The creative industry needs to embrace automation, not hide from it

Oliver Feldwick
6 min readJun 8, 2017

Below is a short piece I wrote for the IPA Excellence Diploma… The topic was “the biggest mistake we’re making in marketing today”.

We need not fear automation
The biggest mistake we’re making in the creative industries today is in our approach towards AI, algorithms and machine learning. While many other industries are at the forefront of exploring and embracing the potential for automation, we are largely ignoring it or hiding from it.

The common creative industry response is complacency; a notion that you can’t automate creativity. Alongside this, fear-mongering has created a paranoia that AI will destroy jobs. It is seen as complex and scary. Them vs us.

However, anything that can be automated will be automated. But this shouldn’t be something we fear. Automation should liberate us. AI and machine learning should empower us.

It should save us.

Shedding our Luddite tendencies
Computerization has radically transformed the day-to-day working life, liberating us from snail mail, from overhead projectors, from filing cabinets, from memos. It has transformed the creative industries, in a myriad of ways.

The internet has gone further, reducing the cost of creating, storing and transmitting information to almost zero. Connecting the world of knowledge and information through search, maps and Wikipedia. Transforming the ways we can reach and engage with consumers.

Obviously, it has brought challenges along the way, but the benefits have massively outweighed the challenges. Ignoring it has not been a winning strategy.

Automation is the next step in this process, and it is happening whether we like it or not. We need to move it from being something that happens to us, to something we choose. Something we make happen. We need to shed our Luddite tendencies and seize control of our own destiny.

Automation has the potential to save us from ourselves
As an industry, we are struggling to answer the impossible brief of modern marketing; to create more content, for more channels, with less money and in less time. Creative departments across the globe are groaning under the demands of content marketing, social media, digital formats, personalised marketing, dynamic creative. The potential of programmatic and personalisation lies largely unrealised due to the inability to creatively fulfil targeting at scale. In short, we are struggling.

AI and automation must be the solution that saves us. AI copybots, such as Wordsmith, are already producing high volumes of quality journalism. Associated Press’s financial reporting has expanded from covering 400 companies manually, to covering 4000 thanks to automation.[1] In November 2016, an algorithm for the Washington Post generated over 500 US election articles, garnering more than 500k clicks.[2] This could be seen as a threat, but every minute spent writing copy that could easily be done by a robot, is wasted. Time that could be spent doing true investigative journalism.

It is only ego that prevents us from doing the same with the vast majority of copy in advertising today. And the time we free up? That can be spent on the stuff that matters. Like focusing on true creative opportunities. Or on other creative tasks that are harder to automate. Or tweaking the algorithm to write more and better copy. Or in the pub. The opportunities are endless.

Automated and algorithmic design can also save us from hours of art direction, tweaking and tinkering. Rather than manually creating layouts, we can generate hundreds of variations we then work from. This is already being applied to website design with thegrid.io, photography editing with Adobe Sensei and poster design by Netflix.[3]

Netflix automated poster generation, from https://medium.com/startup-grind/design-in-an-age-of-artificial-intelligence-739e656b44ba

Through working with the algorithm, a great designer or art director can train their own AI with their eye. Creative teams can become half man, half machine. Centaur chess shows that nothing beats man and machine working together. But only if you understand, train and work with the machine. Partnered with the algorithm rather than simply an algorithm operator pressing ‘go’.

Automation should also liberate us from a phenomenal amount of grunt work. Eliminating the drudgery of status documents, competitive reviews, calendar co-ordination, document preparation, filing, admin. This could be seen as a threat to jobs. But it should be seen as a way to free up time for meaningful project work, solving client problems, building relationships, rather than menial tasks.

As writing media plans, basic accountancy, finance, project management admin becomes automated, think of all that brainpower and resource we’ve liberated for bigger and better things.

It also opens up new possibilities of what we can do. Nutella recently launched a special run of 7 million algorithmically generated packaging designs. A fun, playful, easy little idea, that would have been impossibly laborious without automation.

http://www.adweek.com/creativity/nutellas-unique-product-now-comes-in-7-million-unique-jars/

Machine learning can also assist and transform our problem solving ability. Google Deepmind have used it to reduce their data centre cooling bill by 40%[4]. It is already being applied to marketing; Cosabella used marketing automation to increase website conversions by 38%.[5]

A general-purpose, creative-inspiration AI would not be that hard to create. Rather than coming up with creative ideas by itself, it could generate inspiration and thought-starters based on a few parameters. The more you work with it the better it gets. David Bowie did this with his Verbasizer app in 1995 to help write lyrics. If it was good enough for Bowie it should be good enough for us.[6]

David Bowie’s Verbasizer from 1995

There isn’t an aspect of our business that this doesn’t touch, or potentially transform. It will unleash a host of complex problems and challenges. But unless we starting working on this and soon, we’ll be undone by the problems rather than finding ways to overcome them. Before someone wielding an algorithm does us out of a job, we need to embrace algorithms use them to transform our industry for ourselves.

Embracing automation: or learning to love our new robot overlords
We need to invent the tools for the future and start using them. As Marshall McLuhan put it, ‘Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools!’.

We should rediscover our curiosity. Understanding, learning and playing with algorithms, getting to know how they work and what we can do with them.

We need to transform our talent, attracting brilliant, diverse thinkers and creating the next generation workers to solve the next generation problems we face. Liberating bright young sparks from the menial tasks offers an enormous opportunity that needs to be channeled.

We need to fix our luddite culture, approaching AI with an optimistic and open mind. Changing the perception around automation to see it as an exciting, liberating force, not a threat.

We must partner with the best tech talent. This area should be a huge investment opportunity for the industry, creating the tools of our own salvation, unlocking rather than replacing creativity. Spending time and effort getting fit for the future will pay dividends down the road.

Utopia or dystopia. We get to decide.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/apr/03/artificla-intelligence-robot-reporter-pulitzer-prize

[2] https://www.wired.com/2017/02/robots-wrote-this-story/

[3] https://medium.com/startup-grind/design-in-an-age-of-artificial-intelligence-739e656b44ba

[4] https://deepmind.com/blog/deepmind-ai-reduces-google-data-centre-cooling-bill-40/

[5] http://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/cosabellas-ai-raised-website-conversions-38/1431207

[6] https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/the-verbasizer-was-david-bowies-1995-lyric-writing-mac-app

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Oliver Feldwick

“Rangy and bespectacled” advertising nerd and boardgame fanatic