CEO Update | April 2023

In Search of Distinctiveness

Last week was a huge week of creativity for the Comms Council. We held the first AXIS Speaks speaker event for several years – featuring an amazing morning of world-class speakers (I suspect that on a value for money basis this would have stacked up as potentially the best morning of creative inspiration money could buy); we announced the winners of the first Young Lions competition in Aotearoa for several years, with four of our best young people heading off to Cannes in June as just reward for their winning entries; and we held the annual AXIS Awards to a packed house in Shed 10.

This year’s winners at AXIS featured a reassuring spread of big clients in mature categories (life insurance, telcos, government departments for goodness sake. You know, the ones we tell ourselves are risk averse), all showing an ongoing belief in the need for creativity to stand out. It was a fantastic example of clients demonstrating that the biggest risk is not to invest in creativity.

But the chatter in the breaks, over coffee, in companies across the land is heavily dominated by fears for the disruptive impact of AI. The power of adoption and rapid evolution of Open AI is putting everyone on edge.

Now, the danger of entering such debates early is that I just add another opinion to a conversation that has plenty already, rather than waiting for some more informed facts to emerge. But here goes…

Firstly, some facts. AI is already employed in our industry to great effect. Media and analytics tools already lean upon AI for their power. JWT won awards across the world for harnessing AI to create the next Rembrandt all the way back in 2016. The recent crop of Open AI tools are mesmerising and irresistible for anyone with a playful bone in their body. Using Chat GPT for the first time is a revelation. But once again, the calls for the end of the world are all too quick.

AI will undoubtedly become second nature for common tasks. When we’re looking for a tool to assist in producing generic copy, to generate an image to smarten up a powerpoint slide, or indeed to rattle off some starters for 10 in creative ideation, AI will no doubt become de rigueur. For this reason alone, we need to rapidly upskill ourselves in the use of these tools.

But the point of creativity is to stand out. To be distinct. To create noticeability through difference. And you can’t do that by ploughing through an infinite reference library of all that has come before.

In his excellent essay, The age of average (please do read), Alex Murrell points to an increasing dominance of ‘convention and cliché’. In film, in fashion, in architecture, interior design, and yes, in advertising. The genericism that has overcome categories as far afield as car design, urban architecture, all the way down to the singular ‘Instagram Face’ and carbon copy book covers, delivers blandness at every turn. AI can add to this canon at lightning speed.

But it’s not where we really want to go, is it? What we all strive for in our work is to stand out, be distinct, and therefore get noticed. Which is why at AXIS this year we celebrated the notion of having cadavers from television crime dramas conveying the benefits of a life insured, and telcos providing the means, not just the intent, for websites to be more inclusive, and our transport agency shocking us with thoughts of losing ‘just the little one’.

AI, for now anyway, is a wonderful tool, with many applications that will change the world. But in the creative world, it’s a tool for showing us what we need to avoid. The aggregation of all that has been done before is precisely what creativity enables us to break free from. The advances in AI are not something to hide from. They are technological enablers on steroids. But true creativity steps out from the shadows of the ‘right way to do things’, ‘best practice’ and the safety of what has gone before. The homogeneity observed in Alex Murrell’s essay will only multiply as people rush to let AI do all the work. Genuine creativity will stand out all the more. And that’s something we will continue to celebrate at AXIS for years to come.