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Hand-picked by humans

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

This week the world’s biggest advertising business announced that it is committing to a future with AI (1). WPP aren’t the only ones in ad-land taking strides toward this new future - Omnicom Group recently announced a partnership with Adobe to harness a new content supply chain solution (2). In addition to platforms making huge investments of their own, such as Google announcing AI-generated search ads (3) and Meta beta testing an AI sandbox with a select number of brands (4).

I can appreciate why WPP’s announcement was met with frustration from many who have dedicated their careers to creativity within the advertising industry. People are calling out the holding groups for a lack of creative ambition and a disregard for the creative talent that has driven their success.

I get it. I’ve spent a large part of my 30-year career in creative agencies and have experienced first-hand the struggle of unlocking innovative creative ideas and the amazing outcomes that can be achieved for a business when these ideas are taken to market in the right way.

And yes we might fall asleep watching WPP’s no-doubt AI-generated announcement video (5), but the reality is that generative AI is already, and will continue to, have a big impact on creative services.

I can see both sides of the story because over the last 5 years, I have been working directly with businesses helping them with digital transformation and seeing the power of using low-code solutions, automation and machine learning to enable personalised experiences for customers.

Whilst I do believe there is a win-win for creative services within this new world, it will require a major recalibration by those that are in it, starting with the acceptance of some uncomfortable truths and a lot of planning to leverage the opportunities.

An uncomfortable truth

Marketing budgets have become increasingly fragmented, but generally speaking, I see three buckets of hero, hub and hygiene still at play…

  1. Hero campaigns that drive reach and have a disruptive impact. Usually relating to brand building, product launches or major events. Executed with high production values and integrated across comms channels.

  2. Hub content that is regularly scheduled, distributable and discoverable - such as social media posts, blog posts, podcasts, a video series, newsletters, influencer programs etc.

  3. Hygiene content that is always-on, and delivers some form of utility to an audience who has a specific intent. This includes performance marketing, automated email sequences, digital merchandising, reviews, testimonials, service comms, FAQs, calculators & tools, landing pages, websites & app builds etc.

AI is enabling the hyper-personalisation of content within this Hygiene space, and it is delivering results – both on a customer and commercial level. Budgets are shifting toward marketing technology that enables scalable conversations with their audience. Marketing teams are restructuring, upskilling and pivoting toward this future. And these martech technology providers (from enterprise level Adobe, Pega and Salesforce, down to small business levels of Canva, Shopify and Mailchimp) are integrating generative AI into their interfaces at a rapid pace, making tools which were once the domain of creative agencies accessible directly to marketers.

The uncomfortable truth for creative agencies is that there has been continued value erosion behind where agencies traditionally make money. I’m not even talking about the good old days of media markups, overseas shoots and lucrative production contracts, I’m just talking about the bread & butter volume of design and copywriting. If your agency revenue is primarily based on Hub or Hygiene services, then your value proposition is seriously under threat.

Start a tally now that counts how many times a week your clients say “this is something I could have created myself in <enter choice of generative AI here> and you want to charge me <enter your current rate card here>!”

The big holding groups are of course interested in survival and don’t want to be the middlemen that AI cuts out of the creative service value chain.

So where are these opportunities?

Yes, there are harsh realities around the workforce change that is coming from AI, but instead of fearing it or dismissing it, there is an opportunity to create an augmented business model.

I am a big believer in the way the economist Richard Baldwin (6) positions the change –“it is not AI that will take your job, it is another worker with AI that will take your job!”

Here’s a few thoughts on how creative agencies can safeguard their survival…

  • Creative thinking is not bound to ads. Value will continue to be sought in brand strategy, experience strategy, product and innovation strategy. Be prepared to shift.

  • Quality conceptual ideas will make a disproportionate difference in a world overloaded with boring AI-generated content. Smart marketers will recognise this, they make take on volume work themselves, but they will need conceptual ideas.

  • Marketers will need to double down on brand trust as an antidote to this era of deep fakes. Brand campaigns will be key, but also ensuring a brand is experienced throughout every part of the customer’s journey – which includes things like personality design for AI customer service and sales assistants.

  • Audit which parts of your creative process will be replaced by AI and which parts will be enhanced by AI. Know what is truly defensible within your service offering and identify ways to showcase the human fingerprint in your process.

  • Upskill your teams using hands-on workshops to learn how to use AI as a co-pilot whilst being realistic about its current limitations (shameless plug – the Future For Now team can help you with this!)

When we start to view AI as a co-pilot rather than someone after our jobs, it opens many possibilities of enhanced creativity, by shifting the workload from execution into experimentation.

In the film and gaming industry creatives are using AI tools such as Wonder Dynamics for rapid iteration of scenes, by filming actors and then using AI to automatically animate, light and compose CGI characters. They are finding that AI frees them from the weight of production and actually enables them to be more experimental and push the creative boundaries.

AI can go also be used at the front end of the conceptualising process, by provide starting points for creative ideas. Think of it as a co-creation tool, like holding a brainstorming session or crowd-sourcing some jumping off points. This fast track at the early stages then requires humans to choose, build upon and validate ideas based on their experience and gut feel.

So creative ambition is still alive and well, but the value of creative agencies will be determined by how much marketers are willing to pay for highly trained human overlords who can hand-pick ideas.


Source References:

  1. WPP Nvidia Partnership:

  2. Omnicom Adobe Partnership:

  3. Google AI Generative Search:

  4. Meta AI Sandbox:

  5. WPP AI Partnership Announcement Video:

  6. Economist Richard Baldwin:

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