Creative Automation: Software is coming for creative jobs.

There’s a narrative rolling around the tech world and some political circles about the future of work — that many jobs will be displaced in the next ten to fifteen years. The story usually starts with driverless technology and the trucking industry or perhaps digital assistants and AI’s coming servitude. Another outcome of the coming technical revolution hasn’t been shared as frequently and that is that many jobs that will be replaced by software are white collar jobs. And what I see no one saying is this: many creative jobs are on the cutting block.

Just a few years ago, you needed a friend with photoshop to execute something this simple. Now you can go to gifless.com and make eye-catching gifs in actual seconds. What’s more interesting is the limited choices provided by this tool create bumpers for non-designers and whatever you make ends up looking good.

I see two sides to this transition. As a creative consultant to often cash-strapped organizations and non-profits who find it hard to attract high quality creative talent, the rise of software solutions to meet the production demands of digital organizing teams is a blessing. As a former designer and friend to many creative teams in advertising, entertainment, and politics, I worry about the future employment of lots of people I know and many trying to get into the field right now.

I’ve spent my creative career in entertainment consumer products, politics, and advertising so this is written with a view into those industries. The coming automations, though, will impact all digitally-based creative roles.

Political Content

This administration has certainly shaken creative talent out of their safety nets of corporate or agency life and given them the fire they need to apply for jobs in politics. The designers looking to work for political organizations right now are the best pool of talent I’ve ever seen. But the few who make it through the interview processes, who commit to the lower pay typical in political or advocacy work, and who become the next wave of leaders in political design will be just that…a few.

“Competitive compensation is critical to winning today’s tug-of-war for skilled creative talent. It’s also a company’s best line of defense against losing top performers.” — The Creative Group

Political and advocacy groups are finding it incredibly hard to attract top creative talent. Many cannot pay to compete with technology companies or corporations or even the consulting firms that serve them. It used to be that the best creative minds went to NYC to work in advertising or LA to work in Hollywood. Now, they go to SF to work in tech…and some of them are literally designing their future peers out of jobs.

But not every great designer wants to figure out how to make the most frictionless button. Some want to use that thinking and apply it to voter mobilization or campaign fundraising. Unfortunately, these designers are few and far between.

The majority of organizations and campaigns will be staffing up with production-focused designers who have little to no experience and potentially no formal training. This hiring practice is common in politics (and the reason politics isn’t typically on the radar of a super-talented recent graduate). Campaigns and advocacy groups need people with basic technical creative skills to execute designs or videos as part of organizing or fundraising efforts.

The 2016 US presidential election and the resulting reviews of content, digital advertising, and Cambridge Analytica gave us a preview into the future of creative automation and it’s impact on politics. Cambridge Analytica is stated to have run as many as 50,000 ad variations a day and upwards of 175,000 on the day of the third presidential debate. Designers cannot produce that many variations without software to assist. Ad traffickers cannot manage that many A/B tests without software. Cambridge Analytica fell apart in the years since because of how they got their data. Exactly how they executed those campaigns still hasn’t fully come to light and that is reason enough to believe that the software will be used again and has likely evolved. (This is assuming that they used software and not a content farm, which might be too generous an assumption.)

Photo by Daniel Jacobs on Unsplash

Agencies

Similarly, marketing agencies and creative shops, especially those working in digital ad production or content marketing have to staff up with design, video, and writing talent to produce the work they’ve committed to do for their clients. These are the jobs that will first be replaced.

Design as a career continues to have very low unemployment rates. 2018 is a designer’s market. And while it sounds like there is an opportunity to build a career, I think that this will be short-lived. The gap between talent availability and the needs of organizations to execute digital content production is the gap that technology will begin to fill first. Design and content production will soon be handled by software.

Resizing digital ads is a skill of the past. Most digital ad production can be done utilizing software that doesn’t require an Adobe license or a design degree. Video iterations can be tailored and executed via software that will then serve the right video to the right audience. Agencies that continue to staff for these production roles are missing the writing on the wall and their bottom lines will pay for it in the years to come as production needs continue to grow to satiate the addicted users on the other end of an ever-crowded digital environment.

As the agency model continues to evolve, some big brands are slashing digital advertising budgets or setting up their own in-house teams so they can keep closer tabs on the creative and marketing processes. The ones who invest in the right ad tech now will save tremendous amounts in agency fees and talent costs in the next decade all while continuing to produce the marketing assets needed today.

Photo by Jonny Clow on Unsplash

Creative Automation

The explanation of the five autonomous driving levels is a perfect analogy for the creative automation that is coming.

Level 1 — (Creative Assistance) 

Software can assist but the employee is making the creative choices.

This type of software assistance has been growing for the past decade, lead by Adobe. To watch Photoshop develop from Photoshop 9 at my first ad agency in 2004 to Photoshop CC 2018 in my current iteration has turned me into one of those people who say “back in my day, I had to…” From rulers and alignments, to predictive background fills, software continues to make production faster and easier.

Canva is probably a level 1.5 product that allows users to drag and drop elements of their own or play within existing templates to create digital products. More often used by non-designers, they’ve made a lot of progress in the last 6 years, in terms of quality and professionalism of the content that can be produced using their software.

InvisionApp is another web-based application designers use — often UX and UI designers — that aids in the design production process by providing a wysisyg interface for designers to lean on to quickly prototype their application or web product workflow.

Level 2 — (Partial Automation)

Software assists with production but the decisions are still required by the creative employee.

A great example of partial automation happening in creative production is social media content tools like Hootsuite, CoSchedule, or Tweetdeck. These allow the content manager to plan the full month of content, set it all up, and let it run. Some even provide shortcuts to templatize the content creation process, regenerating or reposting previously written content.

Adobe’s Spark can produce professional looking digital content with just a few key inputs from a team — a logo, a tagline. It lets users pick from a few pre-designed looks and it begins to populate social ads, videos, banners — anything, without needing more design software.

IBM and Shutterstock recently announced a partnership to offer a similar solution. Their version connects users to Shutterstock’s deep trove of imagery and music scores to help teams create full professional quality campaigns in their content hub. Just like Spark, they’ve got all of the practical elements taken care of.

Level 3 — (Conditional Automation)

Conditional production is the beginning of software-aided hyper-targeted creative.

Spongecell allows agencies to run dynamic ads that can adjust by data points in the users’ browser. Upload a few different background images and a matrix of copy and button language, and their software can match the right message, image, and button to a user in Florida sunshine and send a completely different ad to someone in Colorado’s latest blizzard.

Google has been running conditional banner units for politics for at least two cycles. For example, a unit will say “7 days until election day” on a certain day and then switch programmatically to “6 days until election day” the next day. This is conditional in the sense that it uses variables to determine when to combine different pre-designed elements, saving production and trafficking time.

Flexitive is software that can take a background image or video, text, and a button, and then resize that layout across any number of sizes and deliverable specs. They’re not the only player (Bannerwise, Makethunder, etc.) in the space but they are growing quickly and will soon be the type of software that takes the jobs of anyone who is manually resizing banner ads in Photoshop.

Level 4 — (High Automation)

Software is driving the decision making process and must alert the user of problems to allow the user to troubleshoot or take over.

This is where we are today. The combination of programmatic ad buying, machine learning applied to reporting, and software-driven content production (with a social listening component and bot-driven writing) means that a brand or company could train software to develop, run, and re-tool campaigns to continually optimize creative and refresh it automatically when a predetermined threshold has been met or a limited return has been reached.

The creative team member’s role will be to establish loose visual brand parameters, perhaps help with the brand voice, or doubling back on social listening results to be sure that the appropriate input for content is making it into the loop. There is no more designing and pixel pushing. The stories and content being shared will be determined by data — matching the right narrative to the user based on the data points we have on that user and then targeting lookalikes and tweaking the narratives, language, imagery, audio, impressions, channels, etc. from the last data point until we’ve reached every user in the required universe with the exact number of units needed to persuade each and every user to take an action.

Adobe is a company I would keep a close eye on for this kind of software. With their creative and marketing products, plus they’ve picked up commerce and voice companies in the last year, they’re sitting on a pile of tech that has every bit of potential to automate much, if not all, of the digital marketing toolkit. All the usual suspects are playing in this space too- Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Salesforce, etc.

Others could, of course, be working on this but I would imagine they will leverage it like Cambridge did, in a consultancy capacity rather than standing up self-serve software. Either way, creative employees have limited opportunities inside of marketing teams that use software or consultants capable of this highly-automated digital marketing.

Level 5 — (Complete Automation)

In creative production, this would be when an input such as a revenue goal or awareness initiative is plugged into software that can then source and produce all the necessary assets for a compelling digital campaign, run the ads, and report back and set up a new flight based on performance metrics from the first flight.

We’re not here, yet. But there’s no doubt that this what IBM, Adobe, Microsoft, and others are working toward. They’d be crazy not to.

This study by Oxford and Yale polled AI experts and they landed on 11 years before a computer can generate video from text input.

By the time that digital marketing software reaches completely automated creative production, there will be no jobs left for today’s designers, social media writers, or video producers.

Once software is capable of taking away many digital creative jobs in entertainment, advertising, or politics, what’s to stop the companies that created it from creating software that can write the next best selling novel (33 years — says that same study) or produce the next top 40 hit (11 years)?

+Level 6 — (AI)

There’s no analogous level for vehicles, thankfully, but this level could exist for a blip if any of Nick Bostrom’s thoughts about a superintelligent AI come true. In theory, an AI would create digital content from concepts to execution to launch to achieve it’s own objectives on it’s way to total galaxy domination. If we reach this level of AI, we will have much bigger things to worry about than retraining creative staff.

Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash

Future creative endeavors

While I see a coming reduction in the number of employees it will take to produce digital marketing campaigns in the next decade, not all jobs will go away. I would anticipate entertainment heavy weights, large political organizations, and some advocacy groups (the ones with significant funding) to join corporate digital frontrunners and their agencies in testing and refining the software that will produce the massive campaigns of the future.

But small agencies will be slower to implement automated creative tools. Much like there are still talented humans who hand-paint signs, there will also be talented designers who can design something more beautiful and more original than what software might produce. There are two keys to being employed in such a capacity — your work has to perform better than software-generated creative work and you have to be able to justify your costs.

For the many of us who have enjoyed the social perks of being that friend who is good at Photoshop, exchanging a random t-shirt design for some other favor in return, our days of technical and creative superiority are numbered. The kids coming out of the the “good design schools” might understand the nuances of typography or principles of design better than the kids coming out of online bootcamps, but their portfolios are starting to look more and more alike.

Creative talent must recognize that all the software that has helped them get better, faster, and produce more work will soon take away their ability to get a job. The production tricks provided by software is closing the gap between mastery of execution skills and good taste more quickly than ever. But fear not, original thinking hasn’t been programmed. Not yet, anyway.

If you want to feel passionate about your job, work in politics.

Imagine a US where everyone votes in local and national elections. Imagine a world where high school graduates work paid fellowships in local government or on a campaign before going to college. Or where all college graduates begin their careers in politics or public service.

Of course it’s hard to imagine this.

Political jobs are, by nature, temporary. They often require long hours. And the pay is usually in the range of free to not great. Scripted television tells us that people who work in politics are crazy smart, talk fast, are usually white, and have degrees from the best colleges around the country. While these stereotypes represent some people in politics, they are by no means representative of the thousands of people who will work in electoral politics this election year.

Political work often gets a bad rap. I, for one, was totally turned off by the idea early in my career. When I think about it, it was really the tv ads and many politicians themselves that did it for me.

That said, political work, especially paid political work, is the ultimate win-win set up for an employee or a campaign and furthermore for the community that a candidate or cause intends to serve.

Political work offers a form of identity and a higher sense of purpose. High school and college graduates seeking their first full-time jobs should look to local organizations or campaigns for ways to get engaged in their communities and actively create the future of the place they call home. Aligning work with passion gives you a reason to get up every day, roll up your sleeves, and do the work. And politics depends on and desperately needs people from local communities to bring their whole selves to work each day. Politics is better and more effective for us all when you share whatever it is that matters to you and your friends right now.

Working in politics can provide a huge stepping stone to a career or opportunities for entrepreneurship. The range of skills needed on even the smallest campaigns range from technology and data to writing and creating videos. Campaigns need people to help online and offline, too. They need all kinds of individuals to organize local events, to help making sure those events run smoothly. They need people to stand at the farmers market and pass out flyers or organize volunteers who will knock on every door on the block. No one person has all of those skills or time to do everything— it takes a team. Political or issue-based campaign work is a great way to connect the dots between what you learned in school and real life practice. It’s also a great way to get some experience and decide what you actually like doing. Or if you’ve been in the workforce for a while or maybe you took a break from working full time, political work is a great way to reconnect with your community and pick up new skills at the same time.

Many campaigns need more resources than they can staff so they outsource different elements of the campaign to freelancers, consultants, or agencies. This is where the opportunity for entrepreneurship comes in. For example, if you spend a 18-months on a small campaign as a digital staffer and learn how to build really great websites, you could spend the next campaign season working for multiple campaigns in your same region doing nothing but websites. Or maybe you are great at organizing people in the moment — you could be a local volunteer organizer that different organizations and groups could call on to help them with their events.

look at that helpful turtle

Finally, nothing is more rewarding than building lasting change in your own community. Whether your work changes the conversation around an issue or your work helps elect someone with great ideas, the time you spend on a campaign impacts you and the people around you. Your neighbors. Your family and friends. You will work with your community, for your community, in your community, and you will make life-long friends along the way.

If you’re seeking to find more happiness and fulfillment in your work life, consider a job in politics. If self-driven careerism doesn’t fill you with joy, consider political work. If you want to get up and do something, anything, to make our country better today and tomorrow, politics is a great place to spend that energy. All are welcome and all are needed.

Why I started a job board to help more people work in politics

I’m Elizabeth Eadie and more than likely you don’t know me. I want to help digital talent around the country find good paying jobs in politics so I started a simple job board. Here’s why it’s needed:

Though I fancy myself an outsider, having only worked in politics for five years and having had two other creative chapters in my professional life before doing so, I’m currently in the weeds of digital politics. I don’t have tons of online followers. Politico doesn’t celebrate my birthday. And I haven’t had a high profile job that writes me a one-way ticket to whatever I want for the rest of my career.

before I updated the party’s branding, standing way behind the scenes

If you’ve kept up with digital politics in the last five years, however, you know my work. You also know the work of many people I’ve mentored and championed in politics. I’m part of a huge wave of digitally skilled people working to elect Democrats across the country. My peers in this line of work are exceptionally talented, passionate individuals who I feel fortunate to work with.

Because I had some significant experience before working in politics, I was able to position myself in a senior level job from my entrance. I was the creative director at the DNC from 2013–2015. Design had a major role in politics long before I showed up. I like to think that my friends and I utilized design in more effective ways during those years as we reached new fundraising heights, never before seen outside of a presidential cycle. When you can tie your skill to actual dollars, people notice.

I was quickly able to hire a team and the work we were doing began to be sought after by other organizations, state parties, down-ballot races, and other committees.

details about the great things happening in each state thanks to Obamacare

I was grateful for being able to build a team inside the DNC and had a strong point of view about how I was going to do it. I was not going to hire a single “political designer” full-stop. I was going to recruit from great design schools because I’d rather teach a passionate and talented designer about politics than teach an average designer who knows politics how to be more inspired.

Finally, I was going to make sure I hired people better than me. I knew that I’d made a ripple as a team of one, but I wanted my team to make waves and if I let my ego stand in the way of that, the whole party would suffer. The work we created together certainly made waves.

But it’s not just the work that gets noticed. People get noticed, too. Those designers that joined the team in the ’14 cycle became leaders in the field. One was recruited to become Hillary Clinton’s first design hire and spent 18 months on the campaign. One went to work for the super exclusive advertising agency, Huge. And one stayed and was promoted to art director where she got to build her own team and shape the direction of the party’s designs.

sorry we put gifs in email but they’re way more fun now?

One of the coolest things about demonstrating the immense value of diverse hiring, recruiting from outside, and hiring for raw talent is that once you do it, there is a domino effect of others repeating the process. When the art director got to build her team, she did the same thing.

After those first few years as creative director, I was promoted to deputy digital director where I got a more broad view of staffing throughout our digital team. This is where things got interesting. In addition to hiring for our own staff, I noticed that opportunities and candidates are passed around for all kinds of roles, inside and outside of the committee. When I later moved over to a political advertising agency and joined their senior staff, the same thing was happening there.

Organizations, agencies, committees, and campaigns are all well aware of the need to bring in new talent but so many fall into the same traps of yesteryear. They recruit from a few schools in DC. They send around job openings to listservs and share in random google docs that only certain insiders even know about. Some put money behind postings and promote them on LinkedIn or other huge national career sites. But worst of all, they email their networks.

That has always bothered me the most. The emails usually originate from a white male in a senior role and the job opening gets disseminated through his network which includes a bunch more white males, maybe some white women, and if they’re lucky, a person of color. That’s what leadership looks like right now in too many organizations. (HT to the DNC for working to change this)

So, here is the crux of why I started this job board:

Digital political jobs should be listed publicly and easy to find.

We should hire people outside of our networks.

Simple, huh? But somehow it’s not. Some people might feel resistance to this openness. They might prefer pre-vetted candidates because it saves them time from early vetting themselves. They might like pedigree and familiarity. A stamp of approval that says this person will fall in line.

But those are not Democratic party values. And it’s not what’s going to help us win 2018 and 2020. We need more voices at the table to challenge our thinking and open our minds and hearts to their points of view. Organizations and agencies and committees are actively working to hire to align with the values they espouse.

Our teams need to look and sound like our constituencies.

There are a few job boards in DC that even require job hunters to pay for access — that blows my mind. Talent has the upper hand these days. Especially the diverse digitally-skilled talent pool. Everyone in Democratic politics knows they need more people from diverse backgrounds and points of view to staff their campaigns.

my President, my roots, and myself

Furthermore, digital skills allow for remote work and politics is finally starting to catch up. Digital jobs have historically been in-house until just this cycle. So finally, if you have the right skills but don’t want to move to DC, you can find a job in digital politics and plant yourself online from the comfort of your home. With DC being one of the most expensive cities in the US, I wouldn’t blame someone in Florida or Arkansas for wanting to make an impact from where they already are.

As digital skills take on more of the campaign functions and digital leaders move into campaign manager roles, Democrats around the country and organizations supporting them will have no choice but to swing the door wide open to talent in order to staff the many roles needing to be filled in the next two cycles.

This job board is for those digital staffers, wherever they are. If they want to find a paying job in politics, this is a job board that can help them do that. I started this job board to show everyone what opportunities are out there, no matter how connected they may be to current digital leaders. Yes, I want to help the party. Yes, I want to staff up all of these organizations, agencies, and committees. But most importantly, I want to connect digital talent with work that they will find engaging and rewarding. With new talent on our teams, we will be better positioned to make a difference in the 2018 cycle and beyond.

You can see the latest postings for digital political jobs anytime you want right here. Or if you’re busy, get weekly updates via email.


Elizabeth is a creative political consultant who is also working to change the talent pipeline in progressive digital politics.