Some say AI will inevitably replace knowledge workers. Others say it will revolutionise our industry in ways we can’t yet imagine, and others dismiss it as an overhyped trend that’s best left alone.

Regardless of your views, AI is impossible to ignore. We just have to be careful and separate the wheat from the chaff. If we’ve learned anything from the rise and fall of web 3.0, it’s that neither staunch skepticism nor blind faith will get us anywhere.

So the question is not if AI will enter our creative departments — it’s what role will it take?

AI as the workhorse

Creatives have been using technology as a tool to augment their thinking and reduce their workloads for years. Art Directors feared the loss of drawing skills with the advent of Photoshop, but yet we’ve seen again and again that new tools simply expand the range of creative output. 

And for a while, chatbots and text completion have been used as an aid for cognitively demanding tasks like itemising, translating or sorting through large bodies of text. Not creative work, per se, but something that frees up time and energy for creative output. Why spend hours searching for the right picture for an internal presentation when Midjourney can give you something 80% as good in 20% of the time?

AI has also moved further into the creative process — especially in the very beginning, where an algorithmically generated first draft can conquer writer’s block in seconds (even though most of the words in it will be changed during editing, like Jason’s proverbial ship Argo). 

And in a pinch, GPT and similar models can generate pretty convincing copy for social posts, UX or newsletters based on earlier examples. 

For some people, this points towards a rapidly approaching future where the creatives can be bypassed entirely, all comms created by a calculating synthetic entity that doesn’t complain about the brief, doesn’t demand raises, doesn’t play pong and will gladly make any amends requested.

This is financially enticing, and some will surely succumb to the promise, but really: why bother? It’s not like the world needs more soulless branded messages — and we’re quite convinced that AI ad blockers will evolve faster than ad-generators, leaving it all for nought. 

That’s why the strongest case is for augmentation rather than automation. 

In our own Camoflags project, launched late 2022, we used one AI to fool another, asking it to generate a series of facepaint designs that would make faces undetectable to face recognition cameras. The sheer speed meant we could out maneuver a colossal adversary — but turning the patterns into a stylistically coherent whole required more than a few aesthetic revisions by human hand.

People seem to be focused on the things AI will replace rather than the new things it will create. Perhaps it’s time to start leaning into the endless possibilities ahead rather than fearing the inevitable.

AI as the creative director

“Our work was obviously creatively better, but unfortunately, it lost out in testing to a talking hamburger/litterbox/lawnmower/invertebrate.” 

Soul crushing words that most creatives have heard one too many times. And from Terminator’s SkyNet to The Matrix, we have a deep-founded cultural fear that artificial intelligence will eventually throw off its shackles and enslave its former masters.

While not quite as dramatic, the datafication of advertising left many creatives wary of leaving questions of taste to the algorithm — and AI is only fanning the flames. What if you walk into a review a few years from now just to have Alexa give you feedback?

Admittedly frightening, but not very likely. And the reason can be found in the very nature of ideas. Because as elusive as they are, ideas can be defined — as surprising combinations of existing things — and therefore eventually generated procedurally. 

But good ideas? There are as many definitions as there are thinkers, artists, makers and doers in the world (and most of them escape any attempt at turning into a formula).

So can an AI have an original idea? It probably can (if nothing else through the sheer number of ideas it can make), but we are a long, long way away from it being able to distinguish the good ideas from the bad. 

As Seinfeld said, “It’s one thing to create. The other is you have to choose. ‘What are we going to do, and what are we not going to do?’ This is a gigantic aspect of [artistic] survival. It’s kind of unseen — what’s picked and what is discarded — but mastering that is how you stay alive.” 

That is, and will increasingly be, the core part of the Creative Director’s job — and it’s still best left to humans. 

AI as the junior

So if AI can do a lot, but ultimately needs a guiding touch to finalise things. If it can cover ground quickly, but needs very clear direction and purpose. If it is good at making ideas, but not at finding out which ones are any good. That actually aligns very closely with a role already in the department – junior creatives.

BUT FOR THE LOVE OF GREAT IDEAS DO NOT GET RID OF YOUR JUNIORS. They are the future and we need to invest in that more than ever. But if you do invest in AI, do so with the same mindset as you do with juniors. 

That means sometimes spending more time giving guidance than it would have taken you to do something on your own — knowing that it will pay off eventually.

And expect the same level of output in return:  A lot of fluff with the occasional rough diamond in the mix. Lots of potential, but very little of it actually finalised. And ever so often, a helping hand in filling out the blanks of something bigger when short on time. 

Just be prepared, that like all good interns, we might live to see it surpassing us in skill at some point. 

Until then, stay curious.

Cover image source: nguyen khanh vukhoa