What does AI mean for creative agencies?

Using AI to Build our Website

Scroll through your social media timelines and you can’t fail to miss AI generated artwork. Using apps like Facetune, PortraitAI and Lensa to create incredible portraits has become something of a late 2022 craze, with users uploading selfies and snaps as the stock for new profile pictures based on classical artwork or futuristic styles. The results are undeniably good, and you can see why they’ve sparked imaginations. The pictures are realistic, cool-looking and often flattering and professional.

You may also have seen the backlash this has caused from the artist and illustrator community. Developers creating sophisticated AI’s need to train them on existing artwork, and that artwork, by definition, is always the creation of a human. Some even began to notice their own distinctive style and elements of original pieces in AI-generated images. Their work had been used as an “image prompt”. Hundreds of artists have posted impassioned pleas for the tech industry to stop using work without permission, or at least provide compensation. Many have said they’d be happy to work with developers on fairer terms. The website haveibeentrained.com tracks images and text that have been used to train AIs.

You can see why they’re worried. Illustration is, quite literally, an art – a highly skilled craft that takes a combination of innate talent and years of dedicated study and practice. Artists and illustrators can be relatively expensive, and rightly so – you’re not just paying them for the time it takes to create a piece or the pigments on the paper; you’re paying them for those years of study. AI can generate a picture in seconds, and work at scale. It can give almost infinite variations and once it’s trained to a certain point doesn’t require constant maintenance. The creative community is terrified.

It’s not just art. Almost every aspect of a creative agency’s role can now be done by machine learning and AI, and it’s becoming more sophisticated at a frightening pace. AI can generate passable copy, realistic images and unique music. Under the hood, it can search and generate keywords to maximise SEO. AI algorithms can be used to create targeted and personalized messages, track customer engagement, and optimize campaigns for maximum effectiveness. We recently experimented with using AI for the creative elements of our new website. The results were mixed, but it was clear that the technology is on the right track and accelerating fast.

What does this mean for agencies, and especially for the creatives working for them? Over the course of the next decade we’re going to see a seismic shift in the way agencies operate. Those that don’t have the technology and skills to keep up with AI will inevitably struggle, and that can be frightening. However, those that do will be rewarded with a competitive advantage – greater speed and efficiency, scalability, and a greater capacity for data analysis.

For creatives, the roles are changing too. Human beings will be increasingly valued for the work that machines can’t do. Empathy and creative experimentation for example. We will begin to see more creative directors and curators who can oversee the creative process, incorporating AI-generated material into the mix but still emphasizing the human element. Multidisciplinary teams and hybrid teams that combine both AI and human experts will become more common. In the brave new world of 2023 and beyond, those agencies who embrace the technology and keep their eyes on the customer outcomes they’re trying to achieve, will be the ones who come out on top.

Change is always frightening, and when it comes to creative AI we’re in the wild west right now. The technology is here to stay – there is, alas, no putting the genie back in the bottle. Eventually these advances will become more regulated and easier to control. AI, like photoshop and illustrator, like spell checkers and word processors, like the printing press or the loom, will become part of a toolkit. Automation is inevitable, but it doesn’t need to be the end of creativity. The smartest agencies will be the ones that understand this, hold their nerve, appreciate the skills they have and work out a way to fold all of that together. A scary time, true, but also an exhilarating one.