In the latest Reith Lecture from the BBC, Professor Stuart Russell was invited to talk about Artificial Intelligence and what he predicts will be “the biggest event in human history”. While the theme is future facing, as he describes a path to general purpose AI (where machines can competently replicate all the things that humans are currently capable of), there are increasing examples of AI and automation creeping into our everyday lives — from recognition of objects and faces in images, to speech recognition and machine translation. Open machine learning platforms that generate images from text descriptions have emerged, with results that range from frighteningly accurate to beautifully abstract, but a distinction continues to be drawn between mechanical tasks requiring a machine to complete a fixed objective and those tasks that require empathy, humility and a human touch. For this reason automation continues to be seen as the enemy of creativity. The highest levels of craft will always require bespoke creation, and so it follows that the creative industry continues to turn its nose up at the idea of automation.
In the meantime, the modern advertising landscape now requires brands to communicate across channels in hundreds of different formats. Customers expect modern brands to speak to them one-to-one, which means personalisation and translation have become table stakes. Context not cut downs. A recent Stink project creating the end-of-year campaign for Peloton, The Cooldown, involved the creation of over 65 million unique assets, our own proprietary platform for automation at scale (RITA). Every user receives something entirely unique to them. This would have been unthinkable without automation and using a manual production process. Clients are increasingly developing their own proprietary data, and taking responsibility for how it’s used within their communications. From personalised experiences based on interactions with the brand, through to highly targeted copywriting for reactive performance marketing, or localised film and photography tailored for local markets. This level of fragmentation in the way that advertising gets delivered means more mechanical tasks need to be performed, but still with nuance and intelligence. So what needs to change in our mindset now that this level of mass production has become an industry imperative?
“The first step is to become comfortable with decoupling the creative output from the data that’s contained within it,” says Chris Hardcastle, founder of Mainframe and now Scene Group, the company that’s developed Cavalry, a software that helps to enable data-driven creative automation, which has been designed to have data integration at its heart.
“The challenge for a designer is that it can be very difficult to visualise each and every possible permutation that may occur once the data is input,” Hardcastle continues, “but when the project demands a high volume of output it’s vital that the template holds up to scrutiny.” Cavalry is attempting to bridge this gap. By providing artists with the tools to connect external data to their artwork and build rules based systems, they can quickly build templates and preview the results of the data as they work in real-time. By bringing the creative and technical sides of the process together it becomes possible to iterate more quickly and spend less time going down dead-ends.
For campaigns that need messaging to be dynamic, or changed at very short notice, it’s essential that the creative idea has been thought through properly at the concept and design stage to ensure it keeps its integrity once automation takes over. Designers don’t want to give up control and templates by their nature seem restrictive. But if the design structure has been stress tested during the creative process then the benefits in providing a more personal experience for the viewer start to outweigh the restrictions.
While at Stink we have our own platform for automation in RITA, we’ve also worked with Cavalry on projects for data-driven brands like Revolut. These brands are responding to thousands of data points in real time as they learn how customers are using their products. This data then informs the messaging that they want to appear in performance marketing. This would previously have been limited to changing copy lines in clunky pay-per-click platforms, but the creative potential unlocked by automation continues to grow as technology advances. From dynamic rendering to smart integration with more ubiquitous tools like Google docs, the perceived limitations that have kept the industry in more traditional ways of working are starting to dissolve completely.
Clients are also understandably pushing for more efficiency and effectiveness too. Long gone are the days when an entire marketing budget could be lavished on a TV commercial. The reality is that the new economy demands communications that are attention-grabbing, personal and relevant to the platform on which they’re seen. An audience can no longer be seen as a homogeneous group with the same view of the world. Through a campaign driven by creative automation a brand like Ocado can celebrate being a digital-first company that cares about their customers and has a finger on the pulse when it comes to shopping trends, thanks to its unique access to real-time customer data. Automation offers huge savings in time and ensures the highest level of craft is retained across all of a brands messaging, but it also says something about the brand when they embrace this more modern way of working.
“Asking designers to develop unique and groundbreaking work through use of automation might sound like a contradiction,” says Hardcastle, “but the best creatives should be familiar with working within design constraints. Brand guidelines often impose restrictions on the creative process but a successful designer can still dream up imaginative and unexpected ways of interpreting the rules. The same should be true of automated workflows — given the right tools to do so, a designer is given the opportunity to explore the boundaries of what’s possible and, in turn, create novel, interesting and engaging results.”
The misconception is that brands need to make a choice; to dilute their budget in order to mass produce assets, or to compromise on quality. It’s a fine line between ‘faster and cheaper’ and ‘fast and cheap’. The economic case for automation has always been there. The creative case is something that more companies need to embrace. This is why there’s an opportunity to rethink automation. No longer a concession in quality, but a tool for creativity.
James Britton is Group Managing Director at Stink Studios.
Illustration by Harry Haysom.