Art Copy Code

Code and Creativity

This post is an adapted and extended version of one of our monthly tech columns written for Marketing Magazine. The original article appeared in Marketing on July 28th, 2014.

Illustration for Griffin Farley’s Beautiful Minds, by Kate Moross, Breed.

Recently I’ve been perplexed why a debate still rages in the marketing ether around whether code can truly be creative, so I’m going to try to put a simple point of view down here and see how it goes.

Clue: if you’re already convinced the answer is yes, you can stop reading now.

One of the reasons I work in a creative agency is our shared ambition to, well, create. That word is loaded with meaning: to give birth to, to produce, to make, to originate something new. How that gets done inevitably changes over time, as tools and methods rise and fall. But mankind has been drawing pictures, writing and making music for millennia, and, it’s fair to say, we’ve got pretty damn good at doing all of the above. What’s more, art, copy and audio are so highly valued we don’t question them: all are taught in schools, with music, art and books sold in galleries, shops and gigs the world over.

In purely creative terms, of course code is in its infancy by comparison. And with the notable exception of gaming, what we’ve been able to create for mass consumption with code has lent itself first to utility: for example, allowing us to invent new forms of message transmission, news sharing sites and, indeed, provided us with new ways to distribute all that delightful art, copy and sound.

Yet I’m certain that the best new expressions of creativity are born of art, copy, sound and code, together.

Why? Because at the root of all creativity is a burning desire to create something original, to offer something better than the thing that came before. With code added to the creative canvas, we can achieve this in ways we have never experienced before. In other words, the opportunities to be original and different have exploded, whether you’re in film, fashion or fmcg.

So you may be reading this and thinking, ‘ah yes, more opportunities for originality, sure, but will it be any good?’. Can code move people to feel something, to make them laugh or cry, or suddenly to see a situation differently? Or is code still just about new ways to distribute the photography, writing, music and film we know and love?

I was a member of the Cannes Lions Cyber jury this summer where, sure enough, some of the best work showed a strong grasp of how to use digital to drive performance (where the definition of performance goes beyond ‘effectiveness’ to the pro-active planning, deployment and optimisation of brand activity – all enabled by technology).

By way of illustration, Volvo Trucks’ “Live Test Series” understood that YouTube’s algorithm rewards ‘total watched time with a channel’ and this helped the brand build a relationship with its audience over time. ‘Epic Split’ was a phenomenal piece of film content, but it was also the sixth in a series. Millions had watched other live tests and clicked to watch more, creating a virtuous circle where the brand earned the right to show up in more related videos. As Matt Locke puts it so succinctly some years ago now: “design for circulation, not distribution”.

However, the very best interactive work won this year because of something else in addition to well-drilled performance.

The likes of 24hoursofhappy.com for Pharrell, ‘Sound of Honda/Ayrton Senna 1989’ ‘Scarecrow’ for Chipotle and BBH New York’s own ‘Greatness’ for Playstation are simply great ideas, crafted with immaculate and loving care. Other examples include the creation of a credible, artificial child (‘Sweetie’) by Terre des Hommes Netherlands as part of its campaign to track down webcam paedophiles, and ‘Killing Kennedy’ for The National Geographic Channel which interweaves the stories of both Kennedy and his killer as one seamless and immersive online piece.

All break new ground in technological terms, all are ideas where code plays an essential part. But, above all, they evoke a powerful emotional reaction which creates a relationship with the brand. That, I would wager, is the very definition of creativity.

Three more examples of this in action if you’re looking for inspiration:

1. Digital Revolution exhibition @ Barbican in London, 3 July – 14 September 2o14

Includes astonishing displays like Umbrellium’s interactive 3D laser light field, ‘The Treachery of Sanctity’ by Chris Milk, as well as DevArt which incorporates four brand new installations commissioned by Google and Barbican to explore creative uses of code. If you’re in London, go see it before it closes in September.

2. Art, Copy, Code

Closer to home and mentioned before on this blog, Google’s ‘series of experiments to reimagine advertising’ including Burberry Kisses and most recently Nike Phenomenal Shot. The initiative’s inspiration comes from the creative revolution of the 1960s when art directors and copy writers were paired up together, having previously sat on separate floors of the print agencies where they worked. As they put it: “Today, we’re in the midst of a second creative revolution, driven by technology. Code is being added to the core creative process.”

3. New Revolutionaries (Decoded & BBH London event)

In late June this year we co-hosted with the good folks at Decoded an evening event at BBH London that we hope to repeat in future. It was designed to bring together and celebrate the polymaths and collaborators who are transforming their industries through creative uses of technology and vice versa; featuring installations and talks from the likes of Brooke Roberts, Yuri Suzuki, Framestore, Onedotzero and more.

Jeremy Langmead (newly appointed Chief Content Officer at Christie’s, ex-Mr Porter) opened the evening in conversation with Wired UK Publisher, Rupert Turnbull. Jeremy spoke openly about category naivety allowing you to break new ground, noting that any new leader has to be able to invite people with radically different skillsets into a room and to have the flair to multiply technical and creative skills together.

Framestore’s Mike McGee then told the backstories to their work on Gravity and Audrey Hepburn for Galaxy chocolate (the fact actors can now be essentially re-created led him to muse how it may become the norm in future to ‘licence’ their image for films created long after they’re dead…), as well as their astonishing ‘Ascend the Wall‘ work for Oculus Rift for Game of Thrones.

Above all, both speakers were interesting and interested. Whether you’re a creative-tech polymath or a collaborator capable of pulling different skills together, in many ways, it struck me, it doesn’t get much more complicated than that.

Jeremy Langmead (Christie’s) & Rupert Turnbull (Wired UK) in conversation at New Revolutionaries

Mike McGee talking through the creative technology involved in creating ‘Gravity’