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  • Writer's pictureNick Snelling

Creatives are an endangered species

Bad news just in: Creativity is no longer a uniquely human trait. A new study proves AI is now performing in the top percentile for originality and fluidity of idea-generation.

In recent months you will have spotted a spate of bravely optimistic op-eds popping up in trade press which set out to address the growing encroachment upon advertising by the Great Pulsating All-Consuming Amoeboid we know affectionately as ‘AI’. Penned by the usual gallery of creative agency head-honchos, these thought-pieces more or less trumpet the same stoic line: “Chin up, folks. Artificial intelligence shall NEVER replace the likes of us!”

Nice sentiment. Alas, a quick scroll through the Find-A-Finder’s-Fee community on Facebook — once a reliable noticeboard for picking up freelance gigs — reveals the palpable sense of desperation out there. The forum has devolved into an endless hellscape of cracked earth dotted by the odd sun-blasted skeleton, as seasoned creatives snatch greedily at whatever morsels they can scavenge. Job listings are few. People spruiking their creative chops are many.

Not that this grim state of affairs has dissuaded any of the aforementioned pep-talks: “True creativity,” the agency rockstars continue to expound with a sideways glance, dry gulp and uneasy titter, “is a fundamentally human virtue. If brands hope to unearth real insights and dream up culture-changing ideas, then our unique meat-based brains remain indispensable. Sure, AI might disrupt a few things, but fear not. At the end of the day, it’s just another cool tool we have to fold into our skillset.”

The problem with such stirring stump-speeches is that they not only ring a little self-serving but are patently false. Creativity is no longer the sole purview of humans in the way we like to believe. Certainly not according to a new experiment conducted by a clinical professor named Dr Erik Guzik at the University of Montana in June this year.

The good professor roped two dozen of his unsuspecting undergraduates into taking the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. For Frankensteinian shits ’n’ giggles, he got ChatGPT-4 to undergo the same test. To be clear, the AI’s bots did not have prior access to either the TTCT test or its judging criteria as it was proprietary material and not available anywhere online. Which means that ChatGPT could not cheat. After submitting the AI engine to the exam eight times — and comparing it against tests taken by another 2,700 human guinea pigs in 2016 — Guzik and his colleagues then engaged the Scholastic Testing Service to independently assess the results.

Scarily, ChatGPT-4 ranked in the highest 1% of test-takers. To quote the media release: “The AI application was in the top percentile for ‘fluency’ — the ability to generate a large volume of ideas — and for ‘originality’ — the ability to come up with new ideas. The AI slipped a bit to the 97th percentile for ‘flexibility’, the ability to generate different types and categories of ideas.”

Now, before you scoff… I was sceptical, too. First off, it’s one study. Secondly, these were entrepreneurship students not professional creatives. Thirdly, one doubts either the TTCT or the Scholastic Testing Service’s methodology for scrutinising good ideas vs shit ones were as brutal as either:

a) an ECD judging Award School for the first time, or;

b) that jaded client who hates everything, or;

c) an embittered creative whose primary pastime is to anonymously shit-can every other agency’s TVCs in the Campaign Brief comments.

No one is suggesting the TTCT could hold a torch to any of the above. No, sir. Nor is Sam Altman’s semi-sentient LLM close to skittling the D&AD awards and returning home with a quiver of golden pencils… yet. Even so, this is sobering news for anyone who self-identifies as a creative. And to claim otherwise is to join the ranks of those old chess grandmasters or former Go champions who both once snorted, “Bah… a mere machine will never be able to conquer me at my game!”

Still not worried? Here’s an anecdote. I held my nose the other day and went on LinkedIn, thumbing through the tedious ‘thunk-leadership’ pieces and clumsy humble-brags, only to be greeted by a paid post for a new AI-powered product (which I refuse to name) that promised to ‘automate creativity’. Yes, I repeat: AUTOMATE CREATIVITY. Oxymoronic much? As a proposition, it seems almost satirical… until you try uttering it with a Dalek voice, and then it’s just terrifying. But what dismayed me far more was the unspooling toilet roll of comments below the post — mostly by folks sporting titles like ‘Head of Marketing’ or ‘Head of Brand’ — expressing genuine interest in the product.

At this point, anyone working in advertising has to consider the fate of another great creative endeavour – music. It’s a safe bet there were plenty of musicians who once similarly poo-poohed the ridiculous suggestion their craft could ever be made redundant: “Nah, I wouldn’t fret over this whole streaming trend. Real music-lovers prefer the physical, tactile experience. Fans want to admire the artwork. Read the lyrics. Pore over the liner notes to learn who mixed, produced and played which part. Our gift of song is too special. Too profound an articulation of the shared human experience for it to be cast aside. People will always value real music…”

Well, we all know how that story ended. Sure, there’s still good music to be found, but most people don’t ascribe any value to the artform itself anymore. Certainly not beyond their $12.99 per month Spotify subscription, of which only an infinitesimally tiny percentage goes back to the musicians who pen the songs we all profess to love. As for liner notes? Pffft… no one gives a rat’s proverbial.

All of which is why, sadly, it seems kinda deluded to be soapboxing about how marketers must “celebrate and nurture human creativity” when the canary in the coal mine isn’t just dead, it’s fully mummified. And especially when such noble proclamations seem predicated on the naïve assumption that our clients — not to mention the overwhelming majority of consumers — genuinely value ‘real stuff’ over ‘artificial stuff’.

Do they? Do they really? Does anyone?

Take a look around. The artificial abounds…

We eat fake food. Read fake news. Watch fake sex. Wear fake hair. Fake lips. Fake tits. Fake nails. Fake teeth. Play with fake money in artificially sustained economies. Gaze into our fake little portable oracles lit by fake blue light. Follow fake people with fake lives and fake faces altered by fake filters pulling fake smiles on their fake Insta-sham accounts.

Even music—that quintessential human art—is becoming increasingly artificial, and we still pour it down our earholes. The use of Pro Tools and pitch-correction software is now so ubiquitous in modern sound production that every note, every chord, every beat is dragged into perfect time and perfect key. Ask yourself when was the last time you heard free-time in a song, much less a slightly bum note that somehow still worked? Music is now digitally clinical. Even so-called acoustic instruments are laid out against the same rigid grid. Terms like ‘groove’, ‘swing’ and ‘feel’ – once defined by their flexible, elastic relationship with time — are rarely present in music the way they once were. Meanwhile, there would be very few centennials kids who can even detect when a singer’s voice has been artificially tuned. Nor would they care. The glassy sheen that distorts most vocal tracks these days is so commonplace that the majority of younger listeners now assume this is how the human voice sounds.

All those small flaws, those perfect imperfections that once gave music its ‘human-ness’, are being smoothed away. Character cleansed. Soul scrubbed. And all this before the latest trend of deep-fake abominations started popping up all over YouTube, whereby iconic, long-dead singers are digitally resurrected to perform uncannily believable covers of modern songs. Are the likes of Frank Sinatra, Freddie Mercury, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain or Chris Cornell turning in their graves? No, because the indignity is far worse than that – they’re being fully disinterred and strung up as all-singing, all-dancing marionettes. Unsurprisingly, the so-called fans not only applaud this parade of AI facsimiles performing undead karaoke but demand more.

In much the same way it is only a matter of time before our feeds are inundated with feature films assembled entirely by AI. Hell, you could make a solid argument most Hollywood blockbusters are already fake. Green screens, virtual production and CGI are embraced by every superhero flick or sci-fi franchise you care to name, and it hasn’t deterred throngs of people from packing out cinemas. Is it at all reasonable to believe that the masses won’t flock to an AI-generated movie that slavishly hits every archetypal story-beat simply because it wasn’t first dreamed up by a human being?

Quite rightly, directors, scriptwriters, actors and cinephiles have expressed horror at this inevitable tsunami of AI-hallucinated dreck. They’re striking en masse over it right now. If a film is not created by a fellow human being who has something real to say about the human condition, they protest, then how can it be true cinema? I, for one, agree with them. But I am one in a dwindling minority.

Let’s face it, we dig fake stuff. We prefer the artificial over the real. It’s cheap and it’s fast. And just as all of us so easily betrayed the musicians who made the music we love, we will also forget the film-makers who once made the great movies. Just as we will forget the painters and illustrators and cartoonists and visual artists who once graced our walls or beautified our spaces. Because, thanks to the onslaught of Midjourney, everyone is now a finished artist.

My point is, unlike the beloved arts of music or cinema, no one feels any residual loyalty to advertising nor its professional creatives.

In case I come across as some angry old man shaking his fist at GPU-powered cloud platforms, I’m really not. Nor am I the stubborn luddite who refuses to upskill in AI. It’s true I choose to veto ChatGPT out of some threadbare sense of principle, but I regularly use Midjourney. I’ve even become pretty damn good at it. It sucks for storyboarding, but if you get your prompts right it can be great for bringing concepts to life in a creative pitch. And consequently, I now commission waaay less illustration jobs than I ever used to.

Hypocrite, you say? Guilty as charged…

But how long do you think amazingly talented artists like Dean Mortensen — who not only illustrated the pieces you see in this article but who is considered a legend within our industry — will survive once Midjourney and its ilk can knock out fully detailed storyboards with consistent characters and properly composed frames?

Like it or not, Dean is next. I am next. You are next. Creatives are an endangered species (and we’re nowhere near as cute as koalas, so don’t expect NRMA to swoop in and save you). As much as we like to believe we hold the monopoly or moral high-ground on creativity and cool ideas, we don’t and we won’t for much longer. Right now — as you’re reading these words — AI is scraping the web, studying our work, and learning how every single one of us cracks a brief, solves a problem, writes a slogan, designs a key visual, pens a script or sells an idea.

And once it has, then it will be better than all of us combined. Forever.

Check. Fucking. Mate.

By all means, keep telling ourselves that our agencies are ‘all-natural’. Proudly staffed entirely by organic, homegrown, hand-crafted, artisanal, free-trade intelligences. That we eschew artificial smarts for the old-school, salt-of-the-earth, turd-flinging primate kind, because it’s the real deal, maaan. But the realist in me doubts whether clients or consumers will give two shits for too long.

AI is coming for us all. And with it a cultural wasteland of flickering light and sound optimised via predictive analytics and machine learning to keep us entranced. Bedazzled. Swaddled within our customised digital utopias and always, always consuming. But ultimately empty. Soulless. Bereft of any true meaning.

Until then, I guess I’ll see you out there. Busking with the musos and the mimes on the corner. Flick us some change, if you can spare it. We have kids to feed.

Illustrations by Dean Mortensen

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