It’s Time to Stop Devaluing Creativity

TBWA Worldwide's CEO reflects on how tech is creating more room for big ideas

AI and machine learning, often seen as threats to creativity, will actually create more demand for imaginative thinking. Getty Images

What a difference a year makes. In 2017, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, was an anxious affair, taking place under the darkening cloud of Brexit, creeping nationalism and economic volatility. Optimism was in short supply as world leaders, both corporate and civic, pondered their place in an era of eroding trust.

Perhaps they’ve had time to consider the question. As I navigated the snowbanks in Davos last month, I was struck by what felt like a renewed sense of purpose. Yes, the geopolitical storms continue—Brexit is still breeding uncertainty, and there was no missing President Donald Trump’s “America First” message. But as economies around the world continue their upward swing (despite the recent stock market volatility), countries and corporations—chastened, perhaps, by populist upheavals—seem eager to offer solutions for one of the most transformative challenges facing the world’s population.

Thanks to digital technologies like AI, robotics and biotechnology, we find ourselves in the eye of the storm of a fourth industrial revolution, one that will fundamentally alter our relationship to our workforces. And judging by what I heard at Davos, corporations are—at last—taking seriously the critical role they must play in this revolution and are offering ideas on how to grow the kind of people who will thrive in the workplaces of the future.

“Reskilling” is a word that continues to grab headlines, marked by efforts like the WEF’s IT Industry Skills Initiative, which aims to retrain 1 million people worldwide over the next three years.

Companies like Accenture, Cisco and Hewlett Packard Enterprises have agreed to upload their training libraries to a centralized platform that any person in the world can access for free. Such initiatives will help ease the displacement of some skilled employees, 25 percent of whom are already out of sync with the demands of their current job, according to a recent report. However, we must all acknowledge that much more needs to be done to prepare our workforces for what lies ahead.

Though many leaders don’t yet realize it, there is welcome news in all of this for those in creative industries—and a wake-up call to anyone who still doubts the value of humanity in an automated world.

As technologies assume repetitive tasks, employers of all kinds will be on the hunt for deep, creative thinkers.

Technical skills are only one part of what employers will need from employees in the future. As technologies assume repetitive tasks like manufacturing, data collection and pattern analysis, employers of all kinds will be on the hunt for deep, creative thinkers.

The truth is, humans will never be able to compete with algorithms when it comes to analyzing large data sets. But computers don’t understand context or associations and can’t explain the meaning of results. They can’t understand the implications of connected dots. People who can apply innovative thinking to data will become the real difference-makers in business, and those skills are not easily found.

As the leader of nearly 12,000 creative people, I’ve long known that imaginative minds can tackle almost any problem in business or government. What I’ve never understood is the diminishing value we allow some people to place on those skills. For years, creative agencies have slashed costs to lure or simply retain clients. And not only has that proven not to be a sustainable model, it’s also not what Davos was yearning for.

Today’s most progressive leaders want the transformative power of creativity, not just creative efficiency. There was a clear call to encourage companies to employ, train and partner with creative personnel in order to find the next, new thing.

Today’s most progressive leaders want the transformative power of creativity, not just creative efficiency.

That’s not to say creative agencies shouldn’t be transformed by AI. As agencies like ours produce more and more content for an ever-increasing number of platforms, we are spending more of our time on simple work that can be better and more efficiently handled by technology.

As with all companies, relinquishing some of those tasks to technology will free our people to spend more time applying their talents and to help the brave move from a service culture to a more product-driven culture. Put another way: AI should allow us to meet the demands of procurement while also doing better, more creative work. The fourth industrial revolution could finally allow us to offer services that are faster, cheaper and better, rather than asking clients to choose two out of three.

Our people have always been our greatest asset. Yet some in our industry have placed far too much emphasis on efficiency, tools and process, and forgotten that all great businesses thrive on imagination, lateral thinking and white-space hunters.

You could feel the tide turning in Davos. Purpose wasn’t just a tactical CSR tool, there was a fundamental shift in understanding the greater roles companies play in people’s lives and an awakening that, while machines may be our new best friends, creative thinking will—above all—be the true differentiator in any culture that is trying to deliver fundamental difference.

So, creative people and problem solvers, it’s time to get your swagger back. Put your kids in liberal arts and experimental design and get ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Part 2)—the Creative Revolution. It’s here.

@troyruhanen Troy Ruhanen is CEO of TBWA Worldwide.