Nick Law (pictured), creative chairperson of Accenture Song and all-round advertising legend, told the cream of Australia’s advertising industry that AI was not the scary bogeyman that some consider the tech to be and that our current obsession with it is simply due to its novelty. However, there were some warnings that creatives should heed before diving into the tech.
“The first practitioners of a technology are the technicians themselves,” he said.
“In the early days of photography, to be a photographer you had to understand how to fix an image onto a glass plate, so you were a chemist first. No one in the beginning of photography was thinking about composition and the endless creative possibility of it.”
The same, Law explained, could be said of cinema. With no understanding of the nascent medium, early practitioners borrowed the grammar and modes of theatre. Over time, as people started to understand the medium, this changed. In Law’s estimation, we’re at the same point with generative AI.
“If you put a heat map against all the people using Midjourney, the South Bay in San Francisco would be on fire. That’s why a lot of the shit you see from Midjourney looks like this [below] because this is a bunch of engineers with the taste of a 13-year-old boy,” Law told the crowd at This Way Up.
“We are so enamoured with the parlour trick, like these people at the turn of the century, staring at a wall and seeing this train projected on a film. The technical achievement is so astonishing that they haven’t applied any taste, craft or grammar to them.
“If you’re looking at the stuff coming out from generative AI and you think ‘Well, that’s a bit shit,’ of course it is — because you haven’t been involved yet!”
Law explained that the advent of generative AI would necessitate a restructuring of creative teams. In the early days of advertising, the creative was a copywriter — “Don Draper in the corner office coming up with an awesome idea,” said Law — before sending those ideas to the art directors downstairs who would come up with the design.
“There was some slack-jawed guy from Staten Island hunched over a drafting who would be waiting breathlessly for the completed idea that they would colour in.”
As TV emerged as a medium, creatives and art directors had to work closer together, explained Law and copy and art became inextricable. But, the internet changed the equation back.
“At the beginning of the internet, storytelling was still primary because the creative team would come up with a story and hand it off to a digital design team that would somehow extrude that story into pixels,” he said.
“It was artless and there was never a business model developed around that for these traditional agencies because they saw digital as an executional channel compared to a conceptual channel. There was a complete disregard of an interface and how that might change someone’s behaviour with media. This was a broken model.”
At R/GA, where Law served as chief creative officer for more than 17 years, he organised the business along “stories and systems.” Every team would have a digital design lead and a narrative lead — “the design creative is a spatial thinker and the narrative creative is a temporal thinker,” he said.
“There’s nothing more primal than time and space. Somehow it worked but it worked in a different way to the Bernbach model… Ours was a leadership construct because, underneath this, you had to be modular.”
In Law’s mind, it is an absolute necessity for agencies to integrate AI and tech more closely with creative teams — to the point where design, narrative and tech should all be considered a whole, rather than three separate functions and disciplines.
“Care is really important — Jony Ive talks about this — this is something we need to think about with generative AI. We can’t make the same mistakes with generative AI that we did with performance marketing,” said Law.
“Performance marketing is distinguished by marketers that really believe in the algorithm. These algorithms and technologies are really powerful. But, if all you’re thinking about is the pipes and you’re hoping that the shit you put through those pipes gets a 0.5 per cent click-through rate, that to me does not dignify the technology with any sort of humanity.”
But, Law said that the creatives were not blameless for the amorphous, artless world of performance marketing.
“The creative people from the agency world felt like that world was beneath them so they never dignified that world with great work… When was the last time you saw a performance marketing unit that you felt like someone really cared about? ‘Look at that composition, look at the type, the writing, look at the wit.’ No, because they’ve been A-B testing the colour of the fucking button and they’re convinced that because they went from 0.3 to 0.4 per cent click-through rate they’ve somehow made a breakthrough.”
If we’re not careful with the use of generative AI, Law said that we will be in a world of “abundant mediocrity” and the stuff that stands out will be “pointed, precise and has intent.”
Rounding off the session, Law said that taste will become an even rarer commodity and that it should come with a corresponding fee.
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