Creativity at a Crossroads, Circa 2023

Tim Brunelle
10 min readAug 7, 2023

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A second annual perspective on the state of creativity

Last July I partnered with Roundpeg Consulting to deliver a first State of Creativity presentation. We spoke of AI, naturally, and neuroscience, as well as “the industry of individualism” and more. So much has changed, and so quickly, since. And what good fortune — the timely Barbenheimer moment gives a colorful frame in which to evaluate many creative dualities.

Last week I gave my second annual presentation — a huge thanks to those who attended in person! Here is the entire presentation, which was originally published in three parts via my Substack newsletter.

Introduction

Since the U.S. ad industry’s birth in roughly 1704, we’ve experienced at least two seminal crossroads: the advent of broadcast (1920–40), and then the Internet 50 years later. Both revealed entirely new approaches to marketing creativity, but most importantly — these moments redrew and invented creative roles, responsibilities and authority. And here we are again, in an even faster cycle, at a third crossroads with the advent of practical AI.

And what luck to share these ideas just as Barbie and Oppenheimer manifest their impact. Two films steeped in themes of control, roles and definition. Who decides who’s “creative,” and when, or what’s “creative?” Today’s crossroads suggests optimism and empowerment, but also fear and consequence.

And I’m hard pressed to offer a more potent expression of those dualities than the recent “Compilation” spot (above) via agency Marcel for telco client Orange. Fascinating, isn’t it, how technology (and obviously some forms of AI) becomes the means of illuminating inherent bias around who’s heroic, who’s athletic, who we should celebrate. A brilliant idea.

A First Crossroad: AI

Here, in the thick of change, it’s too easy and too hard to singularly define the moment. Three examples illuminate our times…

1️⃣ Roblox CEO David Baszucki on the timeline to “speaking things into existence” (Jump to 23 minutes for the quote)

Q. “You really do think we’re going to get to that point where people are speaking things into existence?”

A. “Absolutely.”

Q. “How close are we?”

A. “We’re not five years out.” 😳

2️⃣ This demo from May when Adobe launched Generative Fill within Photoshop. I’m using this capability almost every day now.

3️⃣ And Nilay Patel’s quick review of Wix’s new AI-powered website builder

…which generated the money quote:

“The canon of c+ content is here at massive scale.”

Or as Dr. David Bray puts it, “The good news is we’re democratizing technology. The bad news is we’re democratizing technology.” I look back at ChatGPT’s arrival in November 2022 as the opening of the floodgates. Speaking again to creative roles and creative control, the limitations and constraints which once said, “you actually have to know how to draw, you have to understand typography and grid systems… you have to know how to write…” those old rules and authorities are gone. And let’s be clear, they’ve been cracking and shifting since software arrived.

And there are many reactions to those shifts, effecting how strategic and creative teams collaborate. Wharton University professor Ethan Mollick summarized it best,

“Everywhere I look I see policies put in place to eliminate the disruption and weirdness that AI brings. These policies are not going to work.”

“I have seen leaders try desperately to ensure that AI doesn’t change anything. I believe that… is futile.”

“The only bad way to react to AI is to pretend it doesn’t change anything.”

So kudos to organizations like The Coca-Cola Company who are investing in roles like a Global Head of Generative AI. It’s a potent signal. And to industry collaborations including The Partnership on AI and The Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity who are advancing necessary conversations.

We need to talk about AI across our teams and organizations. In many ways, its impact may be more profound as an agent of interpersonal exchange.

But here’s the brutal truth, via Nick Law, Creative Chair of Accenture Song, speaking at this year’s Cannes Ad Fest…

If mediocrity is now free that means the bar for persuasive insights, the bar for truly brilliant creativity, is much higher. And I think that puts the advantage back in the hands of humans.

I’m reminded of my old jazz professor Rick VanMatre. He taught me curiosity was a muscle to be trained and strengthened. “Do you want to be that player who plays the same licks night after night? Do you want to be in a band with that person, who isn’t trying to improve themselves — who isn’t helping elevate your craft?”

That’s the AI crossroads. Merely using the AI tool isn’t enough…in fact, we’re going to be overwhelmed with C+ content. If our clients, our brands want to generate lasting value, we’re going to have to put in quite a bit of effort to stand apart.

Part 2

I’m older than I look.

Which is to say, I remember meeting artists who built print publication mechanicals by hand — they cut typography with razor blades. There were at least six of them in a room at Martin/Williams in Minneapolis in the early summer of 1992. And when I returned from an internship at Mad Dogs & Englishman in NYC later that same summer, that mechanical artists room at M/W was empty and another room was filled with Macintosh computers and young art directors coaching older art directors how to import fonts.

The business of creativity ebbs and flows.

I remain convinced AI will be the dominant force (the first crossroad) woven throughout all facets of the business and the artistry of advertising and marketing now and in the near future. (In fact, we talked about a lot of this with host Chris Farrell on Minnesota Public Radio this morning.) But there are other crossroads we should acknowledge.

The Internet changed everything. But the element I think we misjudged at the beginning, and didn’t give enough credence was inter-action; i.e. the notion a response might have just as much weight and value as the message which instigated it. We’d spent hundreds of years normalizing a one-way system: Advertisers say something and audiences consume it. The end. If you have an opinion, please write or call the 800 number.

Then came social.

It’s been well over a decade since. Time enough for user experience and technology to become engrained, maybe even seamless. For habits to form. Expectations set. Career paths delineated. I distinctly remember seeing some of the very first job postings with the words “social media” in the title. I helped write a few. Now those two words dominate many agencies.

Today 150 million Americans are apparently are on TikTok. Never mind every other social platform. And the hardware powering smartphones and the software enabling experiences and creation are leaps beyond where we started. What’s possible today is a miracle compared to 2005.

Or as Benedict Evans framed it in his 2023 presentation:

Benedict Evans 2023 presentation slide 59 — titled: What is a TV Show?

An individual with a social media presence attracts more attention on YouTube than many traditionally produced shows on Netflix. The old models sure seem a lot less valid.

Second Crossroads: The gravitational center of creativity has shifted to social

Advertising and marketing creativity have been premised on a network TV and cable model which is no longer useful. How we measure and define audience, how we strategize insights and connection, how we explain concepts (i.e. storyboarding), how we staff, how we allocate resources, how we brief assignments — are out of date. The writers and actors strikes in Hollywood hint at elements of this disconnect.

I can’t recall the last time I turned on a TV.

Yes, I watch the news, and ads. But via social (for this Gen Xer that’s Threads, TikTok and YouTube). FYI, Ashley in Denver is my lifeline to the ad world these days.

Put another way: How many views on social might be equal to a One Show Silver Pencil? Or Gold? What if the industry of creative recognition shifted from the votes of an experienced panel to re-posts on TikTok?

I’m beginning to sound like Gary V. But I do believe there’s an industry tension, and it’s playing out across the generations running brands and agencies in terms of strategies, investment, success criteria and creative focus. How long do we maintain a traditional, familiar broadcast mindset when the entire world seems to have gone social?

Clearly I’m jaded in assuming work like Hilton’s Ten Minute TikTok, or Maybelline New York’s Long Lash ad (the backstory is telling: two clients + one CG artist… no agency!), or the entire McDonald’s Happy Birthday Grimace “Purple Goo” escapade (here’s a super cut, and my favorite Gen X response to same) suggest a seismic shift.

But the times, they are a changin’.

Part 3

This final creative crossroads is evergreen, and spans every medium. In short: Can you come up with an idea that transforms how we perceive our world?

A third crossroads: Spectacle

The Sphere in Vegas, and any Meow Wolf installation clearly fit the bill. You can’t un-experience them. They stick with you long after, provoking reassessment. And yes, of course, these two examples require significant budget, large teams, long timeframes, and perspectives.

On the other hand we all remember ideas which were spectacular in their time and way, that never leave us. Or never leave me…

Ben Folds Chat Roulette Piano Improv

Charlie the Unicorn

The Subservient Chicken

…we each have our own bookmarks.

And I’m hopeful what emerges from developers’ investment in spatial computing (and AR in general) might also create similar reactions.

Unlike AI, which is and will be the permeating crossroad, or social which I think has become a significant, unavoidable creative crossroad, spectacle is absolutely optional. It has easy allure, but also serious requirements.

It’s not spectacle without significant risk

Spectacle is a dare.

Spectacle is rare.

Spectacle is, after all, attempting to transform how we perceive our world.

There can be too much spectacle.

With that in mind, I’m going to wrap up this series of observations on the State of Creativity by asserting two contrasting, but equal, organizing theories.

Little “c” and big “C” creativity serve as conversation starters; ways of enabling teams to set expectations and allocate resources. This work we’re about to begin… should we frame it within the confines of industrial creativity or the stereotype of artistic creativity?

1️⃣ In my mind, little “c” creativity is very, very predictable. There’s the old 80/10/20 marketing framework, where the 80% represents certainty — towards effort and allocation you know will return on investment. This is the realm of performance/direct marketing.

Which means 2️⃣ little “c” creative will absolutely benefit from generative AI because it’s largely predicated on known patterns. As we’ve witnessed, so much of the current, useful magic of generative AI is its ability to understand and build upon patterns. 3️⃣ Which means we can leverage AI to test, iterate and optimize to unearth more effective patterns, and continuously improve creative experiences.

4️⃣ Last but not least, little “c” — or industrial — creative helps include more people in creative expression that’s relevant, and on brand. I’m convinced the pandemic inaugurated more in-house, and remote team creativity. What AI and social platforms like Vimeo, or within Adobe’s suite, enable are “rules bound” creative expression. Imagine never having to worry about correct font or logo usage, brand color or image use accuracy, never mind image our audio licensing. Most employees are not art school graduates or even aware of the merits of design systems. Today’s industrial creative platforms ensure that’s not a problem.

If our goal is not to astonish, or overwhelm — but to inform, to guide, to assist, to nurture — then defining our work within little “c” definitions helps everyone stay on track, remain aligned, and focused on unsurprising outcomes.

By contrast…

There is a sentiment expressed in advertising circles which suggests “any” assignment can become spectacular. That banner ad, that sales sheet, that bit of SEO — just work all weekend to reframe strategy, budgets and expectations — and you will transform the world.

Maybe?

I’ve seen that reframing work a few times. Seems to boil down to relationships more than ideas. But let’s not forget the contrast.

1️⃣ Big “C” work will be unexpected, revolutionary, and full of pitfalls. Most people won’t like those circumstances. But here’s where we might leverage AI to research and reduce uncertainty, or social to test and confirm our assumptions.

2️⃣ Obviously big “C” creative is largely about spectacle. But, let’s be clear, this has more to do with intent than budget. Spectacle is an attitude more than a price tag. Meow Wolf delivers a lot of impact, for a much lower investment than the Sphere. And it all starts with intent.

3️⃣ In the grand scheme of things, big “C” creative likely starts very small, with ab appeal to the most passionate audiences. Again, this is where AI can help discern insights, and social can help reveal the weirdos who welcome distinct, fresh leaps.

And finally, 4️⃣ where little “c” is about managing and fueling creative consistency and creative craft, big “C” work isn’t familiar, because it’s opening unseen or locked doors, it’s trying to spark illumination where none existed before. And if we know, upfront, big “C” is our path, our objective — we can better manage expectations for the creativity which results.

Of course there could be many more creative crossroads.

And those above will evolve.

The point is ask yourself: “How do I know where I am in the current churn of ideas and culture?” And how might you respond as a result?

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Tim Brunelle

I'm a creative enterprise leader, teacher, and entrepreneur living in Minneapolis.