The Nature of Creativity, Circa 2022
A SPEECH GIVEN TO INTERNS BUT POSSIBLY APPLICABLE TO MOST OF US
Thanks to Dan, Eric, Giselle, Kelli and Hannah at Roundpeg Consulting for the kind opportunity to talk publicly about two topics dear to my heart: the business of ideas, and the practice of interning. This is an edited version of that presentation.
I was an intern twice. The first experience was at Martin/Williams advertising in Minneapolis in an era before computers. My mentor, Lyle Wedemeyer, said, “Well kid, consider this internship a hall pass — feel free, and please bother anybody you can to learn as much as possible.” My second internship was at Mad Dogs & Englishmen in NYC not long after the first. Nick Cohen asked me to paint some walls. In both instances I did what I was told and learned a lot.
In preparing for this talk I surveyed my network for answers to a question: “What one piece of advice would you give an intern?” And one quote in particular sums up both the business of idea people circa right now and advice for interns, from the wise and savvy Mark Silva, “Never take the safe path. In an artificial intelligence future, which is now btw, safety is an illusion.”
Or as Seth Godin once remarked, “When the world changes, it’s tempting to fight hard to maintain the status quo that feels safe.” We’ll return to safety later. And maintenance sooner. In the meantime, I want to declare the state of creativity is pretty resilient! And to be clear, I’m referring very broadly to all aspects of creativity — in science, in the arts — not just the narrow realm of marketing, design and advertising. To quote New York University Professor Scott Galloway, “Arguably, there is no better time in the history of the world to be creative.” Galloway points to the roughly $33 billion spent across all streaming platforms in 2020 alone as an example of creative opportunity. No other art form has been subsidized like this ever.
Clearly, many aspects of the business of Creativity have been booming.
According to the Dept. of Commerce (via Bloomberg), U.S. arts and cultural goods and services in the year 2019 added more to our nation’s GDP than the value added by industries including construction, mining, and agriculture. Creativity is a wide expanse, to be sure. And surprising in its economic impact, which precisely the point.
Of course the pandemic has had a profound impact we can’t ignore. Arts and cultural production fell by 6.4 percent when adjusted for inflation, compared with a 3.4 decline in the overall economy says the government. Clearly, not good. and we’re now clearly dealing with that weird word “inflation.”
But I said the state of creativity is pretty resilient. And that’s because, in the grand scheme, it takes creativity to change our point of view. Headwinds are indeed strong. But Creativity is how we unlock value and kickstart growth. Creative effort gets us from 0 to 1.
Years ago I was introduced to Vedic philosophy in which all things encompass Trimurti (“three forms”): Creativity, Maintenance and Destruction. Nothing in the world is immune from these three forms. My belief is Creativity, Maintenance and Destruction are cyclical but not consistent, and there are many sizes and waves of Creativity, Maintenance and Destruction occurring simultaneously. So economic Creativity, Maintenance and Destruction occurs amidst and overlaps cultural Creativity, Maintenance and Destruction. And vice versa. Within marketing and advertising… back in 2018 I had blogged, “It is, 20 or so years into the commercial Internet, time for ad agencies to end as we know them to be.”
I suspect now that it is time for the maintenance of creativity as we’ve known it within advertising and marketing to end — so that it can flourish into something new. What I mean by “maintenance” is the dominance of advertising forms birthed in the 1950s: The primacy of “big idea,” expensive media concepts, or headline-driven layouts that haven’t evolved since Mad Men first diagramed them by hand.
And evolve into…what, pray tell?
Let’s start with an idea I gleaned from the artist and scholar A.M. Darke, via the recent EYEO 2022 Festival. In her presentation, Darke spoke about representation in code and coding. (Her work on the Open Source Afro Hair Library is glorious.) She said, “I don’t want my tech to be neutral. I want it to have a point of view.” Seeing tech as a form of creative expression is a big part of the change we’re engaged in. And it segues into (at least) four themes I see embodying the nature of creativity in 2022.
Okay, so back in 2017 Alibaba got some press because their supposed artificial intelligence could pass the Turing Test and write great ad copy. We can stop laughing soon. Because the machines have only gotten better, and continue improving. This is OK! I believe Enabled Creativity is our near future. Like performance enhancing drugs, but not illegal. What do I mean?
Consider the designer Karen X. Cheng’s recent Cosmo cover. The image was created using OpenAI DALL-E2. Instead of hiring a human to draw, or assemble, Cheng utilized coding to render an image from a prompt. It begs the question, is Cheng a Designer or what Andrew Kemendo calls a Prompt Engineer? And no, not that she works quickly, ha ha ha. Apparently the prompting process took hundreds of attempts which sounds an awful lot like designing to me.
But I want to step back for a moment and ask the question: HOW DO WE CREATE? How do our brains conjure new thoughts, or imagine new ideas? Incredible work has been done in the past decade to answer these questions. Researchers have scanned the brains of improvising musicians and other creative types while inside an MRI machine so we can discern how the brain functions in these creative moments.
As the Pulitzer Prize winning NY Times writer matt richtel puts it in his new book — Inspired: Understanding Creativity, we’re now able to “Break down the neuroscience of creativity into smaller chunks.” And one of the chunks or phases of creativity — often the very first step of creating — is what I call generating “mass quantities.”
To begin a creative process, we typically need raw tonnage of initial concepts. Cheng’s experience illustrates as much. This initial phase of creativity is very much about digging for gold to understand where the gold isn’t — as much as where it might be. And robots are really good at quantity, at generating lots of broad themes.
Let’s say you need to brainstorm ideas for a product name, or concepts for a social campaign. You should head over to Seenapse and leverage their machine learning to help develop social hero content, product names, taglines, and video scripts.
Or let’s say you need to write a lot of newsletter copy or social copy. You should absolutely use Copy.ai or Jasper to help you create initial drafts. We’ve been leveraging versions of this behaviors since forever. Consider an art director of yore cutting scrap images from magazines. Or Google Image search for that matter. As a writer, I was trained to mimic, to transpose award-winning ad copy from the annuals in order to get the feel of those writers’ prose into my own system.
This is a kind of Jazz. Wherein enabled tech, guided by our instincts, fuels a faster, broader exploration of potential expression.
Is this moral or ethical? I’m not sure! But I guarantee you enabled creativity will be commonplace. I’ve heard numerous stories of creative agencies pitching ideas today which machines first proposed. Did they acknowledge the “collaboration?” Who knows and do we care?
My advice for all of us, especially interns who have the most to gain: Get fluent. And quickly. Imagine the output of an ideas person fluent in AI-enabled creation.
Here’s a connected thought: Richtel’s book does a fabulous job exploring the science of creativity as well as the stereotypical acts of creation. And he wrote the book through the pandemic. Richtel suggests there’s great insight for idea people, for creativity, we can gain from Covid-19. Specifically, to work like a virus. Our first theme talked about the initial phase of creativity… the “generate raw tonnage” phase. The second phase is usually a process of evaluation, to hone success. And that’s correlated to how a virus like Covid-19 works. Viruses are very, very creative. Because they will try anything to survive and thrive. So let’s talk about evaluating and honing creativity.
In the olden days, we’d put all our potential up on a wall. Well, first we’d schedule a meeting. And a project manager would remind us to print out our ideas. And we’d affix our precious output to the wall. Extra credit for thoroughly but not obviously designing each idea and affixing them every so neatly at eye level. And then we’d critique. In some cultures, hierarchies of creative leaders would review minus the cadres of creators; in others it would be a hot sweaty mess of collective evaluation. And it was all billable.
How very human of us! And how very limiting. The opposite of how a virus operates. Imagine if we shift the task of creative directing and client evaluating over to an automated system? Do we humans really need to spend our precious time wrestling over which headline conveys the best concept, or which grid system suggests the most effective layout, or which image pairing works best — especially for short attention/low budget media like banner ads and social posts?
Why bother with human subjectivity when we have platforms like Viewst? (Or similar systems within Vimeo or Figma or across the Adobe platform.) The point of working like a virus is to set, and forget, brand standards; to optimize for a tonnage of content. Automated systems are all about setting rules, like specific brand colors, brand fonts, or preferences for grids and layouts, rules for how a logo is used. These elements (or allowable variations of them) can be programmed, so they can be forgotten. And then, like a virus, we can ship tons of content variation within the brand rules…to test and discern the most effective combination of elements.
Of course, this methodology only works in specific realms like banner ads. We’re not there yet for TV. Or oil painting. Or architecture. Or policy.
Think about how lucky we are. In less than 20 years, we’ve shifted the definition of creativity in marketing from basically two media — print and broadcast — to an almost unlimited palette of media.
I remember those first job postings for “interactive” roles back in 1999. Then “social media” roles become normal. And now we’re in a hiring spree for “metaverse” roles.
So now I’m thinking about 2007 and the dawn of the App Store. While we might be witnessing some belt tightening, some inflation-related hesitation to invest in creative endeavors (as we did in ‘07) — all it takes is Tim Cook walking onto stage…
The truth is, we don’t have enough designers, writers and artists to strategize, organize, design and produce what’s coming in the age of augmentation. Especially in places where AR will create real benefit — like healthcare.
Louis Rosenberg has been a pioneer in the fields of VR, AR, and AI for over thirty years. He posits, “no field makes the case [for AR and VR] more clearly than medicine.” Rosenberg expects that, “by 2030, AR headsets will be a common tool for surgeons, radiologists, and many other medical professionals. That’s because AR will give doctor’s superhuman abilities to visualize medical images, patient data, and other clinical content.” And if that’s true, then someone’s going to have to create the interfaces, the workflows, the training curricula, the marketing, etc. for that rapidly approaching reality.
But I also sense a shift approaching.
We do not know an augmented world yet. We live in three dimensions, clueless of additional invisible facets which will soon surround us. Imagine always knowing the identities of strangers as a result of facial recognition and augmented display. To those not in the loop, it might seem unfair. If you have the super powers Rosenberg is talking about, you have real power. Technology as dramatic as AR will upset the status quo. I think younger people have a distinct advantage in this arena. You’re just not going to see legions of 60 to 80 year olds jumping in, setting the foundations. And when your cohort becomes the dominant user, you define culture. I’m hopeful this aspect of creativity will be lead by younger people and I hope they shake things up.
I’m reminded of another quote via EYEO, by the artist and AI director Pinar Seyhan Demirdag.
When she said, “We model our tools after ourselves,” she was referring to coding artificial intelligence. If our perspective is an AI is better than we humans, we will code this bias…and our AI will act accordingly. CUT TO: Season 4, Episode 5 of Westworld. Is that what we want? The same theory holds true for augmentation tech. What bias will we build in? What habits and norms will become standardized simply because that’s what always happens when we create something useful?
And here’s a final theme about the nature of creativity circa 2022: What do these three people — a baker, a trans rights advocate and a drummer — have in common?
They represent the Industry of Individualism. Or maybe it’s the Society of Subscription? Their key attribute is an ability to knit together technologies. From newsletter platforms like Substack, to YouTube, Instagram, Twitch, and TikTok; of course they use Twitter, and some leverage email. Most important, this industry leverages the revolution in payments and financial service applications to facilitate subscription. They are entrepreneurs, unafraid to embrace new skills. Adam, the Orlando Drummer, is also an accomplished videographer and editor, and curriculum builder. Keffals, one of the most popular openly trans streamers on Twitch has amassed over 3,000 subscribers who pay $4.99 per month to support her streams — in less than a year. Think about that… An individual with a unique focus, plus a collection of platforms, plus accessible finance systems creates a career. How very creative!
This fourth theme speaks to the resilience of individual brands. What came of age in music — the original industry of individualism — is now a reliable segment of the entire Creative class. I’m especially keen on the combination of Learning Platforms + Video + Payments + Specific Creative Focus. We’re building upon innovators like Gerald Roush.
It’s true we appear in the midst of potentially challenging economic circumstances. But we’ve seen this play out before. I take comfort in Vedic philosophy. We’re shifting from…13 years?…of economic maintenance? We can’t maintain forever. Destruction is inevitable. Which also means Creativity is inevitable. The important variable we can influence now is time or speed. Destruction will last only so long as we nurture it. Remember it is Creativity which solves the problem, Creativity which shifts us from decline to increase, Creativity which evolves us from 0 to 1. As Mark Silva reminds us, “safety is an illusion.” All that maintenance becomes an illusion. I’m speaking to our interns today, yes, but I’m also coaching myself.
There really is no better time in history than right now to be Creative — whether that’s Enabled, or Virus-Like, or Augmented or as an empowered Individual.
The nature of creativity today is pretty resilient. And I encourage us all to sign up and show up. And change the world for the better.