Why creative agencies MUST embrace AI and automation

DAM, Multichannel

How ‘intelligent creativity’ gives agencies the competitive edge in the AI era

The rapid commercialization and growing affordability of AI tools mean creative agencies can’t afford to ignore Artificial Intelligence any more. If you’re not using AI yet, you can be sure your competitors are.

In 2020, Forrester predicted 11% of the agency workforce would be replaced by automation by 2023. Debate towards the end of 2022 made those predictions seem prescient.

December 2022 was dominated by news of artists protesting against AI-generated art on ArtStation, whilst LinkedIn was awash with copywriters questioning whether ChatGPT would make them obsolete.

In Jan 2023, agency Codeword announced it had hired the world’s first AI interns, Aiko and Aiden, to work in their content and design teams.

Against this backdrop of fear and firsts, we explore the opportunities for using AI and automation in creative agencies - and look to the future of work in the creative sector.

AI vs human creativity: is there really a conflict for agencies?

Renowned ad agency executive Leo Burnett famously said ‘The work of an advertising agency is warmly and immediately human. It deals with human needs, wants, dreams and hopes. Its 'product' cannot be turned out on an assembly line.’

With the seemingly inexorable rise of AI and automation in every industry, many creatives worry that ‘assembly line’ will come to pass. Ever since AI first emerged, there has been skepticism and fear about its role in the creative industries.

  • How can a machine possibly replace human creativity and ingenuity?
  • Will AI and automation steal creatives’ jobs?
  • What will the wider social impact be of AI-gen content?

This us-vs-them thinking has created a dichotomy that positions humans and AI in direct opposition. However, evidence from current experimentation and application of AI in the creative services suggests this may not be the reality.

At present, AI is streamlining and supplementing creative processes - helping designers and writers work faster and smarter, rather than replacing them.


How are agencies using AI and automation?

Creative agencies are using AI in a range of innovative ways to increase their impact and efficacy. Virtually every aspect of agency operations can leverage AI and automation - production, creative, data, insights, administration, and more.

  • Chatbots deliver customer service
  • Generative AI creates images and art for creative inspiration - and AI for copywriting is catching up
  • Machine learning steers media planning and buying - letting agencies pinpoint the best opportunities, reducing spend and increasing engagement
  • AI in Digital Asset Management accelerates creative and production processes through autotagging and enhanced discoverability
  • Search analytics inform decisions about content creation - from which search terms to target to common topics in high-ranking content
  • Content orchestration software automates production and design workflows

This automation of mundane repetitive processes helps creative agencies reap time savings.

Automation is freeing creatives from now-unnecessary manual tasks so they can focus on uniquely human activities. Whilst AI is augmenting, elevating and accelerating creative processes, not necessarily replacing the people responsible for them.

Writing in The Drum, Steve Turnsek, CEO of Otomo.io says ‘AI content-gen tools can…extend the power of human creativity by removing boundaries (time, cost, variation) from creative and production processes.’

By allowing creative agencies to explore and experiment with concepts at minimal cost, they can focus their employees’ time on developing concepts and creative with higher impact.

Something that Turnsek predicts will ‘save human artistry’ not destroy it.


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The dawn of intelligent creativity: agencies harnessing AI

It is this emerging partnership between people and AI that Forrester has dubbed ‘Intelligent Creativity’. Jay Pattisall, Forrester’s global agency analyst, explains ‘What was once a purely intuitive, human process of creative development is now assisted by software in helping make decisions and scale the creative product.’

Forrester’s definition of Intelligent Creativity is the ‘process of creative problem-solving in which teams of creators and strategists concept, design, produce and activate business solutions with the assistance of AI, intelligent automation, and data.’

So what does this look like in practice? Here are two examples of AI assistance for creativity at scale.


Generative AI for graphics and copy

Tools like DALL-E 2 uses AI to create realistic images and art from simple text descriptions. Type in koala riding a motorbike and DALL-E 2 will deliver variations on that theme - photorealistic, illustrated etc - by intelligently combining existing digital assets.

It can also extend images with imagined backgrounds; add new elements to images taking shadows, reflections and textures into account; and let you instantly replace an angry dog with a cute cat in a photo…

It does this by assessing how digital assets are tagged/described - as well as understanding the relationship between them.

While the jury is still out on the ethics of commercially using AI generated art, this tool can be invaluable in the development process, churning out ideas and concepts at scale to inspire your creative team.

AI and automation tools also accelerate previously manual editing tasks, freeing your human team for more value-adding activities. For example, photogrammetry software can automatically create 3D images from 2D photographs in a fraction of the time it would take manually. And these images can add real value for your clients, such as ecommerce stores.

AI for copywriting lags behind AI-generated art but is advancing with tools like ChatGPT. However AI tools like Surfer SEO can already accelerate and improve written content creation by doing the desk research for your writers.

Surfer analyses the highest ranking web content on your given topic and provides a framework to create something to rival it. It provides heading and content inspiration, keyword suggestions and density, and checks for plagiarism when you’re done.


AI in Digital Asset Management

A Digital Asset Management system centralizes all of your creative assets, so that you can share, search, discover and use them fast.

AI in Digital Asset Management works by understanding the content of your uploads and instantly adding intelligent metadata to describe it. This doesn’t just relieve the human bottleneck associated with manually tagging assets, it also makes metadata more meaningful and assets so much more discoverable.

For example

  • AI can recognize objects - from apples to zebras - and tag them. It can also recognize people and add their names to metadata automatically.
  • AI can process the content of videos, automatically transcribing and adding keywords to individual snippets, making it effortless to find the exact cut you need.
  • You can also upload an image to your DAM system for inspiration - for example, one you don’t own the copyright for - and it will surface similar images from your own collection
  • AI can also power automated processes, like intelligently cropping 100s of images, whilst keeping the unique focus of each image intact and centered.

These AI-powered functions can save time on previously manual tasks, improve ROI on your existing assets through re-use, inspire creative concepts, and more.


Will AI steal creative agency jobs?

Some industry pundits predict that agencies will reduce headcount as they increase technology. Forrester predicted that 11% of the agency workforce would be automated from 2020 to 2023, stating the market will move towards ‘smaller yet smarter agencies complemented by tech.’

But it isn’t inevitable that agencies will shrink. For those agencies interested in savings and efficiencies, AI can certainly help them to deliver ‘more with less’. However, for ambitious agencies with big plans, AI can drive and promote growth.

While AI is making leaps and bounds, it isn’t yet at the point where bots can replace people. Even as Codeword appoint their AI interns - Aiko and Aiden - Senior Art Director Emilio Ramos is managing expectations.

‘To be crystal clear, I’m skeptical they have the goods. We’re not jumping in face-first.We’re experimenting with integrating these techniques into carefully controlled internal workflows.’

Senior Editor Terrence Doyle adds

‘We see a ton of potential here to produce great work faster, and move some of the more banal tasks off human plates so our people can better focus on actual high-value work for our clients. It’s an opportunity to streamline internal processes by eliminating necessary but mind-numbing tasks — or passing them off to emotionless interns who can’t get bored. If we can make that work, it’ll be a win for our team and for our clients.’

Is AI a good or bad thing for creative agencies?

By 2030, 80% of all jobs will be changed or impacted by it, say Forrester. Rather than resist this change, agencies need to accept it and leverage the opportunities it represents.

AI is redefining what’s possible for creative agencies. It is streamlining and automating all areas of operations - driving cost and operational efficiency, and increasing productivity and profitability.

It is also unlocking new creativity by combining human ingenuity and emotional connection with machine accuracy and data insights.

This winning partnership lets agencies develop data-informed creative and campaigns that are optimized to engage audiences and create conversions for their clients. Furthermore, automation lets them do this at scale, and the nature of machine learning means these insights get deeper with every activity.

However, AI will also be disruptive. Firstly, to organizational structures.

Forrester states agencies will move to ‘a flatter, leaner, more tech-dependent structure’. Instead of seeing the typical pyramid hierarchical structure based on junior employees, agencies could adopt a more dynamic diamond. This is where the bottom corners of the pyramid are removed - with junior employees replaced by AI and short-term contractors.


Source: Forecast Report- The Agency Workforce 2023: Automation And AI Will Reshape Media And Creative Agencies, Forrester Research, Inc., August 2021


This has implications for both organizations and individuals. Agencies may need to refocus their efforts - from nurturing junior employees through the ranks to attracting and retaining more senior staff.

Meanwhile, individual career paths will be reshaped. Individuals will need to add data and tech skills to their resumes, alongside their other specialisms. And it is unclear where aspiring agency workers will learn their craft if junior roles are replaced.

Forrester also predicts the agency market will experience ‘competitive confusion’ due to the widespread adoption of AI. Clients will struggle to differentiate between agencies offering similar AI-powered services.

In the near future, they suggest clients will pick agencies based on their data and tech as much as on their people and reputation. To this end, they predict agencies will need to invest in building agency IP and their own algorithms - trained to excel at solving their typical clients’ use cases.

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Tom Pijsel, VP Product Management

Tom loves to solve complex software challenges. Working together with the WoodWing Studio and Assets product teams, he creates solutions that support publishers, agencies and marketers in their daily work. Tom loves to spend time outdoors with his family. And when he needs to clear his head to make room for new ideas, he’ll put on his running shoes.