Bracing for the Age of Creative Disaffection

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A chief creative officer whom I met several years ago, lamenting how much work was farmed out to her agency group's centralized production studio, worried that within a few years she wouldn't be needed.

"Your job is the safest," I told her, because the one thing the clients wanted was the head of creative pitching them big ideas. Everyone else on her team had more cause for alarm, I said, because the clients didn't care who did the work.

Now, I worry more for her, and our industry, as we confront two forces: the increasing capabilities of artificial intelligence, and the feelings of disaffection that have been exposed, pointedly, by President Trump. Artificial intelligence breakthroughs may be what lead some liberal, American city dwellers to empathize with the president's most steadfast supporters.

There are two types of artificial intelligence. "Strong AI" is typically what movies conjure -- the likes of the voice in the movie "Her" that can constantly learn more and accomplish new tasks. "Narrow AI," by contrast, is designed to accomplish a very specific task. My favorite example of narrow AI is Clippy, the maligned Microsoft Office cartoon paper clip, which theoretically could predict your needs and proactively offer solutions to certain tasks within select programs (even if it didn't work that well).

Narrow AI is the immediate threat and opportunity. By harnessing AI-powered technologies to accomplish specific tasks, some marketers and their organizations will find new efficiencies and revenue opportunities. Much of this will be based on existing marketing automation software that becomes more effective by learning from every interaction and new data point it ingests.

Narrow use cases will proliferate. Consider recruiting. Software using AI will learn from common traits held by an organization's top performers and recommend new job candidates. But the same AI could threaten to make a firm more homogeneous by recommending people who resemble the current staff. Even as AI improves, human recruiters will have to be vigilant to reap the benefits of such software, without succumbing to its drawbacks.

AI will also threaten the creative process. There are numerous examples of AI creating art -- from classical music that sounds more like Bach than Bach (as designed by David Cope) to original images of paintings that are indistinguishable from human-made works (powered in part by Facebook's AI Research Lab).

Outsourcing to algorithms

Reflecting on my conversation with the creative chief, she will be needed as much as ever. But the bigger threat to her team will come less from outsourcing than from algorithms rapidly creating work. These infinite compositions, with guardrails in place so that they adhere to a brand's guidelines and brief, will be funneled to a different narrow AI to test the performance of creative work through small media buys. Nearly instantly, marketers will be able to identify the most effective ads for each customer segment.

As AI seeps into the creative process, I have two concerns. One is that people won't know what is created by humans and what is created by algorithms. However, my greater fear is that people won't care.

Consider an exhibit of real works of van Gogh mixed with computer-generated interpretations. Will people spend more time looking at the real ones? Will they demand to see van Gogh originals? Or will they just want to enjoy art, regardless of who or what created it? Toothpaste ads are hardly "Starry Night," but how will that make those of us in advertising feel, if people don't care about the role human beings play in the process?

For the creators of this work, including those involved in selling it and signing off on it, we must be prepared for the emotional impact that these changes will bring. Many of us will run the risk of becoming disaffected and disconnected. David Brooks will write columns about us. It really could get that bad.

In the process, some good might emerge. We will look for ways to avoid turning disaffection into bitterness and hate. We will have to use all our creative talents to do the one thing that ad execs were born and bred to do: ensure that what we do matters.

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