Never mind ChatGPT: inside marketing’s quiet revolution

The rise of generative AI tools may have grabbed more attention in recent months, but it could be argued that creative automation has greater potential to reshape the sector
A young designer working on large tablet workstation

The arrival of ChatGPT in November 2022 sparked an explosion of debate among marketers about how the advance of generative AI tools might affect their work. Yet this is not the only tech-driven upheaval the industry is facing. Happening alongside the rise of generative AI, but with origins stretching back further than last year, is the creative automation revolution. 

How creative automation helps marketers 

As its name suggests, creative automation is the use of technology to mechanise various aspects of content generation. By combining elements of AI, design automation and data-driven decision-making, it streamlines the production of marketing material. In doing so, it eases one of the biggest challenges that marketers face: how to deliver a reliable supply of relevant (ideally, personalised) content across several channels to attract and retain the attention of consumers in an always-on digital economy.

While the floor has dropped, the ceiling remains that ‘big C’ of creative thinking

Achieving the desired quality and quantity of output is hard enough in normal economic conditions, let alone at a time when ad budgets are squeezed and beleaguered consumers tire quickly of monotonous messaging. For instance, a survey of US consumers by software developer Celtra found that two-thirds of respondents regarded brand ads as repetitive and didn’t want to see the same material over and over. 

By removing the repetitive manual tasks involved in the production process, creative automation enables marketers to create assets in the timely and cost-effective way required to deliver higher-quality content on a global scale. That’s the view of Gareth Davies, CEO of creative agency Leagas Delaney.

“The reality of creative automation is that it lets you deliver a product of consistent quality,” he says. “It typically allows you to generate assets 10 times faster than you would by using conventional manual processes – and somewhere in the region of 80% cheaper. When you think that much of the financial benefit of working in an agency is driven by large-scale creative production, it’s clear that automation will reshape our industry in the coming years.”

Why uptake has been slower than some had predicted

Despite such predictions, the World Economic Forum revealed in its Future of Jobs 2023 report that the global uptake of automation has not been as fast as it had initially expected. In the marketing sector specifically, this can be attributed to one key factor: a long-standing concern, held by many in the industry, that the adoption of cutting-edge tech could have a detrimental effect on creativity

This concern has heightened since the emergence of ChatGPT. For marketing campaigns, creativity and novelty are key to forming connections with consumers that last. It’s not surprising that the idea of being able to pump out content faster, with minimal human involvement, has been greeted with some scepticism. 

This is not only about tech; it’s about people, culture, workflow, measurement and leadership

Felipe Thomaz, associate professor of marketing at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, believes that the sceptics have little to worry about in this respect. He suggests that, by taking care of the aspects of content production that are simply about asset management, automation will enable – and, indeed, oblige – marketers to devote more attention to the creative side of their work. 

Thomaz explains: “Generative AI and creative automation have dropped the production cost floor to an exceptional degree. Because of that, we’re about to enter a marketplace filled with high-quality noise. Here, the last bastion of value creation is the big idea. While the floor has dropped, the ceiling remains that ‘big C’ of creative thinking. Work that’s not only beautifully produced but also genuinely moving will still resonate most with consumers – and that’s where brands will see the most value.”

How will creative automation change the sector?

Before investing in creative automation, a brand will need to consider whether its marketing function needs to be restructured accordingly, given that parts of the content generation process will be mechanised.

Jim Lecinski is clinical associate professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Illinois. He would advise such brands to ask themselves exactly what they want to achieve through creative automation, seeking views from all team members.

“This is not only about tech; it’s about people, culture, workflow, measurement and leadership,” Lecinski stresses. “What we’re talking about with creative automation is a ‘human plus machine’ relationship, where advanced technologies augment what people are doing.”

The debate about whether AI and other tech will augment or replace human intelligence has intensified over the past six months. A recent report by Goldman Sachs has estimated that 300 million jobs could be lost to automation globally. PwC, meanwhile, has predicted that 30% of all roles will be at risk of automation by the mid-2030s.

While Lecinski foresees a future in which the human-machine alliance is strong, Davies is less certain about such an outcome. Pointing out that the profits of many network agencies are bolstered by the fees they charge for asset production, he predicts that the cost-efficiencies brought by creative automation will catalyse a structural overhaul of the whole marketing sector. 

“Automation does pose questions about the broader structure of the industry. Some are difficult to answer, because they’re asking about the extent to which our methods are going to change,” Davies says. “The significance of automation is that, because it provides a cheaper way of producing assets, it could result in a tectonic shift in how agencies are constructed and what marketing itself looks like.”