Opinion

The creative value of code is no longer in question - so why the lingering doubts?

Can code be creative? I've been perplexed about why a debate still rages in the marketing ether around this question, so I'm going to try to set out a simple point of view here and see how it goes.

The creative value of code is no longer in question - so why do doubts linger?
The creative value of code is no longer in question - so why do doubts linger?

Clue: if you’re already convinced the answer is yes, you can stop reading now.

One of the reasons I work in a creative agency is our shared ambition to, well, create. That word is loaded with meaning: to give birth to, to produce, to make, to originate something new. How that gets done inevitably changes over time, as tools and methods rise and fall.

But mankind has been drawing pictures, writing and making music for millennia and, it’s fair to say, we’ve got pretty damn good at doing all of them. What’s more, art, copy and audio are so highly valued we don’t question them: all are taught in schools, with music, art and books sold in galleries, shops and at gigs the world over.

In purely creative terms, of course, code is in its infancy by comparison. And with the notable exception of gaming, what we’ve been able to create for mass consumption with code has lent itself first to utility: for example, allowing us to invent new forms of message transmission, news-sharing sites and, indeed, providing new ways to distribute all that delightful art, copy and sound.

You may be reading this and thinking: 'Ah yes, more opportunities for originality, sure, but will it be any good?'

Yet I’m certain that the best new expressions of creativity are born of art, copy, sound and code, together.

Why? Because at the root of all creativity is a burning desire to create something original, to offer something better than the thing that came before. With code added to the creative canvas, we can achieve this in ways we have never previously experienced. In other words, the opportunities to be "original" have exploded, whether you’re in film, fashion or FMCG.

Enabled by technology

You may be reading this and thinking: "Ah yes, more opportunities for originality, sure, but will it be any good?" Can code move people to feel something, make them laugh, cry, or suddenly see a situation differently? Or is it still just about new ways to distribute the photography, writing, music and film we know and love?

I sat on the Cannes Lions Cyber jury this year, where some of the best work certainly showed a strong grasp of how to use digital to drive performance (where the definition of performance goes beyond "effectiveness" to the proactive planning, de­ployment and optimisation of brand activity – all enabled by technology).

By way of illustration, Volvo Trucks’ "Live test series" understood that YouTube’s algorithm rewards "total watched time with a channel" and this helped the brand build a relationship with its audience over time. Yes, "Epic split" was a phenomenal piece of film content, but it was also the sixth in a series. Millions had watched other live tests and clicked to watch more, creating a virtuous circle where the brand earned the right to show up in more related videos. As Storythings.com director Matt Locke put it so succinctly some years ago now: "Design for circulation, not distribution."

However, the very best interactive work won this year because of something else in addition to well-drilled performance.

The likes of 24hoursofhappy.com for Pharrell, "Sound of Honda/Ayrton Senna 1989", "Scarecrow" for Chipotle and BBH’s own "Greatness" for PlayStation are simply great ideas, crafted with immaculate and loving care. Other examples include the creation of a credible, artificial child ("Sweetie") by Terre des Hommes Netherlands as part of its campaign to track down webcam-using paedophiles, and "Killing Kennedy" for the National Geographic Channel, which interweaves the stories of JFK and his killer as one seamless and immersive piece.

All break new ground in technological terms, and all are ideas in which code plays an essential part. But, above all, they evoke a powerful emotional reaction, which creates a relationship with the brand.

That, I would wager, is the very definition of creativity.