There has been much justified gesticulating over the decline of ad agencies in the past few years.
Some blame falls on the failure of legacy agencies to adjust to the new technological realities. Some blame goes to the endless biz-dev pitch cycles for creative agencies and declining new-biz revenue. After three decades of steady growth in keeping with the overall economy, advertising jobs dropped last year for the first time during an expanding economy. That drop certainly isn’t due to a lack of ads, which are as pervasive (and invasive) as ever.
The big challenge, of course, is ever-increasing automation. Programmatic advertising and digital targeting have taken a cleaver to the heart of ad agencies and drained the creative lifeblood that fueled the industry. Ad agencies have become predictable and boring, simply slinging safe schlock when they do actually get the chance to stretch their muscles (and budgets).
To a certain degree, that’s completely understandable. In the brave new programmatic world, digital is demanding a focus on “results,” and metrics—however questionable their actual impact—rule the day. Agencies move to game the system and hit numbers, not inspire minds. “Insights” are predicated on stats, not actual impact.
That’s not to say good creative work isn’t still getting through, but more and more often, those remarkable moments are precipitated by outside creative forces being brought in to tip the scales. Internally, agencies have become increasingly just execution managers—and nobody goes into advertising just to push buttons and checkboxes.
We have ceded the creative input of advertising to technological output. In a perfect economy, the two would work in tandem and propel each other, but the pendulum has decidedly swung toward technological efficiency.
Even our tools seem to be working against us in this regard. Current project management tools are failing creative teams. Consider platforms like Twilio, which turns every team project into a literal checklist. These tools not only stifle the creative process by turning every campaign into an assembly line of activities but also fail to account for the nuances of creativity’s most important steps.
As a technologist, I have to ask myself if we can do better. I believe in technology as an enabler, not a crutch, and automation as a means to an end, not an end in itself. Technology should enable creativity, not stifle it or—worse—make it obsolete.
Can AI save creativity?
As disruptive as AI and automation have been to the ad industry, I fully believe that it will ultimately help us regain—and even catalyze—creative energy.
The metrics game will almost certainly be part of agency life for the foreseeable future, but it shouldn’t dominate so much time and energy. Right now, we’re in the technological delta of learning how to make these new automations truly efficient. That comes at a creative cost as brainpower is put into optimizing these systems and pushing the envelope of what they can truly achieve.
But rest assured, we won’t always be stuck in programmatic purgatory.
Once trained, AI will always be more efficient at optimization-oriented tasks. “Human-in-the-loop” controls, input and new ideas regarding processes will play a part, but agencies shouldn’t be wasting time and budget on this. Let the machines do what we designed them to do. It’s what they do best.
Beyond just executing mundane tasks, AI can also play a valuable creative role. To be sure, this challenge is not unique to advertising, nor is it even really that new. Consider this favorite 1989 gem from Harvard Business Review that recognizes: “creativity is undermined unintentionally every day in work environments that were established—for entirely good reasons—to maximize business imperatives such as coordination, productivity and control.” The moral? We don’t need machines to kill our creativity; we’re doing it to ourselves every day.