If we let the machines into our creative process, won't they steal our jobs? Relax, says Faris Yakob. 

Would you like to play a game? Which is the better introduction to this article? 


It’s the age-old tale: creative execs go on holiday, creative directors have to deal with clients leaving messages and asking silly questions. The resulting pressure is just too much for the poor creatives who sit at their screens and dream of a solution. Great! Now all you need is a software tool that can augment your creativity, or even better, is able to generate concepts for you, write copy for advertising campaigns, generate publicity stunts and anything else which could help ease the incredibly heavy workload an ad agency has when it’s under pressure.

Or this:

Advertising agencies are gradually turning towards technology for their own good. With various software-based tools, advertising agencies can augment their creativity and come up with a plethora of exciting ideas. These ideas can be used to create the best possible content (ads, videos, writing etc.) that can help your business deliver its message to the right audience.

Or this: 

We live in interesting times.

My writing style tends towards the self-consciously gnomic, which means I’d probably favor the last one, although I’d mess with it somehow because it’s cliché, but that isn’t really the point. The point is they are all serviceable pieces of copy for the brief I set and all of them were generated by software, in this case the newly-free version of copy.ai. I simply put in a concept and title for an introduction, a reference website, selected a tone, and voila! The start-up raised $3m in March 2021 and uses GTP3 (Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3), an “autoregressive language model that uses deep learning to produce human-like text” (it’s not clear if they used GTP3 to write that line) to create ad or website copy, blog posts, and so on. 

When I first wrote about software-enhanced creativity in 2014, it was mostly high-concept prognostication, and yet also very of its time since I pondered, tongue somewhere in my cheek, if IBM’s Watson might be the future of the creative department. Since then, Watson has proven to be more of a branding success than a ground-breaking artificial intelligence, and there have been various stunts from agencies featuring AI-written ads or appointing AI creative directors. Now actual pieces of machine-taught creativity software have come to market and are easy to use. According to the website, copy.ai is already being used by Ogilvy and Nestlé.

The creative process is mysterious to us, which is to say we are often unaware of how our brains come up with ideas. Every creative and creativity researcher who has seriously considered the question eventually comes to the belief that “ideas are new combinations”, to quote American advertising legend James Webb Young. Despite that insight, there is still a semi-mystical halo around creativity. It has become linked to something uniquely human, or even divine. 

Previously we believed ideas were put into our heads by gods. The Greek Muses literally breathed ideas into, or in-spired, us. Later, Christians believed that their God put ideas into their heads. This was the concept the philosopher John Locke wanted to dismantle, given its obvious regress (who puts them in God’s head?), with the concept of the tabula rasa. Locke believed that ideas can only be built from sensation (observation) and reflection (combination). Regardless, something about the idea of artificial intelligence and creativity makes us uncomfortable, in the broad uncanny valley sense – and more personally if we work in advertising where novel ideas are our stock in trade. 

Our jobs are predicated on the ability to generate compelling ideas that will make clients money. We fear that the automation revolution that decimated working class jobs will finally get smart enough to eat its way up through knowledge work to creativity and innovation, the place where humans typically, uniquely, excel. Like all of modern ‘Western’ culture, we fall so easily into the narrative of naive binaries, this or that. You can easily see them across the advertising discourse as people argue about digital vs traditional, strategy vs creative, brand vs performance, media vs creative, or whatever the argument is this month (it’s probably about NFTs). Always this or that, rather than both, or neither, as and when appropriate. 

In the advertising agency, we separate the different parts of the creative process, into concept and craft. Concepts are generated and then discarded or developed with the best ideas built into campaigns of fully rendered blueprints, which, if approved, are then painstakingly made, in partnership with the best craftsman in the world, budget permitting. At the beginning, lots of concepts are generated and then a few are chosen. The key role in deciding which concepts get developed and helping to shape them into their best expression is that of the creative director, a leader who manages the creative process, taking responsibility for key decisions along the way. 

Creatives generate concepts, drawing from their own feedstock of inspiration, their interests and quirks of cognition. The ideas an agency can produce are limited to combinations of inputs inside the heads of everyone who works there. To tackle that, every advertising agency utilizes some freelance talent, to add to that idea gene pool and scale up resources for pitches, because employee allocations run tight for commercial reasons. More flexible, on-demand networks have sprung up in the last few years to suit the desires of a segment of the workforce that is talented and in-demand but not interested in being on the same client, in the same office, day after day. Beyond that, we have new tools. 

Because I’m an advisor to the company, I have access to the invite-only beta of the new Seenapse platform, which fuses GTP3 to its own database of human-created connections. It can generate hundreds of ideas in minutes, “inspired by humans, generated by artificial intelligence” and operates at conceptual level as well as generating taglines and scripts. 

I gave it a brief for Coca-Cola, for ‘hero content’ around the New Year, with the key attributes of happiness, sharing and refreshment. It generated concepts including: a Facebook promotion for sharing pictures of people drinking Coke on New Year’s Eve; a time travel movie that shows people going back to Ancient Egypt and making small changes that make a big difference in the present; placing stickers on the bottles for tagging your friends in real life on New Year’s Eve; creating personalized social videos for loved ones that can’t be together; and many more. 

Some were way out there and some were things that brands have even done before (it suggested a smile-activated vending machine, which was done by Unilever ice-cream years ago during that wave of vending machine ideas). The brute force combinatorial concept phase of creativity can be significantly augmented because software can make hundreds of these stubs in minutes. Then creative directors and teams can pick up and play with them, as they would with concepts from a more traditional brainstorm, faster and much more cheaply. 

The new Matrix movie has had the now inevitably polarized reaction from viewers but, no spoilers, it also acknowledges the inevitable future of work, and creativity. In it, the promised land is only possible because some of the AIs have begun to collaborate with humanity and together they can achieve things that neither side could on their own. The future is right there, in our hands, if we embrace augmentation, which will allow us to finally realize the dream of clients everywhere: better, faster, cheaper ideas.