The power of technology: enabler or enemy of creativity?

In the final part of a three-part series, Campaign's editors from around the world come together to examine the biggest themes facing global advertising.

The power of technology: enabler or enemy of creativity?

The technology boom in the past two decades has reshaped the global advertising industry and turbo-charged ad expenditure.

But the digital revolution has also brought many challenges around data targeting, optimisation, privacy, fraud, online harms, misinformation, ethics and even democracy itself.

All of which raises questions about the impact of technology on creativity and advertising.

In a Campaign survey of more than 1,200 readers around the world, 27% said the dominance of technology, data and process is the biggest enemy of creativity. Only profit and performance targets (37%) were seen as a bigger obstacle.

This feature is the final instalment in a three-part editorial series that focuses on three key issues affecting the global advertising industry: profit vs purpose; the talent pipeline; and the dominance of technology. It also examines both the “enhancers” and “enemies” of creativity.

Read part one: Profit vs purpose: advertising's global balancing act

Read part two: Making global advertising's talent pipeline open to all

Campaign’s editorial teams in the UK, US and Asia have teamed up as part of a new initiative, “Campaign for creativity”, which champions the magazine’s belief in the importance of creativity “to inspire people, build brands, drive innovation and transform lives”.

The series is running on three consecutive days ahead of this month’s Cannes Lions – the biggest annual gathering of the global ad industry and the first in-person version of the festival since before the pandemic.

Campaign has an unrivalled international network of websites and journalists in eight key markets – Asia, China, India, Japan, the Middle East, Turkey, the UK and the US – and “Campaign For Creativity” emphasises our shared commitment to champion creativity and to hold the ad industry to account.

Every creative should be very optimistic about the future of creativity
-The view from Campaign Asia, by Shawn Lim, media and technology editor 

Alibaba, Tencent and Bytedance, the owner of TikTok, are among a wave of major companies to emerge from the Asia Pacific region in recent years that have shaken up the digital advertising market and become key channnels for creativity.

Ng Chew Wee, head of business marketing for APAC at TikTok, says the platform has always been an enhancer of creativity, pointing out the way that TikTok has become integral to how people communicate and connect.  

She shares an example of chocolate brand Cadbury's campaign in India featuring Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan. The brand used artificial intelligence and machine learning to recreate the actor's face and voice, allowing pandemic-hit businesses and their owners to use the actor to promote their brands. 

“There are many ways that technology has enhanced creativity, but the most important one is how tech has democratised creativity because creativity is no longer the exclusive domain of the expert, the creative professional or the art director,” she says.

“Anyone with a brilliant idea and a smartphone can create something because technology has empowered people to develop and enhance creativity. You do not need studio specialist training or a large budget to create something on many platforms, whether Instagram or TikTok. Technology has enabled personalisation at a scale like never before.” 

However, Stan Lim, chief creative officer in the Singapore Creative Group at Dentsu International, warns many technology-driven campaigns by brands are still quite technical because they often do not have a “big audacious idea” to drive them. Likewise, he says relatively few agency-client teams have a good understanding of what technology can do in terms of its creative potential.  

“As a technological practitioner, I can guarantee that 75% of meetings we are just talking about technology. Every time you tell them, ‘Let's take the idea up’, they will go, ‘Yeah, that's cool, but this is what I want to do.’ That’s the constant battle,” Lim adds.

“We have brilliant campaigns from technology, and it’s driven a lot of effectiveness. However, there are still very few enormous and brave category-defining ideas supported by technology.”

It is still a challenge to convince a client “to look past the technology” and focus on the creative itself, according to Lim.

A tipping point for virtual reality

Joao Flores, regional executive creative director for APAC at MediaMonks, is optimistic about the continued rise of augmented and virtual reality, gaming, artificial intelligence, and other tech innovations.

We are at a tipping point for what he calls “virtualisation” – the moment in time when people spend more time online than offline.

This is a potentially exciting post-digital era that can be a new era for creativity, Flores suggests. 

“Every creative should be very optimistic about the future of creativity, especially those who have evolved from old habits of vertical execution ideas and embraced this new reality where our expectation of a product or service is that it seamlessly integrates with our time and place, our networks, and friends,” he says.

“Those experiences are a personal bond enabled by technology but always delivered with creativity, always interconnected. So, for this new era, we need a new breed of creative thinking: creatives that speak geek and geeks that speak creative.” 

Technology democratises access to creativity, but not everyone can keep up
-The view from Campaign US, by Jessica Heygate, technology editor

Technology has democratised creativity in the advertising industry by opening up avenues for brands to express themselves beyond a multimillion-dollar TV spot, and by allowing anyone to become a creator. But it has also empowered bad actors, and moves at a pace that the industry can often not keep up with.

The creative profession has been changed profoundly by technology. Henry Cowling, chief innovation officer at MediaMonks, says it has acted like “the Big Bang for creativity in our industry” and there has been a big shift because the advertising business was “a lot more closed off” 20 years ago.

Social media platforms have turned “every single person on the planet into a content creator”, David Jones, founder and chief executive of The Brandtech Group, says. “Today, arguably the best content creators don't sit inside ad agencies,” he says.

Creatives are no longer limited by format or geography; technology has enabled brands to communicate to consumers on a global scale across a vast array of formats, platforms and realities. 

But global tech platforms, many of which were founded in the US, have also been weaponised by bad actors to spread hate, organise crime and undermine democracy. “The negative side of social media is that it has empowered bad people to be highly creative and effective,” Jones says.

A growing list of regulations from different corners of the world is seeking to rein in technology platforms and tackle their negative effects. High-profile scandals such as that surrounding Cambridge Analytica in 2018, when it was revealed personal information from tens of millions of Facebook users was collected without their consent, has led to an increase focus on data and privacy 

As a knock-on effect, the ad industry has been forced to reconsider how it targets creative.

It isn’t just privacy laws and platform changes that the ad industry has to contend with – new legislations being drawn up to tackle areas like disinformation and content moderation, blockchain and cryptocurrency are causing brands to rethink media plans and creative executions.

Regulation is “a massive challenge” when designing web 3 projects, says Jesse Streb, global senior vice-president of technology and engineering at Dept, adding it is especially tricky to navigate in the US, with its mix of federal and state-specific laws.  

Creativity is inhibited by a poor understanding of technology

The pace at which technology advances can often cause the ad industry to lose sight of well-executed creative in the rush to jump on the newest trends, such as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and the metaverse.

This “goldrush” was true for the migration to web 2, and is currently being witnessed in web 3 executions, says Streb.

“A lot of NFT experiments have been just people just throwing anything at the wall to see what they can sell. In the next 12 months, hopefully you’ll see brands being a lot more thoughtful,” says Streb.

Gabriel Cheung, global executive creative director at R/GA, describes the rush into the metaverse as “a land grab”.

Brands should “slow down and find a true purpose on why they should be in the new virtual spaces,” Cheung says. “Without a purpose, it's just another shallow flex to say ‘we're here too.’”

Creativity is inhibited by a poor understanding of technology and a reticence to embrace change, Jones says. “There are loads of examples of bad ideas in the metaverse and beyond, a lot of which come from people who don’t understand the platforms and try to make what worked in the old world fit into the new world.”

Cost is also a hindrance when it comes to pushing the creative boundaries of technology. While technology has in many respects lowered the barrier to entry for brands to create content at scale, it has also increased the competition for time and raised consumer expectations. Solutions that stand out, like virtual immersive experiences, are “so expensive that few brands can actually deliver them”, according to Streb.

Justifying the upfront cost is tricky when brands can’t prove the return on investment of new technology trends or platforms.

“ROI is always going to be a key part of the equation,” Cowling says. “At the bleeding edge of innovation, it can be challenging for brands to build a value calculation for the investments that they're making.”

We live in a world that is built on technology. And that’s not a negative
-The view from Campaign India, by Raahil Chopra, editor

One glance at the recent global advertising awards scoreboard shows that most of the Indian wins have a common factor. Be it Dentsu Webchutney's much-awarded "The unfiltered history tour" for Vice Media, FCB India’s "The punishing signal" for Mumbai Police, or Ogilvy India’s Shah Rukh Khan – My Ad for Mondelez India, each of these campaigns has technology at the heart of the creative idea.

As Piyush Pandey, chairman of global creative and executive chairman, Ogilvy India, told a recent advertising industry event in Mumbai, the “big idea” remains pre-eminent – even as the likes of big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence become more influential in our work.

However, that doesn’t mean that technology must always play a secondary role in the creative process.

G Aditiya, founder of Talented, says: “I don’t care much for what comes first, nor am I consciously trying to figure out a pattern. I’m more interested in how whatever-comes-first gets built right after." He adds, however, that this is an outcome of how the consumer sees a campaign.

“For a long time, I’ve been guilty of assuming that ‘the idea is the idea’. I’ve realised the consumer sees it differently. To them, the idea is their experience of it: everything, right from strategy to insight, packaging to craft, and context matters equally. It’s nearly impossible to deconstruct the creative process behind the best work out there. And that’s a good thing,” he says.

However, Santosh Padhi, chief creative officer, Wieden & Kennedy India is of the same view as Pandey and argues that the creative idea is of the utmost importance, followed by technology, which supports it.

“First comes the insightful human creative idea or thought, after which we look for the right tech/digital medium,” Padhi says. “It’s more important to be human. Let's not forget that we are ultimately talking to humans who are moved by ideas and not just technology. They will only get fascinated by technology if it is new in their life, which is always the case for the first few times.”

Manoj Manshukhani, chief digital officer, Wunderman Thompson South Asia, agrees that technology itself might not be the catalyst for creativity but understanding tech helps to drive engagement with the consumer.

“Technology is never the starting point for an idea,” Manshukhani says. “Over the years we have seen that the best ideas are ones that have used data and technology as enablers to deliver maximum impact. What today’s technology enables you to do, is drive real-time engagement with the consumer through your ideas.”

Not a slave of technology

The role of technology at the core of several recent winning creative campaigns raises some important questions: without using technology, can creatives capture the imagination of the audience? Is a campaign that goes this route considered to be a dud? In other words, is India’s advertising business now a slave to technology?

Absolutely not, according to Pooja Jauhari, the chief executive of VMLY&R India, who says technology is a great partner and enabler.

“We live in a world that is built and continues to build on a tech stack. And that’s not a negative,” she adds.

“The Indian advertising ecosystem is, in many ways, moving towards using technology for advertising that prioritises effective and efficient business results, based on the dual power of human creativity and technological innovation. So, are we slaves to technology? No, but we’ve found a great partner in it.”

According to Aditiya, technology has been around for centuries, and every media touchpoint, including mainline advertising, is an outcome of it.

“Technology is and has been inherent to creativity. Prose, and novels, as a form of literature, were a result of the Gutenberg revolution in the 15th century – since the quick printing of more paper encouraged writers to figure a use case for it. The printing press, billboards, television, radio, music, records, film projectors, you name it – everything is tech,” Aditiya says. “When we speak about the history and future of creativity, make no mistake that we are talking about how technology has been applied.”

Mansukhani agrees: “Technology has always been the enabler for creative ideas over the years. Creative teams are always on the lookout for the right technology that would help bring alive their ideas in the best possible way to help engage the consumer.”

Padhi uses a sporting metaphor when looking at how technology is helping to drive positive change in India, a market that is digitising at pace.

“Technology is a lot like cricket,” he says. “Cricket wasn’t our invention, but we Indians are great at it today. We observed, tried it out, loved it, and started playing well. After many years of hard work, we were number one in all three formats of this game. Today, we own one of the biggest events around this sport in the form of the IPL (Indian Premier League).

“Similarly, technology is still getting injected into our culture and we are loving it. We have been utilising it to enhance our routines -- in some cases in the most innovative or jugadu [the Hindi word for clever innovation] ways that fit into our culture and narrative.”

New technology is allowing advertising people to express themselves creatively in new ways
-The view from Campaign UK, by Gideon Spanier, editor-in-chief

The UK has been one of the fastest adopters of smartphones, high-speed broadband and ecommerce in Europe, which has helped the country’s advertising and media industry to gain a significant competitive advantage in the global technology gold rush.

But industry leaders have mixed views about the impact on creative work as brands have rushed to shift their marketing spend online – close to 80% of UK ad expenditure is on digital platforms.

“There was just this whole period where a lot of companies spent time building infrastructures digitally. And the result of that is a digital sameness, it’s impossible to stand out,” Alex Grieve, the global chief creative officer of BBH, told Campaign in a recent interview to mark the agency’s 40th birthday.

“I think we’re at this tipping point where there will be a re-awakening and re-appreciation of creativity,” Grieve added.

James Murphy, the co-founder of New Commercial Arts and previously of Adam & Eve/DDB, offers a more nuanced view about the impact of technology on creativity because “it has worked in two opposite directions”.

He explains: “On the one hand, performance marketing has led to effective but undifferentiated campaigns that deliver predictable results. On the other, technology has allowed you to create different formats and different lengths with different complexity. Just as optimised performance marketing has led to something of a lowest common denominator, tech has also pushed the bar higher creatively.”

Nils Leonard, the co-founder of Uncommon Creative Studio, goes further and suggests the rise of data-driven marketing has undermined the creative output. “The advertising industry force-feeds people things they don’t want,” he says. “The majority of the use of technology in advertising is woeful.”

But he is also optimistic about the creative use of technology to drive innovation and progress for brands and people.

“I don’t see a divide between creativity and technology,” Leonard says, pointing out some of the world's most innovative companies operate seamlessly, rather than think of creative and tech as separate disciplines or functions.

Apple is a good example. “Previously, computers were for business” – until the company behind the Mac and the iPhone proved otherwise, he explains.

Other advertising leaders think there is a false distinction between creativity and technology and that it is a mistake to regard digital advertising as a separate silo.

“We’re the only ones that classify and distinguish between the two,” Sue Higgs, executive creative director of DentsuMB, says. “I don’t think a consumer would go, ‘Ooh, this is a digital ad because I am on this platform or that platform.’ I think there’s no line [between creativity and technology] any more. I don’t think the distinction is there [at least in the minds of consumers].”

Emphatic shift to digital

The emphatic shift to digital – both before and during the pandemic – has helped to change minds in more traditional parts of the ad industry as they saw demand for big-budget TV ads and narrative storytelling decline.

Five years ago, there may still have been some resistance to the march of digital technology but that has changed, according to Magnus Djaba, global chief client officer of Publicis Groupe. “I don’t know a single creative that doesn’t want to embrace technology,” Djaba says.

Murphy, a former chair of the Advertising Association, concedes that some UK industry leaders were “possibly a bit slow on the uptake” when it came to embracing digital but he adds: “The truth is most people in advertising are creatively questing, and new technology is allowing them to express themselves creatively in new ways”.

Augmented and virtual reality and other so-called “web3” innovations offer new creative possibilities for the UK, which has a strong record in sectors such as video gaming, visual effects and TV and film production.

“One of the biggest and best creative use cases of technology is gaming,” Leonard says, praising the “immersive”, “high-end” virtual worlds that video-game studios have built. “Yet in our industry there are scant examples [of creative use of technology].”

Leonard is more willing to give credit to forward-thinking brands rather than agencies. He cites Vollebak, the UK brand that claims to make “clothes from the future” with its innovative use of materials to make them longer-lasting.

“Brands use creativity and technology very well,” he argues. “The advertising industry uses creativity and technology less well.”

Arguably pushing the ad industry to try harder is no bad thing. The UK’s reputation as an advanced, tastemaker market means that there is no shortage of disruptors who will continue to challenge the status quo and use technology to enhance creativity.

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