August 7 | 2023

Attention remains advertising’s pivotal challenge

(this article appeared in Campaign US on August 4, 2023)

The current AI conversation is accelerating a race to the bottom in creative – essentially doing to ideas and content what programmatic has done to online media. If we continue, there will increasingly be fewer opportunities for creative people to develop their talent, advertising will start looking the same and brand impact will erode to commodity.

We need to shift the conversation from production efficiency to creative empowerment. Quality work comes from quality interactions between creative people. We need to start talking about how we can use AI tools to conjure and create the unexpected.

The preoccupation in Cannes with AI missed the point. Panels and presentations focused on saving money and overhead. The point is to attract and command the attention of beleaguered consumers, not to churn out content faster with fewer people.

The question should be: “How can AI help make advertising more interesting, entertaining, and moving to inundated consumers who are bored with it?”

Attention remains advertising’s pivotal challenge. As humans, we’re getting smarter about avoiding advertising by using ad blockers, remote controls, paid subscriptions, thumb swipes and other tools. When’s the last time you even noticed a banner ad, let alone clicked on one? When we focus on AI production, we miss consumer wants. 

A few months ago we polled Gen Z consumers on AI creative. They’re all over new technologies, so you’d think they might love anything you can make with them. If they can tell creative has been done by AI, though, they don’t find it compelling – in part because it’s so readily copied, it quickly loses distinction.

The sameness is particularly troubling with humor, a pillar of great creative. AI curates from what already exists, so the same devices come up repeatedly. People tune out when they see the gag coming.

That said, using AI dynamically is the next frontier in advertising craft. Already, artists are mixing and matching tools, such as Michelin-starred chefs. For example, Director Paul Trillo (represented by ArtClass) is using AI to craft shareable stories. Ultimately, it’s the storytelling instinct that makes the content stand out. The key is understanding what to use when and how to reach whom.

We can advance the state of the art by doing things differently within our agencies:  

  • Build an exploratory environment. Having a few people who know how to use the tools isn’t the point. We need to build shared fluency throughout our creative organizations. That means providing teams with a wide range of AI tools to experiment with and create new things.
  • Create from AI, not with it. Use it as research to jumpstart ideation sessions – then put it away. Let it find imagery fast so you can find the opportunities to differentiate. I’ve learned the hard way that people stop thinking when AI leads a brainstorm session. They start depending on the AI, so they end up editing instead of creating. Use the tools to generate a few discussion starters, then put them away.
  • Perfect it before you apply it. Trial and error is dangerous when doing client work. There’s too much at stake. We need to encourage creative people to try new approaches on the side and bring solutions to internal work groups, where collaboration can define new, brand-worthy approaches.

The unexpected ideas and insights AI can trigger are remarkable. One of our creative directors used AI for a personal project that predicted how celebrities would age. When he posted the photos of their much older, heavier faces on LinkedIn, dozens of followers slammed him for fat-shaming. The responses demonstrated an intense, widespread sensitivity that came as a surprise and an education.

The creative race to the bottom threatens a death knell for brand attention. It’s already a downer for creative and production people who feel threatened by generative AI.

We can change this now and inspire a new generation of creativity. A nascent Internet got its gravitas from creative people experimenting with what the new technology enabled. We can spark a similar expansion by changing the conversation from automating production to designing environments where creative people can gain an edge.


Rogier Vijverberg is our Co-Founder and Chief Creative Hero.

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