AI Is Reminding Us of What We’ve Lost—and What We Can Have Again

The technology roiled Cannes. But it's the creative disruption we need

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The 2023 edition of the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity may be remembered as the “disconnect show.” There’s the beer brand whose inclusive, award-winning marketing campaign prompted a devastating boycott. There’s the technology sector, whose pull-back on marketing spend and headcount is being cheered by Wall Street. But the biggest disconnect at Cannes is playing out mostly in between sessions—the one that pits human creators against AI.

The rise of ChatGPT, Midjourney and other AI platforms are forcing a reckoning in creative industries, and for good reason. They do a lot, and a lot of what they do can be construed by the undiscerning eye as “creative work.” But if we’re being honest with ourselves, we need to acknowledge that creativity has been hurting for a long time. Having judged past editions of the Cannes Lions, I’ve seen my share of remarkable, inspiring work. But I’ve also seen an industry struggling to innovate. Best practices are accepted without question, and few are brave enough to pioneer new ones. Instead we resign ourselves to apply the brand playbook to the deliverable and collect our check. Where did the wild, experimental thinking that drew us to this work go? Is that even the right question? 

Rather than get depressed, I’ve simply moved on, both in my practice and in how I lead my team. And the thing that’s liberated us—that saves us from dwelling in the past, applying the same tired approaches to profound new challenges—is the same thing that got Cannes so worked up: AI. 

Generative AI is prompting a lot of fear—both for designers’ livelihoods and brands’ IP. But again, let’s be honest with ourselves: If we feed prompts into ChatGPT, does it give us a new product idea? If we do the same in Midjourney, do we get a new brand identity? AI makes me hopeful, not fearful, because it doesn’t give me the answer. It does, however, help me and my team arrive faster at provocations we can then interrogate and explore to get at our answer—it frees our minds to do the real creative work. AI is the breakthrough of our time, if not of all time, and we’d be bad partners if we deprived clients of its promise.

What can we do to make AI feel not just more vital, but approachable? I take the long view, drawing inspiration from the art world’s reaction to the camera obscura. Previously, artists were judged on how exactingly they replicated the physical world. Photography forced artists to approach their subject in a new way. Suddenly it wasn’t about perfection, but about interpretation. Did Monet throw his brushes away because the camera devalued his skills? 

We’re at a similar inflection point with AI. Yes, it will disrupt the more easily commoditized parts of our business—the wireframing, the templatizing, the taxonomic aspects of design system building. But it’s already forcing us to reconsider our subject. Do we throw away our brushes, or do we embrace this once-in-a-century chance to apply them in unprecedented ways? 

For the past four years, Huge has partnered with Pantone to launch its Color of the Year. In 2023, we decided to invite Midjourney along for the ride. When the AI arrived at a static image, our motion designer began feeding it more prompts, then used their skills to manipulate the movement further in After Effects. Sure enough, the result blew what little remained of our minds. This wasn’t an experiment for experimentation’s sake; our approach gave Pantone an opportunity to pair its color of the year with the technology of the year, helping fuel over 50 billion media impressions and the most successful Color of the Year launch since the initiative’s birth in 1999.

It’s important to note what AI did and didn’t do in a project like this. It generated imagery, but the Pantone and Huge teams ultimately manipulated it to create the emotional impact. We went deep with it, then collectively shaped the output through a human lens. As a creative, you’re still in your editing suite, making the raw concept sharper. Your mastery of craft, saying nothing of your bravery and empathy as a designer, are still fundamentally important. And to use generative AI effectively, you still need to have very good taste. 

You also need to have good sense. As with any technology adoption, usage principles must be defined and upheld. Generative AI helps us get to the insights faster, but we must interrogate the outputs closely to ensure we’re upholding people’s privacy and security; respecting creativity; ensuring cultural relevance; and identifying and combating biases that these tools can perpetuate. At Huge, we’re using AI to support research synthesis, insight generation and rapid prototyping. This is how most technological revolutions start: in controlled, responsible, low-risk environments, with the client’s blessing and collaboration. A login to Midjourney, Bard or ChatGPT is not a ticket to an all-you-can-eat buffet. Moderation and enterprise-level protocols are critical. 

With those safeguards in place, the play can begin. The ironic thing is, though AI tools invite wild experimentation, they make our entire organization work smarter. For example, we’re finding that our data analysts, strategists and creatives are aligning sooner. When they all use these tools, they can cross-pollinate their discoveries earlier in the engagement. This is perhaps the greatest unlock for our business: When analytical and strategic rigor are baked into the creative concept from day one, we’re better positioned to help our clients grow faster, sooner. 

Of course, speed is one of generative AI’s most alluring value propositions. But let’s be clear: AI is not an efficiency play. It’s about being more creative, more effectively, than ever before. It will allow us to help our clients redefine their businesses. A new world of opportunity is opening, one where the brief changes from building an app or a website to making an argument for different answers. Generative AI will never reveal these to us, but through experimentation and refinement, it will help guide us toward the ones that create real, sustained growth—for ourselves and our clients.