Before the brains at Zaha Hadid Architects begin to tackle a brief, they input various prompts into an AI tool, asking its algorithm to predict how they will answer it. Then, they print out the results, and use them as a reminder of what they will not create.
Richard Brim, global chief creative officer at Adam & Eve/DDB, uses this anecdote to explain how creatives will always find new ways to push the boundaries to come up with work that no-one expects.
“The core of that example is that [AI] will only ever get you to the middle,” he explains. “It’ll become a war of search and prompts. Everyone will be fishing from the same pond. True creativity, true originality will still have a place there.”
Brim believes that adland has shifted away from using creativity to solve business problems.
He says: “We’ve become a funnel-based industry where it’s more important what the funnel is than actually what we put in the funnel.
“We have to shift back because, actually, AI is going to really affect the funnel. You’re going to be able to get amazing communication systems at the touch of a button but if you’re still putting shit at the top of the funnel, you’re still going to get shit out.”
Though Brim does not agree that all creative work is like this. Campaign’s readers will be well versed in the IPA’s The Crisis in Creative Effectiveness report of 2019, which found a diminishing link between effectiveness and award-winning ads.
A follow-up report released in September by Thinkbox, with research conducted by the IPA’s director of effectiveness, Laurence Green, questioned what it is preventing the industry from “getting from good to great (or sometimes even to good) more frequently”.
Much like many of the respondents to Green’s report, Lynsey Atkin, executive creative director at 4Creative, disagrees that the current standard of creativity in advertising is less strong than it has been in past years. “It’s unfair to say that the work isn’t as good as it used to be,” she says.
For Atkin – much like Brim – the problem lies with the middle layer of work. Her theory is that accountability has a lot to play in that “people are terrified of making” a bad decision.
“We forget that creativity has a certain amount of science to it and storytelling has a certain amount of science to it,” she explains. “But it’s also subjective. Maybe there is a crisis of people not necessarily taking those leaps or those risks in that middle layer of work.”
However, David Kolbusz, chief creative officer at New York ad agency Orchard, argues that the industry has faced “twin evils” in the past 10 to 15 years, which has led to the standard of creative work slipping across the board.
It began when advertising on the internet started to become monetised, which led to the fragmentation of media. “[The] digital frontier in the late 2000s saw a lot of confusion both agency side and client side and was used as an opportunity for a lot of snake oil salespeople to sell a lot of experiences that didn’t necessarily happen – work became a lot easier to fake in the online world,” he says.
“[There was] a proliferation of advertising that was all about these new digital experiences that people didn’t know how to evaluate but they seemed shiny and new. I’m not besmirching digital at all, I’m besmirching the way the industry reacted to digital.”
Once the enthusiasm around digital began to stabilise as much as it could, the early 2010s brought a need to do good in the world, Kolbusz says. He puts this down to industry luminaries who built their agencies in the 1980s and had “an enormous amount” of success in the 1990s beginning to feel guilty about their position in the world.
Coupled with the socially conscious millennial generation, it was a perfect storm for purposeful work to receive a disproportionate amount of voice and so “a lot of fake work that purported to do good in the world started to win awards not dissimilar to the digital work that won awards”, Kolbusz says.
But Nils Leonard, co-founder of Uncommon Creative Studio, which sold a majority stake to Havas in July, puts the blame on many of the holding companies and their focus on the business of client services. He argues that any changes in the quality of creative work is purely down to the way the industry works today.
“If you’re looking sincerely at what client services might be – and that’s an important part, don’t get me wrong – it means time, logistics, consistency, data, content, design, and that’s not the same thing as someone coming to you and saying, ‘I need your creativity to help me solve this problem’, so I think we are in a bit of a crisis but it’s one of our making.
“There’s a bit of a weird thing that I struggle with [when people say] that there’s this ‘unknown sense of dread that it’s all going wrong’ but it’s not unknown.
“Look at what your agency sells, look at how it makes money and then ask yourself whether that’s the same thing as what you wish you were doing because I’d argue most times it’s not.”
Brim echoes Leonard’s views and explains that creativity is a “powerful business tool”. He says: “As creative agencies we have to get away from the advertising thing because advertising is one of the things we can do, we have to approach businesses with a creative lens.
“I don’t think this has changed much, things have got in the way. Tech can get in the way when people [focus on] the bright, shiny thing and then we all dance to that tune.”
Bodyform “Viva la vulva” by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO
He picks out the metaverse as something that has distracted many creatives and advertisers but believes that AI is “the most predominant thing that has happened in our industry”.
Brim says it will enable creativity but that a lot of people are scared “because it will wipe out the mediocrity of the middle”. He adds: “By the very nature of it, [AI] will always feel a little dead behind the eyes.”
Leonard agrees and explains that AI will “remove 70% of the guff in our industry”, which includes a lot of people and companies making work that sits in the middle with “not really an eye on creativity [or] quality”.
“AI has come along to remove the debate about whether creativity is important or not,” he says. “AI is going to clear the decks and you’re going to be left saying, ‘well, where do we want to play now?’ That’s an incredibly hopeful thing because it’s going to force change.”
This change, according to Atkin, will be a push forward in culture because it will be a step away from doing what is already working well. “We live in a time now where it’s very easy to go, ‘oh, that thing worked before, let’s have a bit more of that,” she explains.
“But that doesn’t create new conversation, that doesn’t push culture forwards. It’s just kind of feeding a thing that we already kind of know we like. It doesn’t matter how much you like something, [if you’re] given too much of it, you get sick of it.”
Kolbusz points out that many people are interested in the creator behind a piece of creative work, be it a film, TV show or an ad. “Core and fundamental to people’s interest in art is in the creator,” he says.
According to Brim, there is also a need for a return of craft skills, because AI will continue to create work that looks perfect every time. He uses the example of Sony Bravia “Balls” by Fallon – “you can tell that they were thrown down the hill and they will only be able to get so far and they make it look so fucking cool” – and Bodyform “Viva la vulva” by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO (“somebody sat down and knitted a vulva”).
“It’s the imperfections that make it brilliant,” he says. “We’re going to become way less impressed by stuff because there’s going to be so much stuff that looks so slick. [The] fingerprints will be the magic sauce where it feels different, crafted and it feels from the hand.”
The fundamentals of creativity in advertising are something that all creatives will agree cannot be lost when looking to the future. According to Carren O’Keefe, chief creative officer at Digitas UK, there is always an idea at the core of good advertising.
She points to Lee Clow’s latest documentary Here’s to the Crazy Ones, in which he says that people don’t like advertising but they love a good story.
O’Keefe also uses TikTok as an example where “to be able to get your content seen by people all you have to have is a great idea and an idea that connects”.
She adds: “We have to remember that as we move forward, how do we tell those stories? What are our ideas? How are we emotionally connecting to whoever it is that we’re trying to have an impact on?
“What we don’t want to do is to get overwhelmed by all of the possibilities of whether it’s technology or channels or whatever, but focus on the idea of the impact you’re trying to have and make that really, really great.”
Everything Everywhere, All at Once: Mother’s Felix Richter praised the film’s makers for keeping the budget relatively low
Speed versus output
In a world where tech has evolved to help people have their needs met much faster than ever before, advertisers are also expecting similar things from agencies.
A focus on digital content and digital media planning and buying along with an emphasis on “faster, better, cheaper” executions were something that Sir Martin Sorrell, executive chairman of S4 Capital, noted as resonating with clients back in 2018.
Fast-forward five years and creatives are working so fast that some worry that speed is more important than output. Brim explains that this will always be a problem.
“I do think we will have to get quicker, and we are getting quicker if you think about how we’ve moved in the last 10 years – and our thought processes will need to get quicker,” he says. “I do worry about speed being more important than output and at the end of the day, output is all we have. Sometimes you need deep output, sometimes you need quick output and reactive output and sometimes you need a bit of both, I don’t think it’s a one size fits all.
“I would like to think that people are still given time to craft films and albums and buildings properly. Because I don’t think it’s a case of more, more, more, I think it’s a case of better, better, better, because AI will give us more and more and more.”
But Felix Richter, London chief creative officer and global creative partner at Mother, says that he doesn’t buy into the idea that more time always means better work. “Some things take incredibly long and they can be amazing and I feel like some of my best work in the past was made in nine days or things in two days.”
He looks to directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert who are behind the 2020 film Everything Everywhere, All at Once. Richter praises them for making a film that could have cost £150m for £13m.
“I worked with them [Kwan and Scheinert] once and they did a fully fledged, high-level cinematic commercial in two weeks and you can do it. So I don’t buy into the paradigm of more time means better craft [which] means better creative.
“But there’s probably also limitations to the human mind and the sanity aspect of it and that’s really important. It’s not only about how fast the machines can move, it’s also about how fast humans can move.”
The human aspect is something that Charlene Chandrasekaran, executive creative director at TheOr, highlights. She believes that moving any faster in the creative process can mean that junior creatives aren’t getting the chance to learn from managers.
“The creative process is so lateral, there’s no finite answer,” she says. “You don’t even know if you’re going to get to an answer, you can only just hope that you will. And you need time and space to be able to do that thinking and processing and learning. A lot of that is getting squeezed out of the process because of time, which means that you’re getting creatives or individuals coming up the chain who maybe lack certain skills or haven’t developed in the areas which would then put them in the best position when they get into a bigger role.
“Something suffers along the way. We try our best to mitigate some of that process being lost but it’s very difficult.”
Sony Bravia “Balls” by Fallon
For production companies, the speed and slashing of budgets is something that is at “breaking point,” Seb Edwards argues. An Academy director, Edwards has worked on ads including John Lewis “The boy and the piano” by Adam & Eve/DDB, HP “Brothers” by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO and Virgin Media “9.58” by Bartle Bogle Hegarty.
“You can achieve more with less money if you have time; you can achieve a lot in a short amount of space if you have enough money. But you can’t really do both and that’s when things become compromised,” he says. “It’s beyond the breaking point where it shows on screen.”
Edwards believes the crux of the problem does not lie with advertising agencies but with clients and how much they value making quality creative work. He says that directors are working within “a broken system”.
“Advertising agencies are just reacting to what their clients’ demands are becoming,” he says. “And clients are reacting to the way the world is changing, it’s all part of an evolution of capitalist society.”
He adds: “The key thing you’re looking for in a client is that they have a creative ambition to make something good that’s coupled with a bravery to achieve that, and then they have a trust in the people that they choose to create that work and allow them the freedom to see what they ultimately want, which is a strong piece of work.”
Brim says that in the future he wants to get to a stage where brands see creative thinkers as creative partners, and creativity as a powerful tool for their businesses. This will mean that many will have to go against muscle memory about getting a message out to as many people as possible, which, in turn, can lead to bland ads.
“I hope creative agencies will become plugged in to use creativity and lateral thinking to give brands a competitive edge,” he says. “That’s not about doing fancy ads.”
Atkin wants to see work that does not just feel like an ad but has an “exciting positioning” and campaigns that are “bigger than the sum of [their] parts”.
She says: “It’s stuff that feels less transient and that doesn’t mean that we can’t do funny stuff or strange stuff but I’d love us to move towards really big, exciting thoughts.”
According to Atkin, there are many “dreary” straplines and brand positionings: “There is so much power in belief and self-belief and knowing who you are and that’s what we have to apply to brands.”
For Dan Morris, executive creative director at TheOr, the goal is for advertising to be a genuine part of culture where it is setting the agenda, not trying to copy it.
He says: “What I would hope for that [the work this industry] is doing is being picked up more by places like chat shows and where normal people hang out or watch; and [for them] to be referencing ads because they’re interesting and funny and different.”
Leonard adds that the best work will challenge culture by speaking to the government, to the way people live and the world around us. He says: “If advertising can remember that you’re going to put something up on a billboard that’s 50-foot wide, and you get to say something to the entire country, and not be daunted by that, but actually be thrilled to be on that stage, and remember that it’s a privilege, that will be an amazing place for us all to be.”