It may be Big. But is it clever?

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Something is amiss in the world of commercial creativity. There’s a lot of the commercial. But only a little creativity. And it seems to be a broader trend…

Rick Rubin — the a celebrated music producer for everyone from the Bestie Boys to Johnny Cash to Adele to Kanye to Metallica to Tyler the Creator to Eminem. Yes a broad, but universally successful portfolio — has just released a book on creativity. Here he expounds on all matters centred around ‘the creative act’ (the title of the tome). He argues that creativity is not the preserve of the few, but open to all, if only they remain able to tap into it.

Oxford University has just received it’s largest single donation since the Renaissance. U.S. billionaire Stephen Schwarzman donated $188.75 million (£150 million) to fund humanities research. The university, famous for 927 years of academia has taken the cash specifically to promote and understand the thinking that needs to take place before A.I. can or should be developed and deployed. To be clear — that’s £150million to teach PHILOSOPHY. The possibilities behind the technical A.I. uprising are not being well enough contemplated it seems…


While silicon strategies laser-focus on profits and efficiency — the new funding looks at ideas and theories. ‘I realised that [Oxfords] capabilities in humanities played right into my concerns about what happens when you introduce AI globally. What happens to the displacement of workers — all these unexpected consequences?’ Ruminated Schwarzman. ChatGPT has already began radically disrupting teachers workloads, with students rustling up 1000 word A** responses via a couple of prompts fed into a warm iPhone.

As widely reported, A.I. is rapidly starting to challenge what it means to be human. It’s changing most aspects of our lives. From travel to entertainment, from our health and well-being to the future of work and manufacturing, AI will, most likely redefine the way we live, work, and interact. But while it marches onwards there’s an idea missing — And that idea is, ‘Is this a good idea?’

Thinking, rather than doing seems to be missing in so many new endeavours. The algorithms, that point us towards the endless online scroll, towards the dull yet addictive plod of bland TV is stupefying a majority. These eat-the-whole-carton-in-one-night-vanilla outcomes leave us instantly full, but looking to open the next pot soon after. In the face of endless slick-looking, but intellectually bereft content, the tap of creativity appears to be increasingly hard to operate, particularly and ironically for those paid to be in the creative industries. I’ll be even more specific. Notably those in visual branding and digital channels.

At SomeOne we routinely conduct audits of sectors before we start work on creating new thinking for specific brands. This is not unique. What is equally common is the amount of times we conclude that ‘everything looks the same’ sector wide, ie: EVERY TIME.

From Law to Finance to Retail to Charity. Walls of flat colour. Warm messaging. Meaningless squiggles. Abstract shapes. Friendly fonts. Kind sounding brand names. You can see the ‘best practice’ recommendations falling from the mouths of the various consultants as you see yet another series of webpages that start with a carousel, then fall to reasons to believe, then a little ‘background’ info. And while the data may show smoother click-through to purchase — it also removes any kind of memorable brand experience.

Big is being regularly confused with clever. We’ve all seen the awards show where a big brand has won over smarter, smaller work. I literally saw a design firm walk off with a gong for simply applying very big logos to very big walls and buildings. There was nothing else to it. But it won over a smaller more creatively-led project. It used to be ideas that ruled the roost. What’s changed?

Hollywood is in the grasp of an ongoing intellectual death spiral. Immense budgets seen on the likes of Avatar 2 lead to inevitably painful profit demands. The residents of Pandora needed to see c$1,400,000,000 BEFORE they see any profit. That’s 1.4 billion dollars. Only when you see all those zeros — do you get an idea of the challenge ahead for any brand, product, service, experience that embraces the less intellectually stimulating path of explosions and aesthetics. The massive gambles (Avatar 2 cost c£250m) often seem to pay — but those gambles are not without risk and you do of course need the quarter of a billion to begin with — but woe betide the exec team that bets the ranch on the wrong rollercoaster.

Naturally there are still moments of new creative brilliance — The Disney+ platform pulled out a documentary on Wrexham FC netting a reported £430k profit per episode (there are 18 — with a new series on the way) A bung of £7,740,000 for The Mouse — after everyone got paid. Plus incredible sponsorship deals are the team towards their bigger sporting dream. All driven by Ryan Reynolds and ‘the other bloke’s’ celebrity pull and marketing panache.

But this flair of intellect seems to be sadly lacking nearer home in the branding and digital realms. The universal appeal of Hollywood explosions runs in parallel with the majority of low-brow work presented to clients with an apparent appetite for the same flat colours, obvious logos and faux-kind copywriting. While a few visible concepts still surface (witness the beautifully crafted National Trust work or Scouts by Bristol’s Supple Studio) — the visual-wit so apparent in design days past, looks to be lost and lacking in today’s landscape.

National Trust work by Supple Studio

Ideas used to be the gold creates sought out. Entertaining, smart, memorable — the stuff that Alan Fletcher lined the pages of seminal design book ‘Smile in the mind’ with. Now… only a very few appear to carry the torch of thinking. Notably, the top flight Ad agencies seem to be some of the last carriers dedicated to the the pursuit of the thinking over just doing. Rory Sutherland and the Behavioural Change crew at Ogilvy and VCCP’s thought leadership team ‘The Collaborative’ are amongst AdLand crews doing work that is entirely intellectual and able to bring about profits through thoughts.

Looking at recent Social Media Storms — DesignTwitter in particular has re-engaged in sparky chats over the slightest possible hint of copy-catting, rather than look at bigger strategic positions.

‘Strategy’ in most design companies appears to be largely outsourced to Freddy the freelancer rather than embraced by the many. This seems mad to me. The foundation of ideas are delegated to those not seated in the company commissioned to make them? What hope is there for genuine behaviour changing thinking if the idea starts off divorced from the visual and verbal language needed to land it?

As Davina McCall discussed recently on an explosive edition of Diary of a CEO — cancel culture has lead to vast swathes of otherwise compelling ideas being driven to closed corridor conversations rather than any kind of publicly witnessed debate. Perhaps design companies are running scared, fearful of showcasing thinking that risks being rejected in favour of dumbed down crowdpleasers.

It still strikes me that a great idea, poorly executed, will win over a brilliant, slick, but ultimately ‘dumb thought.

In fact, in a world looking for better odds when it comes to the launching, relaunching and management of products, organisations and services — it’s far easier to win when the idea underpinning the endeavour resonates with audiences before they are even reveal themselves.