One of the oldest jokes in a creative review used to be, “that idea practically writes itself!” Usually as a backhanded compliment to the originality or obviousness of an idea. Usually flung into the meeting by an account person happy to fantasize that creatives were robotically efficient. While the drive for efficiency certainly hasn’t gone away, that expression has, because, well, ideas are starting to write themselves.
Wait. Really? Well, yes, sort of.
Artificial intelligence, AI, is changing every facet of our lives – transportation, health care, retail and now marketing. So why wouldn’t it seep into creative development, historically the least efficient piston in the ad-agency engine? In fact, as I write this, every word is being analyzed to determine how I create.
“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.” (Thank you, Stanley Kubrick.) But am I paranoid? Not me.
I’ve embraced digital Darwinism because what’s happening is impressive. You’ve probably heard of the algorithms that scanned romance novels and then spit out sweet, heartfelt poetry. Or machines that analyzed and copied every brushstroke of master paintings, then created original pieces suitable for framing. This is creative copying. Humans have done it for ages. It’s a way to learn from those more skilled or accomplished. But the experts say that the more relevant aspect of human creative thinking, especially for the advertising biz, is our ability to hybridize. The (currently) human-only art of smushing two foreign ideas together to form something completely original. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley are currently experimenting with AI that mixes and matches material. Basically, they’re teaching the computers to perform like Picasso. Learn the rules. Then learn how to break them.
“It is not our goal to recreate the human mind. What we’re more interested in are the techniques of interacting with humans that inspire creativity in humans,” says Rob High, vice president and chief technology officer for IBM Watson. “And that requires that we spend time thinking about that creative process. What could we do to help people come up with new ideas on a much more regular basis than they do today?”
AI is fundamentally a tool. And creative people have always relied on tools to produce their art. From the chunk of charcoal that cave illustrators used in prehistoric southwestern France to Hemingway and his Royal Quiet Deluxe typewriter to Elon Musk and his state-of-the-art computers that assemble his exquisitely designed cars.
You don’t have to be a bean-counting capitalist to get excited by the possibilities of AI. Imagine AI “creatives” designed and built to serve their human partners, who are 100% focused on creating and producing day and night. Night and day. No drama, no dental appointments, no hangovers, no jealousy or office politics. No farting, even. And if the AI creatives looked like the hosts on Westworld, well, that wouldn’t suck.
For a week or so. Then? Then it would be incredibly boring. I believe they’d become the adult version of the Christmas gifts we all begged and whined for as kids. You know, the ones we played with non-stop until New Year’s Eve. Then left to gather dust.
Why? Well let’s talk about the creative process. It’s what I’ve always loved most about the business. It’s the unpredictable combustion of real living and breathing people that makes it so much fun—and that produces business-changing ideas.
A former boss of mine, Nina DiSesa at McCann NY, said her creative department was like a repertory theater group. Great creatives can play all the different roles. They can lead or follow, be backstage or front. They can be visual or verbal. They can clash and harmonize. Be sensitive one minute and bullheaded the next. Best of all, real human creatives can connect and support each other when they need it. We can joke and make each other laugh. Experts say AI cannot figure out human humor yet. The aforementioned HAL was as dry as a stale biscuit. Humans do it by having actual people skills. The “sixth sense” honed by being side-by-side with our comrades in the creativity-on-demand trenches of our business.
We embrace this at Callahan. It’s the way I build my team. And it’s the way we bring inspired creativity to our clients.
Yes. I’m for efficiency. Especially since my boss and CFO will probably read this. But the best creative process has to endure the rigors of our business. The roller coaster ride that includes occasional low points sometimes labeled “failure.” And that’s okay. Because that’s how humans learn and get better. Will AI be okay failing in the creative process? In the movies, when AI fails, there’s a terrible tsunami, or the world just blows up. Failures in advertising are rarely that catastrophic. (Sidenote: Can we all agree to quit acting like they are? Thank you!)
And speaking of failing, a recent tweet from Elon Musk blamed machines for his Tesla production woes. Even after 10 years, his super-tech production line still can’t keep up with demand, and the company has yet to turn a profit. Nobody embraces failure better than Musk. Here’s a guy, arguably one of the most creative people alive, who designed his business model around AI, admitting that too much reliance on technology is… not good.
It’s nice to know, at least for now, the creative human mind still wins.