asks a question, it gives a completely accurate response and then sources and shows exactly which clinical study it’s pulling the response from.

A company like that helps physicians get to more data quickly and an accurate answer. When no physician can keep up with the amount of medical research that’s coming out now, this is a way to synthesize that research globally and give a complete, accurate response, no matter how complex the question.

Madden: What’s the difference between creativity and innovation and how they interact?

Pappas: It goes hand in hand. A lot of what my team is doing involves first-to-market opportunities. It forces the creative teams to come up with an entirely new way of being creative and developing creative assets.

One of the biggest roadblocks in the pharma space is having creative assets to use with a lot of these new programs. Audio is a prime example. Most creative agencies don’t have the audio-production capabilities to make audio assets. People spend millions of dollars on how their brand looks, but nobody thinks about how their brand sounds. And people consume audio more than any other channel. Why not have audio be a core piece of your creative process?

Brands and agencies have to start thinking about [aspects such as whether] a brand is male or female, has an accent that’s a dialect and all these different things that weren’t typically part of the creative process.

Madden: What specific strategies or approaches can marketers employ to cut through the noise and deliver innovative campaigns?

Pappas: The biggest thing is don’t try to be innovative for innovation’s sake. Don’t dangle a shiny object out there just to say that you’re doing something new and checking a box. You have to look at the data, work with an audience intelligence team, make sure that the channel or medium that you’re proposing is something that either your patient or physician population is consuming before you start to go after it.

Whether it’s gaming or audio or professional sports, we want to make sure that the population base is part of the fan base and it’s going to resonate with the audience and actually drive change to the patients.