Redefining creativity: when AI can paint a Rembrandt, what next for creatives?

The marketing sector can be a complicated place as new marketing tools and techniques are launched, almost on a weekly basis. Powered by The Drum Network, this regular column invites The Drum Network's members to demystify the marketing trade and offer expert insight and opinion on what is happening in the marketing industry today that can help your business tomorrow.

The ways in which we interact with technology are constantly changing.

Looking at the continuous media coverage surrounding campaigns using virtual reality or augmented reality – and more recently artificial intelligence (AI), in conjunction with the rapid growth and evolution of programmatic advertising as an offering, you’d be forgiven for thinking the marketing and communications industry is a leader in terms of adopting and leveraging new technology.

However, in comparison with industry sectors such as automotive or healthcare who are utilising emerging technology to truly transform their sectors, the marketing industry starts to look like a bit of a laggard. Put up against driverless cars or breakthroughs in cancer research, targeted content, chatbots and branded VR product experiences all start to look hugely underwhelming.

The interesting thing is that we are, by definition, a creative industry, so new technology should always be seen as an opportunity to extend our creativity into new areas, rather than a threat to ‘the way we do things’. The reality is that our business model, structures and ways of working as an industry have actually made us reticent to adopting technology. Our tendency has been to repurpose traditional formats onto new mediums, rather than explore how we can leverage opportunities which lead us to new frontiers. In fact, we’re still struggling to respond to the nature of the interconnected world generally.

The historical structures and silos which exist within agencies bear no relation to how the consumers view brands: consumers simply don’t recognise the distinctions we as an industry make in terms of advertising, experience and service – they just care about their relationship with the brand.

Whilst the people we target adopt new behaviours driven by technological advances, we continue doing the same things, using the same processes and approaches that we know. The advances in machine learning and AI mean that many of the services we’ve successfully delivered in recent years, such as production services and media planning, will soon become commoditised. This poses both a great opportunity and a significant threat. To avoid having our own Kodak moment we need to evolve with the technology, not fear it.

The evolution of craft

Great creative has always been about great craft and that won’t change any time soon. It’s the field of play that’s transforming, providing us with new opportunities and new environments for us to utilise and express our craft.

In the past, a press or television ad would alert a consumer to the existence and USP of a branded product, giving them the inspiration they needed to visit a retailer, do their research and then, hopefully, make a purchase.

Today, we live in the experience economy – largely driven by technology. It’s an era where people no longer buy brands, they join them and the path from inspiration to transaction is intrinsically linked. Advertising and commerce co-exist in the one space, it’s one step rather than a funnel and every interaction with a brand matters.

What does that mean for advertising and more importantly the creative process? It’s not that what we’ve done before is irrelevant, but the need to evolve and remodel new ways of engaging consumers is more important than ever.

We are migrating from the digital economy, where technology has generated a whole range of new products and services which impact upon our daily lives, to the creative economy where we are using technology to solve broader problems in ever more creative ways.

Creativity is not and never has been formulaic; it adapts and evolves within its environment. Today, data and machine learning is enabling a new process, one where man and machine are symbiotic in collaborating to create new forms of experience and expression.

AI was famously used to create a new ‘Rembrandt’ painting, where the data gathered from detailed scans of Rembrandt’s existing works was used to predict what his next creation would be. The advanced software then printed 3D layers of paint to create an authentic Rembrandt almost 350 years after his death. On a more practical level, during the week of the Cannes Lions this year we ran a voice activated cocktail bar integrating brand experience and product discovery, with commerce and supply chain to discover the optimal balance between machine, human staff and consumer benefit.

While there is much talk of AI coming to take our jobs, there is equally as much conversation that points to AI liberating us to be more creative than ever before.

It’s time that we stop thinking of AI as a competitor and start thinking of it as the newest member of our team. While data and technology was incumbent both in our Cannes bar and in producing the next Rembrandt, the ideas were born from human insight and imagination. When we embrace new technology it enables us to deliver creativity in ways that simply weren’t possible before.

Not only can we employ data and technology to help us break the boundaries of creativity, we can also use it to help us get to the right ideas. The old model was ‘get a brief, think about it, execute it’. Now, we can use AI to help find out what the real brief should be, establish the audience and where to find them and then test and evolve our ideas in the real world before a campaign or solution is even launched. We need a change of mindset as an industry, moving beyond the confines of our individual roles to embrace the increasing need and role for collaborations with other disciplines and with AI.

Brave new world

None of this means that all future marketers will need to be expert technologists, but it does mean we have to evolve our crafts to be able to take advantage of these opportunities new technologies provide.

For example, an evolution of ‘copy’ to ‘conversation’. In the past the job of the ad copywriter was largely reductive: take a complex idea and boil it down to a 5-word strapline and a 3-line pitch and call-to-action that people can understand and relate to emotionally.

But in a world where the consumer reaction to brand messaging can be instantaneous (and, at times, brutal) via messaging services and social media, how can the copywriter’s craft evolve in the context of an extended, ongoing, two-way conversation? The answer is that you look to apply the same principles and the same craft as before but figure out the way to do so in a new context.

The emergence of voice interfaces and interaction through Google Home, Amazon Echo and other devices is gaining traction fast. For brands and brand marketers that means an evolution from ‘tone of voice’ to an actual ‘voice’. How does that actual voice sound and why? What do we want the impact of that voice to be on consumers? Again, in reality, we are simply taking the marketing expertise we already have and extending it further into new areas.

For designers, the shift may well be from 2D to 3D – why present store signage designs in 2D created in Photoshop when you can incorporate the designs into a 3D augmented reality store environments and present the designs to clients as they would appear in the real world?

These are all evolutions that are happening now. Moving forward, the key for brands and marketing agencies alike will be about curating and balancing the right mix of tech-savvy youth and hard-earned experience to bring craft, quality, creativity and collaboration into the new environments technologies such as AI open up for us.

Matt Gee is head of digital transformation at Isobar UK, part of Dentsu Aegis Network

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