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Programmatic Creative: AI and Creativity

By: Bill Winchester

There are a lot of predictions going on in the great big world of advertising regarding the role of AI. That’s Artificial Intelligence, not Artificial Insemination. (Although for the creative world they are amazingly similar. All the action without any of the pleasure.)

We’ve all heard of programmatic buying.

To vastly simplify a very complex process, in programmatic buying, algorithms figure out the timing, placement and optimization of the advertising going out there. AI learns and optimizes. Makes sense, right?

The next, inevitable step? Programmatic creative.

Not as it exists at this moment but the next big step in AI –  ads created from scratch by our friend Watson or some similar combination if circuits and memory boards. Why not? Watson created a movie trailer. Watson created a cookbook. (Well, kind of. It’s more of an interactive recipe creator.) Both semi-creative pursuits.

(Creepy, yes. But what the heck?)

Could Watson create an ad?

Sure. Creating advertising, as in putting words or pictures in some arrangement which creates a desire for a product, isn’t that hard. And if you read Mitch Joel’s recent article on the subject, you know many believe it’s going to happen, and soon.

But it brings up a lot of bigger questions, some of which creative directors ask their teams every day: “Sure, that’s an ad, but is it a good ad?” This is called critique – and if you’ve ever attended art school you know it can cause some tough moments.

It teaches you how to defend gut decisions in a rational way. It exposes you to points-of-view that may be different from yours. It can challenge your ego but it helps develop a thick skin. It makes you better.


“This idea that each ad campaign should have one big statement that it stands for in the marketplace. Has this way of thinking become way too traditional for our modern world?”

 – Mitch Joel

Mediocre is the average.

So when a creative director says, “Hey Watson, your stuff sucks,” how good are AI and friends at accepting critique? I’ll venture a guess: not very. Because it (never forget Watson is an it, not a him or her) will learn that mediocre is the norm. It’s what 90% of the advertising world seems to seek. Cheaper and faster, not better.

Let’s say you know the idea would be more impactful if Nadav Kander shot the photographs. Tell me you won’t get back a rational, “But that would cost x amount more and the projected benefit will be x?” Hard to argue – except that the human brain reacts to beauty in a very interesting and intangible way. It’s the intangibles we should worry about.


Great advertising involves deep and sometimes crazy human emotions. The ability to understand and trigger cues deep in the limbic system. While AI can probably come close to finding what works simply by trial and error, can it ever truly understand the craziness and unpredictability of human emotion?

Sure, it can pass for a human in a conversation but does it feel, really feel love, joy, hate, disgust, sadness, surprise, wonder, sorrow, shame and anxiety? Can it cry or laugh? Or will it be left scratching its big computer brain in puzzlement?

It’s all about the intangibles.

When it comes to creative it is often about intangibles. The small decisions, the little things about great ideas that make them wonderful. Starting with the concept.

Can AI actually think creatively? Can it make strange leaps? Does it come up with solutions from a dream? Does it strain against the brief looking for the weird thing that no one saw coming? Can it intuit something from small scraps of cultural lint? Does it partner with another machine who has a completely different background so the combination of the two creates something earth-shatteringly absurd and entertaining?

And when it gets critique from a creative director who says, “You’re not there yet,” does it simply launch the nukes?

Or will there even be a human being involved, making everything emotionally complicated and asking hard questions?

At the end of the day, it’s not whether artificial intelligence can do some things better. It can. It can iterate and optimize until the cows come home. But for those clients who believe that great advertising makes an irrational leap, you still need irrational human beings to create it.

Bill Winchester


A longtime advertising creative vet, Bill’s work has been recognized by Cannes, Clios, the 4A’s O’Toole award, the One Show, Communication Arts and Effies. He's worked with clients ranging from food, to engines, to health care and looks forward to new challenges ahead. He admits to loving cycling and hockey, but hates beets and ventriloquist dummies.

Read more from Bill Winchester



Advertising, Creativity, technology

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