AKQA’s Tim Devine On The Future Of Business, Advertising & AI: “Who Gets To Decide?”

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The advertising and marketing industries premise and justify themselves around their ability to affect change — change in consumers’ behaviour, change in business outlooks and change in society. However, Tim  Devine, AKQA’s executive innovation director, doesn’t work in advertising.

“We want to know where the substance is and why it is something that AKQA can do. We want to partner with our clients on these things and we’ve had some great relationships with some partners that were genuine collaborations. It’s what we want to do, build the best partnerships,” he explained to B&T.

We’re talking to Devine outside the cafe of the Powerhouse Museum during SXSW Sydney. He’s tall, with a long mess of hair tied up very loosely with a hair tie. Earlier that day, he was speaking at WPP House about AKQA’s “Action Audio” work with the NBA, offering blind and visually impaired basketball fans the chance at an immersive sporting experience. The tech was originally developed in collaboration with Tennis Australia.

You’ll have doubtless heard the word “purpose” chucked around a lot during SXSW Sydney. However, with Devine, you get a sense that he, and the team he leads, are truly purpose-driven.

“As a company, we’ve got so much potential to influence our clients, who influence the world. We have a lot of responsibility,” he said, carefully selecting every word.

There was barely a panel or a keynote that went by at SXSW Sydney without AI getting at least one mention. Sometimes, the chats were instructive and useful. Other times, presenters bandied around the term and discussed the technology without knowing a great deal about it.

“The accelerationism, which is the idea of ‘Faster and faster and faster and faster’ is out of control,” he said.

“I think we get a choice. One of the big outcomes from RGBlack was that we shouldn’t just say ‘We have to use this technology’. There is no one telling us we have to use it”.

RGBlack was a platform developed by AKQA to create new calibration cards designed for diverse skin types plus information on the principles of lighting, beauty, colourimetry and more. Shirley cards are used by photo lab technicians to balance exposure, colours, and hues. They were named for a white Kodak employee. Now, with AI entering the photo editing realm, there was a chance to undo these biases or entrench them.

Devine held a keynote discussing RGBlack and Action Audio at Cannes in Cairns earlier this year.

Find out more: AKQA’s Brian Vella & Tim Devine On Being Industry Leading Innovative Thinkers

“If we talk about AI specifically, there are certain things about it that make it more accessible than any other sort of technology. Maybe the internet. My parents, friends and family can use the tools that I might use to do things. Maybe they can’t do it at the scale that I might be able to but they can have access to it, they can have a point of view and they can have some wonder. But there has got to be a balance to the hype around it — we’ve had this for years,” Devine said.

“If I did want to give something to the advertising industry, I would say there has got to be a counterpoint. Black Mirror has been a really good counterpoint to the shiny things that tech companies create… There’s an allure of ‘We can do this now, we should do it”.

At AKQA, Devine explained that the team focuses a lot on education around new technologies to help industries and brands understand the technology that is at their disposal. Education about the technology — its potential benefits as well as shortcomings — is essential with AI.

“The problem with AI is its ability to scale. A small bug or small marginalisation amplifies and it starts to reinforce and further divide and push people. To average Joe Blow, it’s definitely [going to matter]. Whether they’re aware of it or not…” said Devine.

“There are still papers coming out saying ‘Hey, the data sets are fucked! Or riddled with bias in this way or that way’. It thinks it understands these concepts but it doesn’t. When we take these things and apply them at scale they will impact and further marginalise people.

“The question is, who, of all people in our industry and in the tech industry, who gets to decide something is fair? Who gets to decide that? And why do they get to decide? And who gets to say they’re alright to decide? Is it the money they have? Is it the privilege they have? Is that OK?”

The remedy for this power imbalance malady, at least in AKQA’s work, is to surround itself with as many people as possible who might be affected by and benefit from the work they are producing. With Action Audio, Devine and the team held week-long sessions with people who were blind or with low vision, for example.

So what’s next? AKQA is working on a project called Open Methane with Superpower Institute to bring the ideas and knowledge of atmospheric scientist Peter Reyna and economists can make it into the mainstream and can be visualised.

“That’s a no-brainer,” said Devine.

Devine is a stubborn optimist and, if the firm’s previous work is anything to go by, there is plenty of good still to be done in the world.

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