Publicis Declares Creatives Obsolete

Is their long game no creatives at all?

Last week Publicis made a very major and very public announcement regarding their desire to become, and roadmap for their evolution toward being, a “platform.” The announcement covered two main points. The first: they will be cease to enter award shows or attend any industry events in fiscal 2018. The second: they will be investing what they would have spent on those award shows and events on the development on a corporate-wide machine-learning/A.I.-based collaboration platform called Marcel (named after Publicis founder, Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet).


Viewed independently, perhaps those two points might appear benign. But the fact that those two ideas were intrinsically linked appears to signal that one of the largest marketing and communications companies in the world has embraced, and is preparing for, the post-subjective (read: post creatives) era for the industry. To better explain what I mean, let's look at the collateral implications of these two factors.


Devaluing subjectivity

It is generally understood that major awards are the professional currency of agencies as a whole, but they are, perhaps, most valuable to the individual creators within the agency. Awards improve a creative’s free agency potential. An award-winning creative can more easily jump ship to another agency and, as a result, negotiate higher wages from the potential new, or existing employer. A quick glance at the creative communities reaction to Publicis’ anti-award-show stance shows no small understanding of what it means for their side of the power equation.

But I think there is a deeper issue being highlighted here. When looking at how the marketing industry has evolved in the past 10 years, awards shows are beginning to look like a vestigial organ, left over from a time when the direct impact or effectiveness of advertising was nearly impossible to quantify. With this decision, Publicis is publicly declaring that era of subjectivity has ended. What we feel about creative is irrelevant to the business of marketing. Metrics are paramount. ROI must be quantifiable not simply by transaction, but at the resolution of the individual consumer.

The notion that success or failure should rest in the hands of something as subjective as a creative director’s artistic vision is anachronistic. Which leads us to the second issue. The agency as a “platform.”


The commodification of creativity

In their video announcement, the Publicis officers kept referring to their goal of transitioning from an agency network to a platform. An interesting choice of terms, for sure. “Agency,” implies people in service to a client. “Platform,” implies something more akin to a utility. As mentioned earlier, the enabling technology driving this transition is the aforementioned, Marcel. If you are a creative, there are two aspects to this platform that should trouble you. First, is the notion that, “...employees will eventually be able to bid for projects they want to work on.” 

According to Publicis, that feature was inspired by an employee survey that showed creatives wanted to work on more international work. So, what’s wrong with that? For starters, we should ask upon what criteria the A.I. (or human manager, for that matter) would be choosing the winning bidder? 

It would necessarily need to be something more quantifiable than what historically would be a managing creative director’s subjective choice, based on talent. Is it the creative who can accomplish the task at the lowest cost to Publicis? Or, perhaps the creative who will put in an additional 30 hours of unpaid overtime to get the most prime assignments? Bidding, in this sense, implies that creative output is a commodity.

In 2016, McDonald’s put its creative up for review and the terms of the RFP requested that all of the large international holding companies competing for the account work at cost. McDonald’s has publically stated, in effect, that creative was a commodity and they weren’t willing to pay any sort of premium for anything as subjectively valuable as a great idea. Shockingly, according to reports, all but WPP group apparently agreed with them, the final winner being Omnicom.


Training our Replacements

The second factor that should trouble creatives is that this platform is based on machine-learning A.I. Why would that be troubling? All a major holding company would need to create A.I. driven creative “bots” is a large enough dataset of measurably effective headlines and layouts to ingest. Enhancing the machine learning results are all of the human interactions tied to that data—e.g.: creative product, approvals, comments, sales data, click-through rates, “likes,” et al. In an industry that has a habit of claiming it’s greatest assets go up and down the elevators every day, unquestionably, the the largest impediment to maximizing profits is people and the inconvenience of paying them. 

If you have read our earlier posts, you might remember that McCann Japan pitted one of it’s human creative directors against an A.I. that was fed a diet of award-winning television commercials in a contest to create a new TV spot for Clorets Mints. In the end, consumers preferred the human creative directors work, but advertising professionals found the A.I.-generated concept to be more creative. That result was achieved with a relatively small dataset of commercials. Feed the system the entire creative output of a global agency network for a few years, as well as the associated analytics and sales data, and the A.I. will undoubtedly become a far more formidable competitor in the “bidding” for new assignments.


Architecting our Obsolescence?

For Publicis, and the industry as a whole, is a classic innovator’s dilemma moment. Do you invest in the emerging technology that may produce slightly inferior results at a dramatically reduced cost, even though it will ultimately cannibalize your existing profit centers? Projecting out trends in technology and A.I. seem to align with what I predict is Publicis’ long game. Then again, I may be reading more into these tea leaves than is actually there. Suffice it to say that whether this is development at Publicis is a sign of things to come for all agencies, or a singular reaction to competitive pressure, or an opportunistic publicity stunt, change in the advertising industry, fueled by machine learning and A.I. is inevitable; and the seeds of whatever that change may grow have been sown.


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