Beating AI by Being Stupid Smart

The human factor still computes

Think about the best advertisement you’ve ever seen. I'm willing to bet it was your favorite because it made you laugh; and unless you’re the sophisticated type, maybe it was even a little stupid. If you ask me, the best work always is. It's human. It's also the secret to outlasting AI. We might not be able to outsmart it, but we can dig deep into our innate human sensibilities.

In some ways, AI is a saving grace. It's been a godsend for Photoshop comps. It can be our get-out-of-jail free-card for tough briefs. Plug in the data and the problem, and it spits out a solution. While AI can certainly help get us started on a brief, it can only take us so far. The problem with having a computer do your work is that a computer does the work. The results can seem sterile and to the point. Do they address the problem? Yes. Are they interesting? No. At least, not always. Which is to be expected. You know any robots with a good sense of humor? 

As helpful as AI is, I don't see it as a threat to the work of a human hand. The best work reflects human nature, which can't be easily replicated. AI can churn out work that is accurate, but it doesn't have a soul. That's a battle every creative team has to fight, human or otherwise. Have you just answered the brief? Or have you found the heart?

It's easy to settle on the answer that satisfies the brief. It's harder to find the insight that connects with us in a new fashion. I always push my creative team to find the angle that is weird and off-beat. We keep going back to the drawing board until we find the approach that is so simple and smart that we almost feel stupid for not thinking of it to begin with. To us, such work is actually brilliant. Stupid, in this case, only means it's human—which means it's really smart. 

All we have to do is tap into our humanity. These are the key lessons I instill in my  team to help them find it. 

AI can't jump in a pool

AI doesn't know what it's like to feel silly, or scared, or romantic. AI doesn't have a favorite brand of cereal or know what it's like to jump into a pool with all of your clothes on. It's never fallen off a bike or experienced the true satisfaction of seeing another human unexpectedly fall down in public. The best advertising is able to tap into the human experience, something AI by nature cannot do. There is something deeply human about creating work that leans into humor and silliness. 

I tell young creatives: Always search for the "so what?" The cereal tastes delicious….so what? Usually the first few ideas are so smart and targeted that the end result is boring. That's when I push them to give me something more, to stretch past the things we don't care about. Once we can get through that it's about angling toward memorable notions that connect people to the brand. 

It's that last step that separates human concepts from computer-driven ideas. That's where the award-winning, stupid-smart work lives. It's where owls lick lollipops and soup cans follow kids home from the grocery store. 

Don't stop at the first good idea

Building a team with the fearlessness to get to this point is imperative. It doesn't matter how talented or quick-witted they are (even though that helps) if they won't keep trying. 

This lesson is especially challenging once you’ve gotten past the bad ideas and start to generate good ones. These are ideas that reflect the brief and will satisfy the client; the ideas that will make someone chuckle but quickly fade from memory. When I worked on Skittles, we wrote around 150 scripts for every one that actually got produced. It takes guts to move on from a good idea in pursuit of a great one, but you have to if you want to create truly breakthrough work.

You're a human who buys things, too

The easiest way to get caught up in an idea that is too smart to be interesting is to forget that you are a consumer. If we were selling a brand of delicious corn puffs, I'd tell the creatives: Don't forget that you buy delicious corn puffs, too. If the concept isn't interesting enough to make you buy a new brand of cereal, it's a dud. It can be easy to get caught up in the data and sharing the details of why the product is great. It doesn't matter if your product is the best thing on market, though, if your ad doesn't connect with the person watching it. 

The best ads aren't about proving why your product is the best. They're about connecting with other humans. 

We aren't creating ads for aliens. We all know someone who fits the demographic we're targeting. If it's not you, think of your little brother or next-door neighbor. That person should always be in the back of your head. We should make sure the ideas we pursue are entertaining to us or the people close to us.

Don't advertise. Entertain.

Often, creatives find themselves talking to executives who spend a lot of time and money on research and data that support why their product is the best. Unfortunately, many people find statistics boring. When we're too dialed-in on the brief, it's easy to end up communicating and not entertaining.

It's hard to build a brand with straightforward facts. The job isn't done when you come up with a way to communicate facts. That's when we get lazy, and AI has the potential to make the worst of us even lazier. The data and the strategy are so important—but when we get in front of consumers, we can't forget that our most important job is to connect, and this is hard to do if the work isn't compelling. 

In order to entertain, lean into the human spirit. Create work that you would be interested in. Push for the ideas beyond the comfortable ones. Use your emotion and instinct to answer "so what?"

So, the next time you sit down to write about those golden, crispy french fries, don’t forget to be a human. Don't forget you're talking to other humans.

Most importantly, get a little stupid. 

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Craig Allen
Craig Allen is founder and CCO of Callen.

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