Last week I watched a junior designer go head to head with Midjourney in a battle to the death.
Well, no one died, quite, and that’s not always a given on the last day before a pitch.
It was admittedly a very specific thing we were after: an image of a famous rapper, in full drag, at a warehouse party. On a boat.
In the coming extinction event that is AI, it may be that this time it's the dinosaurs that triumph.
The young designer went at it valiantly on Photoshop for about eight hours, and the results were an elegant fudge. Not bad at all, and you would have been happy with it, had this been 2021.
But, it being 2023, someone else in the agency, an experienced visualizer who's pretty handy with Midjourney prompts, smashed out the perfect image in 20 minutes: the rapper in question, photorealistically perfect and bathed in neon light, looking down the lens in defiant drag queen glory.
Elsewhere, we're trialing another tech platform from an interesting startup that basically plugs generative AI into a very well-known global image library. Let's say we have an image of an old Mediterranean guy holding a tray of apples in an orchard. You don't like them apples? One click, and they're now lemons. The guy's too old? Bang, now he's young. Too white? Now he's mixed race. Now he's a woman. Now the tray is a sausage dog. Now…I need a lie down.
The accepted wisdom is, advertising is a young industry, and it's fairly normal for those over 50 to hear the constant whirr of time's winged chariot over their shoulder. But looking around at the early but insistent signs of AI's arrival in our agency, I wonder whether that trend is about to get upended in the most counterintuitive manner imaginable.
Because, in the coming extinction event that is AI, it may be that this time it's the dinosaurs that triumph.
The Spinning Jenny was the ChatGPT of its day.
You see, AI is already doing the jobs that young people entering our industry tend to do. Artworking, image search, the less exciting end of copywriting, image comping... the list goes on. They're not always glamorous jobs, but they're a good way for designers and creatives to learn their craft. To tot up Gladwellian amounts of hours in the glacial crawl towards excellence, and eventual promotion to bigger and better briefs. But those jobs are drying up. They're being done by AI - always quicker, often better.
"But you'll always need human creativity," goes the argument, and for now, I'd agree, you do. But right now that seems to favour experienced creatives - people that have mastered the art of the perfect prompt; who can draw on their own gray-matter-based reference library of 'What Good Looks Like' to sift through the AI spew looking for nuggets of gold. Who can work with the weird bric-a-brac of alien artefacts that emerge from the AI hive mind and fashion it into things that stir the human soul. Who have, in AI, a raw but billion-strong department of tireless juniors.
The fact is, technology has always automated tasks that are thought of as repetitive, mundane, or thankless. The Spinning Jenny was the ChatGPT of its day, and without labouring the parallel, you can see that there's not such a big difference between automating the production of yards of textiles and reams of web copy. A lawyer friend told me that their practice is now using AI instead of juniors to do basic contract work.
But if the junior jobs are being automated and the graybeards are considered best placed to be the conductors of the AI orchestra, we have a major problem. Because the oxygen supply to the industry is slowly failing. The paths to entry for many young creative people are closing.
Young minds have different reference points and different cultural tendencies; they want to remake the world in their own image.
And that would be a tragedy. Because young minds have different reference points and different cultural tendencies; they want to remake the world in their own image. We need them to move our industry forward. As AI comes to take the entry-level tasks, it's time we level up how we train and expose young talent to bigger challenges; giving them the chance to evolve alongside AI tools as well as learn from older, experienced creatives. Giving them the chance to try, and sometimes fail, at the Big Briefs.
So I like to think, and mostly believe, there's an interesting future for us all. But in my darker hours, I think of the fact that AI is currently munching on the combined works of Bernbach, Hegarty, Ogilvy, Lois, Trott, and the rest...and perhaps sooner than we think, it'll be eating all of our lunches.