Man and machine: fight, dance, or a bit of both?
A view from Paul Lawson

Man and machine: fight, dance, or a bit of both?

Leo Burnett London's CEO reveals what he learned from 'Machine, Platform, Crowd' by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsso.

I've just finished one of the many recently-published books on our digital future. Well, when I say finished, I really mean that I scanned the bullet point summaries at the end of each chapter.

The book was called Machine, Platform, Crowd, so I was drawn to it because its title brought back fond memories of Vic and Bob’s most excellent agitprop performance art sketch and its accompanying catchphrase "Action, Image, Exchange".

So, what’s it all about? The machine bit is about the use of AI and its ability to enhance the creative process, in its broadest sense. Not much new there, then. But, the book did prompt me to think about two other important aspects of our own creative process. Firstly, how might we get beyond the obvious, and closer to the brilliant, much more quickly? And, secondly, what are the current limitations on an AI-infused creative process?

Addressing the first puts me in mind of what the great Frank Lowe would call "level one" ideas. Back in the day, he would tell us account handlers that it was as much our job as the executive creative director’s to ensure that we drove the creative department to get beyond the dull, cliched, derivative ideas that were usually the first creative responses to any creative brief. Our mission was to help the agency get to "level seven" ideas: the ideas that refresh the parts other ideas cannot reach.

Indeed, I’ve always prided myself on coming up with a ton of shite, account man/"level one" ideas and making sure I air them at any creative briefing as vocally as possible. That way, the creative teams would have to come back with ideas that were at least "level two" and beyond without wasting any of their precious time on wading through the first (but necessary) stages of the creative process.

So, wouldn’t it be great if we could plug-in, say, all of the ad industry scripts ever written into one of those learning algorithms to train it to pump out a pile of "level one" scripts that are technically fit for purpose, given the briefing inputs and the desired marketing outputs, but utter shite?

That would force our brilliant creative teams to transcend the machines; using all of their understanding, appreciation and experience of the human condition to apply their creative glucose to finding those fabled "level seven" ideas. We could then share the "shite to seven" spectrum of ideas with clients to demonstrate we’ve fully explored all avenues.

The second aspect is an aspect that gives me some comfort. That is to say, computers still don’t really understand the human condition since they don’t experience the world the way we do. So, when it comes to creating the emotional campaigns that produce considerably more powerful, long-term business effects than rational campaigns, the humans win. In particular, if those campaigns need to be highly creative and generate powerful fame and buzz effects. Thank you to the IPA’s Long and the Short of It for keeping the creative flame both burning and highly-valued.

Parts two and three of the book are about platforms and the Cloud. And, again, we’ve all experienced the shift from products to platforms in the shape of the Ubers and the Airbnbs. But, to play that aggregator role, on both the supply and the demand sides, requires that standards are kept high and that they attract different sets of participants on both sides of the equation. Uber would be pretty limited if it attracted only passengers who had two quid to spend and drunk drivers of ex-insurance write-offs.

The shift from a central core to the crowd at large (facilitated by the Cloud) is exemplified by the potential rise of, say, a Bitcoin to one day challenge a central bank, or the single institution that wrote Encyclopaedia Britannica being usurped by a Wikipedia that is created by everyone. A combination of these two trends has impacted our own industry over the last few years. But, crowd-sourced creative platforms will come unstuck if it becomes a free-for-all where clients disintermediate their agencies and go direct to every self-styled, creative individual writing out of their local Starbucks.

If such platforms are used, the agency and the client need to work in unison to hold each other to appropriate judgement standards when the tsunami of "level one" dross comes flooding in. A serious, value-building effect over time is what comes of a more congruent approach, with strong continuity. And this is what you get when client and agency work as co-guardians to shepherd a brand for the longer term. Or, as Robin Wight once succinctly put it: careful you’re not creating a pile of executional rubble instead of building a strong, communications wall. 

Paul Lawson is chief executive of Leo Burnett London