The Commoditization of Creative

The year was 1994 and I was sitting in my first ever billing meeting. The agency’s CFO wanted to know precisely how many drop shadows I had put into the latest catalog design. Drop shadows were expensive, and required elite-level expertise to produce. So it was our standard practice to charge $250 for each drop shadow in the catalog. Drop shadows were special, they made a printed piece look premium, and were proof of a hefty budget.

Then, in September 1994, Adobe released Photoshop version 3 with a game-changing feature; Layers. Layers meant anyone could make drop shadows with a few simple clicks. Within months the drop shadow became commonplace, ridiculed, and eventually relegated to PowerPoint use. The beloved drop shadow, had become commoditized.

This wasn’t the last example of creative skills being commoditized by advancements in technology. Desktop publishing, cheap stock photography and Unreal Engine 5 have all made production easier and our product better. But these technologies also turned once treasured creative strategies and effects into stale, overused tropes.

What Will Artificial Intelligence (AI) Take From Us?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is pushing its way into our daily lives at lightning speed, driving substantial transformations across a multitude of industries. Its capabilities revolutionize logistics, healthcare, transportation, and more. But now AI is forging a path in an area once believed to be the exclusive domain of humans – the creative industry.

Threat or Opportunity?

The first reaction to this reality may be to fear Artificial Intelligence (AI). But fear simply paralyzes us, so that’s out for me. The second option is much more interesting. AI is going to be a wild ride. There are very real safety concerns and even threats to society. That’s scary, so we need to create guardrails now. Why not also embrace this next digital revolution with open minds, embracing the possibility that human ingenuity and artificial intelligence could work together in really helpful and fun ways. I think this will push the boundaries of what’s creatively possible — and that’s exciting!

In this new age of AI-driven creativity, we should be anticipating the threats that are inevitable, but also taking advantage of the opportunities that present themselves to us. Those that learn how to safely use AI will realize an opportunity to completely reimagine our understanding of brand strategy, market positioning and creative work. AI and surrounding technologies are evolving so quickly that it is best to form opinions and strategies right away, but then be willing to change quickly as the technology evolves. So for now, here are some quick takes.

Opportunity: Unleashing (more better) Creative Potential

While some fear that Artificial Intelligence (AI) might replace human creativity, a more optimistic view suggests that AI will augment human imagination. AI can eliminate mundane tasks. This allows creative professionals to focus on more innovative aspects of their work, pushing the boundaries of the very top end of creative potential.

Threat: Ethics

Everything we put into AI is going to come back out in new forms. Bias, dangerous ideology, racism… it’s in the raw material we have provided. These machines mimic human interaction and relationships. Things may get just plain weird in unpredictable ways. AI will carry the dysfunction, manipulation, dishonesty and other harmful uses it’s learned from us into whatever new thing it creates. We need to spend significant time considering these implications.

Threat: Even More Loss of Human Connectivity

More people than ever are working alone or at home. This statistic hasn’t improved in 2023, and AI won’t help much. The human experience — the joy and empathy that come from working with others and developing friendships — will become vital. It’s impossible to learn, manage or lead if you are only staring at a screen and rarely see others in person. The one thing machines will never be is human, so we need to be careful not to allow it to get between us, or act as the middle-man in our relationships.

Opportunity: The Strategy Gap

AI is not designed to screw up like humans do. The term “happy little accident” comes from our unique ability to stumble on a connection that doesn’t make sense. Then turn it into something new. The serendipity of stumbling through mistakes that lead us to brilliance will always be uniquely human. AI has another major shortcoming — it’s artificial. And because of that it cannot be inspired. The magic of inspiration requires emotion and personal experience as inputs. No inspiration, no strategy.

Dystopian View: Could the Machines Take Over?

It may not end like The Matrix or The Terminator, but as something we don’t really notice. Someone recently asked me the question ”If AI supplants original thinking entirely, would we essentially be out of ideas? Would everything new only be made out of the original raw material we provide? Would we simply be stuck, with no clear path towards new thought?” This is where strategic thinking – or lack of it – becomes our place to thrive.

Stay tuned… or maybe there is no time for that.

Note: the header graphic in this post was produced using MidJourney with the prompt: an iridescent motherboard –ar 2:1 –chaos 25 –upbeta –s 50