To thrive in the era of Artificial Intelligence, marketers need to commit to creative thinking like never before
What’s the one human, cognitive skill that is guaranteed to increase in value as Artificial Intelligence (AI) advances? It’s not programming or software engineering, or even mastery of the code behind AI algorithms. It’s creativity – a human quality so distinctive, differentiating and valuable that it actually becomes more important the closer that technology comes to mimicking it.
For evidence, look at the rankings of the world’s most in-demand skills] that LinkedIn generates every January. These use a vast data set to analyse the types of skills that businesses are seeking. For the last few years, the most in-demand technical or ‘hard’ skills have been dominated by AI, and the data and analytical skills that support it. During that period, we’ve seen AI replicate more and more of the high-level ‘creative’ skills that we once regarded as distinctly human. AIs have beaten world champions in the game of Go, they’ve created new paintings in the style of Rembrandt that are virtually indistinguishable from the work of the old Dutch master himself, they’ve written scripts for expensive TV ads, generated new forms of contemporary art, set out the plot for West End musicals, written catchy pop songs.
And yet despite all of this, the rise in importance of AI skills has been matched by an equal rise in the importance of old-fashioned, human Creativity. For the last two years, it’s been enshrined as the most in-demand soft skill on the planet: consistently ahead of the likes of Persuasion, Collaboration, Leadership, Problem Solving and all others you could name.
This is no coincidence. The more we automate the process of design, the greater the significance attached to creative approaches that can stand out from the crowd. The more labour-saving tools we develop for generating ad copy suggestions, email headlines or video scripts, the greater the pressure to differentiate our use of these tools from others. Whenever a creative process becomes automated and standardised, the value of creative thinking crystallises. It’s the essence of competitive advantage in an era when technology advances more rapidly than ever.
All of this should be great for the morale of marketers, advertising agency employees, and any other profession of which creativity is a fundamental part. However, there’s a problem. It comes from the traditional definition of the ‘soft’ skills that we have always ranked creativity among. These are talents or human capabilities that are perceived to be intrinsic; qualities that we are born with; capabilities that are therefore very difficult to learn.
It’s time to treat creativity as a learnable skill
If we’re to thrive in the age of AI, we have to explode some of the mystique that marketing and other professions have built up around creativity. Because myths they definitely are. Although creativity is not a technical skill related to a specific task, tool or role, it is most definitely a skill. It can be developed, practiced and enhanced. And if we want to thrive as marketers in the age of AI, that’s exactly what we need to do. It’s not enough to shrug that we weren’t born particularly creative and settle for just going through the motions in our profession. Creativity is our unique selling point in the age of AI – and part of that unique selling point is that we have to keep pushing ourselves to keep thinking differently; to keep raising the bar.
During my time at LinkedIn and Microsoft I’ve been fascinated by the growing capabilities of AI – and what this means for marketing and marketers. I’ve had many discussions with creative-minded people from musicians to writers, to agency leaders to technologists. It’s led me to a very clear conclusion: creativity isn’t just something that you can learn, develop and improve; if you’re not constantly trying to learn, develop and improve it, then you’re not truly creative.
Here’s how to do it – my take on how to build your creative capabilities and thrive in the age of AI:
Step 1: Recognise the value of Creativity
If we’re honest with ourselves, it’s terribly easy to spend your time in a marketing career just going through the motions, creatively speaking. You take the easiest and most obvious option every time. You follow routines. You take every input and insight at face value and never challenge, question, or push yourself to find a better solution.
This temptation will only grow in the age of AI. We are operating at a time when the value of creativity has never been higher, but the opportunity for each individual to neglect creativity has never been higher either. We’ll be handed more and more recommendations by the algorithms working for us. They’ll suggest copy, subject lines for emails, targeting for campaigns. Thanks to innovations like Dynamic Search Ads, we can hand entire creative briefs over to them so that we can focus our attentions elsewhere. If the limit of our ambition as marketers is to produce something that’s ‘good enough’ and then move on, then we’ll have less and less need of our own creative powers to achieve it. If we don’t value creativity, we’ll delegate more and more of our role to machines – and we’ll write ourselves out of marketing’s future.
Thriving creatively in the age of AI therefore has to begin with a conviction that creativity has value. Aim to find opportunities to exercise your creative muscles where others don’t see them. Challenge yourself to thinking beyond the obvious solution to a problem. It’s only through constant use that we can train our creative capacities – and hope to improve them.
Step 2: Control your inner critic
One of the greatest barriers that any creative thinker faces is their own inner critic. We all have them: committees of voices inside our heads that come up with dozens of reasons why a particular idea won’t work, and highlight all of the areas where others could find fault. These inner critics quash creative ideas before they have time even to fully form.
It’s easy to fall into thinking that this critical voice is unique to you. That others in your team or your peer group are full-flowing fountains of creative ideas; that it’s best to leave innovation and originality to them. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Everyone has an inner critic. Neuroscientists have even been able to pinpoint where it resides in the brain: it’s known as the Lateral Prefrontal Cortex, and it’s the area responsible for self-monitoring, self-judgment, behavioural modification, decision-making and self-control. In his work with jazz musicians and hip-hop artists, the neuroscientist Charles Limb discovered that, when these artists are engaged in improvisation, the Lateral Prefrontal Cortex goes quiet – it temporarily shuts down. Artists that improvise effectively do so by turning off the part of the brain that modifies and restrains our creative impulses. They have developed the ability to silence the inner critic. It’s this that unlocks their creativity.
In an era of AI, our inner critics will have more ammunition than ever: more data and insights that urge us to fire up the Lateral Prefrontal Cortex and modify our thinking based on what we’re told and what others expect. It will be easier and easier to shoot down ideas before they are fully formed; more and more tempting to focus on only the most obvious solutions. To continue to add value through creativity, it’s vital that we recognise this tendency and consciously address it. If you value creativity, you have to establish the mental space for it to happen.
Step 3: Build playful spaces into your creative routine
How do we shut down the inner critic and open the door to original thinking? This is where creative routines come, literally, into play. The psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Brown has argued compellingly that the ability to play is crucial not just for our emotional wellbeing and mental health – but also for our ability to innovate and create. He argues that play is a natural state that we are taught to deny ourselves as we get older. It’s striking how many successful creative routines involve giving the brain permission to revert to being playful.
It starts with time. One of the great ironies of creativity is that so many people argue that they don’t have time to practice it. That’s ironic, because creativity doesn’t require time – in fact, if often thrives in the absence of it. Giving yourself limited time to think creatively compels you to shut off the critical voice, stop coming up with reasons why things won’t work, and stay focused on how they could. Aim to work in short, creative bursts where the inner critic doesn’t have time to get involved. Try warming up by giving yourself three minutes to perform a ludicrous creative task, with very specific constraints. The creative director and author Stefan Mumaw has some great ideas, like designing new kinds of desk – or inventing cereal box toys for the era of the Wild West.
Time of day also has a role to play. It’s striking how many creative minds have been early risers and morning workers – and for many people there’s real value in making time for creativity at the very start of the day, when your mind is as close as possible to having a blank canvas to work with and your inner critic hasn’t had chance to get into gear. Make space for creativity, before you start the tasks of checking emails and calendars.
Take your inner critic by surprise by leaping between different tasks, reshuffling your schedule so that you force yourself to approach a creative task without thinking about it consciously in advance. Exercise can have a role to play here. Break off from what you’re doing to go for a walk or a run, or head to the gym, then plunge straight back into creative tasks. Physical activity can put the mind into a less conscious and inherently more playful state, mashing up ideas in very different ways to how you would while sat at a desk. Several great composers (Tchaikovsky and Holst among them) worked in short bursts punctuated by long walks.
There are other tricks worth trying as well: if you spend your life at a laptop, try to spend your creative time working with a pen and paper; if you already write a lot of ideas down, come up with a different colour of ink to use. Get out some Lego bricks – and remind your brain what it’s like to experiment playfully.
Step 4: Define the role of creativity in what you do
Bolstering your capacity for creative thinking is a first step in enhancing your value as a marketer. However, to leverage that capacity, you need to identify the areas where creativity can make the greatest difference in your life and your work. Being able to think creatively is one thing – but in the age of AI, what should you think creatively about?
To understand the role that creativity can play, it’s important to define clearly what creativity actually is. This is easier said than done. Ask a panel of marketers to come up with a description (as I’ve done several times at conferences) and you get a whole host of different answers. It doesn’t help that creativity is often confused with being artistic – or producing work that seems artistic. It’s seen as another word for a craft: painting pictures, taking photographs, designing buildings, laying out web or magazine pages.
The problem is that defining creativity by a type of output severely limits its scope – and the role that it can play for us. Over the next few years, AI will become more and more effective at putting these various art forms together. If you want to, you can look at algorithm-generated art, read algorithm-generated poetry and listen to algorithm-created tunes, and there will be plenty more of these things in the future. If being able to create pictures is what creativity is all about, then we won’t have it to ourselves for that much longer.
However, when I’ve spoken to creative people that I respect, that’s not the definition of creativity that they come up with at all. Daniel Bonner, the Global Chief Creative Officer at Wunderman Thompson describes it as, “the capacity to have an original thought.” Phil Beadle, the iconoclastic educator and author told me that creativity is “the most elegant possible solution to the constraints that you’re under.” And I love Stefan Mumaw’s description: “problem solving with relevance and novelty.”
The best descriptions of creativity don’t focus on the output but the thinking that informs that output. It’s not the ability to arrange images into a design or words into a sentence that counts – it’s the novel, unconventional, elegant and emotionally resonant ways that you use that ability.
The creative process starts with how you define a problem; it includes the data and the inputs that you gather to help you solve it; it gallops on through the process of generating ideas, and it extends to evaluating whether those ideas really solve the creative challenge as you’ve understood it. Just because it’s possible to automate some parts of this process doesn’t excuse you from injecting every inch of creative thinking that you can into the other parts of it.
Take the example of Lexus, which made headlines last year for developing an algorithm to write the script for a TV ad promoting its new luxury model ES model, which came packed with AI-powered features. Did the fact that an AI wrote the script mean that less human creativity was involved in that ad? Not a bit of it. The creative idea was the AI: it was the elegant, novel, relevant solution to the challenge that Lexus had given itself; the challenge of creating a talked-about ad that could start a discussion around the brand’s AI technology.
If we were to leap forward a couple of years from now to a time when more and more scripts are created using AI tools, would Lexus have come up with the same solution to the challenge? The creative part of me likes to think not. They’d have found another elegant solution that raised the bar by doing something different.
The more AIs we have available to do the spadework of writing scripts, laying out pages or generating advertising copy, the greater the responsibility to hold the work of algorithms to higher creative standards. AI-driven tools will always do what we ask them to do in a dedicated and efficient way. Our role is to keep asking whether their work is really solving the creative challenge as we understand it. If it’s not, we can go back and ask for more: change the inputs, change the algorithm, or take the algorithm’s output and reinvent it ourselves. When marketers and their agencies have the confidence to do this, AI can help to turn every copywriter into a visionary editor-in-chief and every artworker into a creative director. It can give us greater power and opportunity to think creatively.
Step 5: Seek out constraints – with help from AI
The worry of many marketers is that AI will box them in with prescriptive recommendations about what to do and how to do it. Algorithms are able to access data on a scale that was previously unimaginable and make recommendations with an authority that’s hard to deny. The optimum length for a video ad on a given platform is so many seconds, because that’s what the data on every ad running on that platform shows; the headline for your ad or the subject line for your email must contain these three words because vast lakes of effectiveness data say so; the story you tell must involve a child, because that’s what makes audiences cry (believe it or not the AI for the Lexus ad actually made a recommendation along these lines).
As data-led insights like these pile up, it can certainly feel restrictive. However, it’s a mistake to shrug your shoulders and assume that they leave less room for you to be creative. The fact is that creativity needs constraints; in fact, the more unreasonable the constraints, the greater the likelihood of them producing a breathtakingly original piece of work. Phil Beadle talks about deliberately putting yourself in a box that you then force yourself to think your way out of. The example he gave me is the poet Simon Armitage starting a day with the idea to “write something 13 lines long, with 11 syllables per line, that examines teenage jealousy through the metaphor of Batman.” It’s a common assumption that creativity needs space and freedom, but nothing could be further from the truth. Seek out and pile on constraints and you find that creative thinking flourishes in the space between them – like a well-laid fire catching alight.
Applying a creative mindset to new forms of constraint will be an essential characteristic of marketers who flourish in the age of AI. Let’s imagine that the data tells you that the most effective videos on our chosen platform must be fewer than ten seconds long. You could try to compress what you were planning to say over three minutes into this timeframe, and produce something that’s a hopeless mess – or you could grasp the opportunity to re-imagine what a video is. Why not make it one part of an experience that also uses written words or images to frame your message and communicate on different levels? How about laying an emotional breadcrumb trail of ideas that are delivered in three-second chunks? Could you use technology to personalise the journey through these ideas so that each audience member has a different experience?
An important part of the creative process will involve being imaginative about the insights that AI generates for us. What types of insight would be meaningful to the creative task that we’re setting ourselves – and would help us to produce a novel, relevant idea? Because AI can make sense of data sets that were almost impossible to analyse before, the possibilities are almost unlimited. If we’ve taken the time to understand the creative problem that we want to solve, we’ll be able to request insights, commission algorithms and construct constraints that compel us to produce an original and elegant solution.
Step 6: Distinguish between content and style
The great novelist E.M. Forster didn’t have much time for stories. He would certainly have been bewildered by how obsessed marketers are by them today. As Forster understood it, the facts or events that you set out in a novel are actually the least important element in it – and constructing the story is the least creative task involved in writing one. A story is really just a convenient vehicle for communicating ideas, characters and emotions. It’s the telling of it that’s the real creative opportunity.
Forster understood an essential principle of creativity that it’s vital for marketers to grasp in the age of AI: there’s a big difference between the content of what you say and the style with which you say it. We can expect a lot of help from AIs when it comes to the functional content of our messaging – the elements that algorithms recommend we include and the key points that the data suggests we make. Other brands and other marketers will have access to similar tools and recommendations. What differentiates our work and creates value for our business is the creativity that we apply to this material: the characterisation, the phrasing, the emotive triggers, the deep symbolism that resonates with our audience because it’s based on shared cultural experiences. These are the elements that creative people use to produce elegant solutions that speak to others on an emotional level.
Empathy is a crucial creative superpower when it comes to telling stories and delivering messages in this way. As AI advances, we’ll become increasingly accustomed to machines generating the appearance of empathy: mimicking human patterns of conversation, for example, or detecting that a given phrase tends to produce a particular type of response. However, machines can never experience true empathy with human beings because most aspects of the human experience will always be a closed book to them. AIs will never know feelings of love or loss; they’ll never know what it means to go hungry or to worry about putting a roof over their family’s heads. They have no biological impulses; no emotional needs. And they don’t have the common frame of reference that means they look at a piece of creative work and recognise why it’s creative; why it’s different, why it’s clever, and why that matters. Creativity and the impact that it has on audiences amounts to a form of coded communications between human beings that uses signals undetectable to AI.
Step 7: Focus your creativity where it matters
Part of our task as creative marketers will be to select the touchpoints with our audience that we can make meaningful in this way. We will need to focus creativity on the right moments and the right opportunities, if we’re to maximise the value of it. Dynamic Search Ads, for example, create ads based on the content of your site, automatically and in real time, whenever somebody searches on a term that’s relevant to the site’s content. This removes a lot of the burden of repetitive copywriting from marketers and their agencies, because they no longer have to anticipate every type of search that might lead somebody to their site. There would be little point wasting time and resource trying to inject a more creative, emotive approach into most of the Dynamic Search Ads that an algorithm creates.
When AI shows that something matters though, don’t leave it to AI to do your creative work for you. If one of those Dynamic Search Ads were to generate a large spike in traffic, then that’s an opportunity you can respond to creatively. Take a closer look at the audience that the ad has discovered; use the keywords that it’s automatically generated as a form of creative constraint for coming up with ideas; develop a broader search campaign to push different emotional buttons; and explore ways to apply these insights to wider areas of your marketing strategy.
The era of AI needs to be the era of creativity
Creativity is an essential and essentially human skill. However, it’s a skill that requires deep commitment to develop. Thriving as a marketer in the age of AI will depend on the extent to which we respect it, value it, and structure our working routines around it. Creativity isn’t just something you practice now and then. It’s a calling, a way of life and a way of looking at the world. And it’s never been more important.