The robots are here, but creativity can fend them off

Data is the fuel and creativity is the engine, says Barri Rafferty, partner, president and CEO of Ketchum.

Getty Images
Getty Images

There’s no doubt data and artificial intelligence are changing the face of employment. According to a recent study, 45% of American jobs are at risk of being automated within 20 years.

For evidence, look no further than the autonomous vehicle — a technology we already see on our roads. Is it implausible to imagine a world without taxi and ride-sharing drivers, truck and delivery drivers, or ship and airline captains?

Few debate the impact that analytics, machine learning and related technologies will have on nearly every facet of our economy and, as a result, the way we work. Many argue the impact is already being felt.

But what about our industry, the business of content, influence and creativity? It’s easy to believe that the creative jobs we view as fundamentally human in nature, are safe from robots and AI. But machines have already shown they can handle certain aspects of these tasks as well.

In 2015, NPR reporter Scott Horsley raced an AI program to write an article about a company’s quarterly results. He finished the article in seven minutes flat. But the software, dubbed Wordsmith, completed it in two. Today, many news outlets use AI to put out factual information.

There’s no doubt data and AI will dramatically augment some of the more pedestrian tasks of PR and journalism. But I believe human creativity will remain a key business differentiator.

In fact, I see creativity as an incredible growth area at Ketchum. Creativity boils down to human resonance, imagination and the ability to emote. It means thinking strategically and designing campaigns with empathy and compassion, understanding what’s fundamentally human about any given product or service, and then sharing that with consumers in a way that provokes action.

Here’s why I believe PR is mostly safe from robots, for now:

Data is the fuel. Creativity is the engine. I know many creatives who still prefer to follow their instincts rather than allowing data to be their muse. Some even resent data’s imposition into the process.

This notion of data as constraint must change. When we acknowledge the symbiotic relationship between data and creativity, an evolution occurs in an idea’s ability to affect change.

Data has opened a floodgate understanding about consumer sentiment. It can map out where the customer journey begins and ends allowing us to zero in on the optimal point to make a sale.

Data has identified fringe but powerful groups of loyal consumers and brand advocates. And it shines a light on user experience, making it easy to spot the preferences and passions of people as they digest paid content.

Not arming yourself with that power and insight is industry suicide. Data will soon fuel nearly all creative ideation designed to provoke action and drive purchase.

Creative expression remains an intrinsically human pursuit. We’d be naive to think machines can’t evolve to learn, and even master, their own version of creative expression. But I believe human creativity will always win the day over its computational counterpart.

If anything, I imagine this wave of data and automation will allow us to be more creative in all facets of life. It’s already happening: silicon Valley startups are hire science-fiction writers as product developers. Origami practitioners are helping design retractable solar panels for NASA satellites.

Technological and creative innovation are becoming intrinsically linked. The brightest creative ideas are being born from data, and technological advancements are being born from creativity.

We are so much more than imitation and memorization. We have an innate ability to perceive the world around us. Our use of creativity to reinvent and express those experiences is leading the way.

Perhaps Robin Williams said it best speaking as the character Sean Maguire in the movie Good Will Hunting. Talking to Matt Damon’s character Will Hunting, a teen prodigy with little life experience, Williams said, "If I asked you about art you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written… but you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel."

Barri Rafferty is partner, president and CEO of Ketchum. Follow her on Twitter at @barrirafferty.

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