Not Just Another Innovation Talk

On Tuesday at Cannes, Richard Edelman, CEO of public relations firm Edelman, sat down with celebrity chef and philanthropist Jamie Oliver for a talk that was titled “Innovation: When New Just Isn’t Enough”. For a conversation that was clearly designed to be about innovation, there wasn’t much talk about innovation. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Don’t get us wrong: Jamie Oliver is pretty innovative. He created the online cooking YouTube channel FoodTube, where foodies, seasoned cooks, and microwave enthusiasts alike can go for easily digestible content (forgive the pun). Oliver also talked about his experiences with the channel, which he said gets anywhere form 7 to 8 million viewers each month. He called the channel a “giant experiment”, commented on how the old machine of traditional broadcast makes it very hard for new talent to emerge, and praised the immediate feedback element the digital world offers, serving up a memorable quote: “You know in 5 minutes whether a video is good or rubbish.” Oliver noted that throughout his 17-year career, he’s probably messed up about 40% of the time, the type of “fail often” story that innovation motivators love to share.


Yet the bulk of Oliver’s words seemed focused on subjects like trust, education, public health. Despite the questions Edelman asked, Oliver often ended up circling back to these themes, rather than blathering on about the speed at which companies innovate and how marketers market new products.

Oliver’s philanthropic pursuits have brought him all around the world, and he’s seen how different cultures deal with food. In something that swims upstream from most discussion around Cannes, food and public health isn’t something that the developed world can point to itself for as a shining example. Oliver noted that last year was the first time that more people died from eating poorly than from not eating at all. And, according to Oliver, 60% of children under five years old in the UK are obese. These are damning indictments not just on the food industry, but on brands and governments that aren’t doing enough to prevent a global crisis.

Oliver is attempting to change this through a number of initiatives, but he did point out that brands, companies, and corporations have a role to play. He says he doesn’t accept money from junk food brands—which is obviously incredibly constraining—but believes that “trust is the currency that’s in short supply.” He doesn’t believe that a chocolates company shouldn’t advertise, but urged that they “be honest and clear.” Oliver also took the sugary drinks industry to task for shirking responsibility for its part in the worldwide public health issue by pointing to consumer choice and saying, essentially, it’s not our fault.

Technology can, and Oliver believes needs to, play a part in helping improve global health. Wearable fitness trackers are a good start, but Oliver hopes to soon see technology that can help parents make better decisions for their kids, too. Surely, a chance for innovation to make an impact. But even touching on technology brought Oliver back to education. If there are 9 million free recipes available online, he posited, it’s worth mentioning that most of them might not be good. If someone has a bad first experience with a recipe, they may not want to cook at home again. Educating people on what food is good for you and how best to cook it is essential, and Oliver believes kids worldwide should receive this education as early as elementary school.

Perhaps the most telling part of the sit-down was Edelman’s final question, which, verbatim, was: “The idea of reassuring, in this very troubled world of terrorism and political uncertainty and Greek exit and unemployment, etcetera, how do you see your consumers best responding to your data and your content?”

Oliver’s response: “See, after 17 years, I still don’t really understand that question.”

The answer sparked a rousing ovation; a sign that, perhaps, Oliver’s talk will be one of the most valuable coming out of Cannes 2015.

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