Automation: the fuel for creativity

Nadine Young
Nadine Young

The industry should embrace, rather than fear, automation – it allows agencies to focus on creativity and produce better work.

The French novelist Gustave Flaubert once said: “Be regular and orderly in your life so you can be violent and original in your work.” Wise words to consider as advertising wrestles with the notion that automation may be the saviour of creativity rather than stealing its limelight. 

The fear, of course, is that insight, strategy, brainstorming and design will be handed over to the robots. This reflects a much wider cultural fear around machines in the world of work; such as estimates from the World Economic Forum that 65% of primary school children will work in jobs not yet in existence. Or that in 2019, the ONS estimated that 1.5 million Brits would lose some or all their duties to automated machines. 

But these fears mistake automation’s purpose, which should be to relieve the burden of routine or repetitive tasks, channelling greater creativity rather than outsourcing it. 

The more we can automate such tasks in our industry – booking campaigns, competitive reporting, resolving finance queries – the more our teams can focus on understanding clients’ challenges and produce brilliant, creative work to overcome them. 

For us, automation has been, and will continue to be a major focus. To take just one example of how it manifests, our booking bot, Abacus, garnered dozens of responses from across the industry – and across the world – earlier this year, asking for more information. Apparently, none of us wants to see our teams bogged down in these repetitive (and not very rewarding) tasks. 

The challenge to our industry over the past few decades has been the lack of automation. As creative, planning and strategy departments have been burdened with a more complex media landscape to navigate, more tools and data sources to choose from, and more bureaucratic admin systems, as positive as these systems are individually, they can distract from the fundamental challenge of solving clients’ problems.  

While battling with all of these, where can we find the time to analyse culture for unique and compelling ideas, to strive to understand what makes people really tick? Many of the systems that aimed to help office workers be more productive and efficient have proven to be a false economy, instead intensifying distractions, which is detrimental to creativity. 

Because more than anything, creativity needs focus. Distractions waste time and deplete energy. Research into digital distraction by Gloria Mark, professor at the informatics department at the University of California, found it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds after a distraction to return to full focus. 

We can think of the potential use of automation in agency land as a parallel to the running of the human body. Think of the incredible human brain and its dual ability to run System 1 (speedy, innate, and instinctive behaviour and decisions) and System 2 (slower, rational and more considered thinking).

System 1 is relied on heavily for repetitive tasks that support our very existence, such as breathing, brushing one’s teeth before bed, or in adland, an agency’s financial timesheets. This automation allows System 2 to then have the space to think beyond the obvious; to be strategic and creative to solve the challenges we face. 

Note these systems aren’t located in a siloed brain, working in different departments, but work in tandem together. In fact, research has found that decisions are most effective when drawing from both systems, the automatic emotional response, and the considered rational one.

Advertising remains the creative discipline for business. As such it must deliver against two seemingly conflicting truths. 

Creativity may thrive with space, time, and dedicated focus, from cloud-gazing to taking baths for that Eureka moment. But it does so against a furious backdrop of business evolution. 

Quite simply the only way advertisers can deliver both the space for deep thinking and rich conversations that creativity thrives in is to work and trust in automation. 

Nadine Young is the chief executive of Starcom UK

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