The ultimate creative smackdown: man vs machine
A view from Nicolas Roope

The ultimate creative smackdown: man vs machine

There is no good and evil in this real narrative. But there will be winners.

The world of wrestling gives us a very important lesson. People love a simple story. Good guys, bad guys. And the good guys mainly win. We like these narratives so much, in fact, that we see them even when they’re not there.

Star Wars is a great success because the age-old fable of pitting dark forces against light was recognisable – intuitive, even – despite the futuristic setting. 

When I listen to what our industry is saying, I feel like many voices are warping reality to fit this picture: a battle between good (a certain kind of creativity) and bad (everything else).

The narrative I hear more and more is that of creativity vs technology, vs data, vs creative automatons about to nick our jobs, and the cliché of The Funky vs The Librarians. When we choose to see the world this way, the battles are breaking out on multiple fronts.

Data is becoming more defining as an underlying motive and structure behind creative initiatives, artificial intelligence is encroaching on creative tools, production and decision-making, and the "boring world" of consultancies seems to be devouring the "sexy world" of creative brands unencumbered by process culture. 

But is this the familiar story of good and evil? And are we the lithe Jedi, battling with the oppressive and technically superior evil empire? It’s a seductive story but, unfortunately, nothing is so simple or so conveniently self-aggrandising.

The truth is there is no clear story to follow; it has all been a fog. The direction of change hasn’t been clear. We’ve seen many things crumble, but not any momentum or directionality or any solid progression towards something that feels confidently like "the new model". 

It’s not surprising that we’re in this phase, since the scale of the adjustment from old to new modes is almost absolute. The challene is to figure out what brands mean when broadcast itself is a big enough conundrum – before you even get to contemplate how you build brands in today’s complex landscape of media, platforms and experiences. 

Because of the self-interests of industries, there’s always a collective self-preservation. We always have answers, because we need to be seen to have answers and we think answers are easier to sell than difficult questions.

The truth is the industry is in a period of experimentation. Forced, of course, by shifting power structures, changing flows of supply, demand and distribution – but experimentation nonetheless.

What was once solid and predictable has become a dynamic crucible of trialling new ideas, philosophies, talents, cultures and methods. If anyone needs to feel better about the chaos, I would simply say that this is a very necessary part of the process of change and that health and growth come from thorough exploration and play, the means by which new modes are discovered, tested and developed into the robust performers of tomorrow.

When Karmarama sold to Accenture in 2016, it was a bolt from the blue. A counter-intuitive cataclysm that could only be decoded as fiscally incentivised creativity roadkill. But, already in 2019, the Droga5 purchase dropped more seamlessly into the wires, with less noticeable reflux. What was first a seemingly random event (or experiment) has come to pass as a defining trend.

Publicis Groupe’s acquisition of Sapient was also hard to read at the time, but as the dust has settled, it makes a ton of sense, especially in the mirror of the consultancy acquisitions and recent spate of creative in-housing. A defensive move, perhaps, but one that now adds up to a lot more. 

With these things combined, you’ve got the makings of a revolution. These seismic events would have seemed preposterous 10 years ago, but the trend is normalising.  

The tectonic shifts that are allowing these behaviours is all down to the new dynamics enabled by technology. The way organisations can now wire up their communications and business interests into continuous systems, informed by and shaped by data. Yes, it sounds horribly dry, but it’s the reality that is driving the change.

Once you accept that, it leaves you with some searching questions. If data is increasingly driving strategies, what is the role for creativity and its purveyors? If data gives us certainty, then what is the role for lateral thinking? Depending on where you net out on these questions, you will of course be drawn to either creative organisations that are learning how to mobilise and scale creativity through technology for greater impact or you’re a considering an engineering-led approach, with creativity as the challenging field of new competences.

Speaking for the side of the business with its origins in creativity, I think we have a lot to learn, very fast, to retain our influence and standing in the inner circle of trusted partners of influence. We can’t afford to think we can bypass the technological fundaments of how data is changing the way both organisations and customers orient themselves. We can’t afford to avoid engaging the burgeoning complexity of the way experience and communications permeates so many places and contexts, and how malleable these need to be in order to exploit every situation that is trying to forge that rare consumer connection.

There is no good and evil in this real narrative. But there will be winners. And the winners will be those with their eyes open, with a willingness to accept different perspectives and make the effort required to upskill wherever their blindspots lay.

But the winners will all have one attribute front and centre. They will be the organisations that can learn. That can turn this giant sandbox in this nascent, chaotic moment into the vital learnings that will be ready to roll into the next engagement, with the consequent acceleration of success stories. The fuel for the much-needed new direction and – dare I say it – new model.

Nicolas Roope is co-founder and creative director at Poke

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