Nick Law: embracing a new age of digital creativity

Creativity is a core skill to navigate digital change — and yet is too often misunderstood. As Nick Law explains, creativity is deeply rooted in a medium, and great leaders understand that.

Nick Law is Global Lead for Design and Creative Tech at Accenture Song. In the fourth episode of the NEXT–SHOW series 5, he explored how creativity shifts with new technology — and what core principles remain the same.

Watch the complete episode

Nick’s career has straddled the pre- and post-internet era, which has granted him an unusual and valuable perspective on how creativity has changed. And that view is invaluable as Generative AI changes the paradigm yet again.

“My early craft was design, and then I chose to try advertising — which, of course, horrified all of my designer friends,” says Law. “But I found that very interesting; it was a very different culture. Design had a very specific way of looking at the world and a different vernacular, a different way of describing what an idea is.”

In advertising, he encountered a whole new creativity. But another culture shock was coming: by the time he arrived in the States in the mid-90s, after his spells in Australia and London, the internet was becoming a thing.

“It became clear to me that all of these things, all of these creative crafts, were going to collapse into this new medium.”

Even in the early days, when the web was largely a “hyper-linked brochure”, he could see that the pipe would get bigger, the interfaces richer, and it would become a great canvas for new work.

A new canvas for creativity

Law’s experiences put him in a unique position to take advantage of this new canvas.

“By the time I got to RGA, which was in the early 2000s, I had this breadth of creative experiences. I had lived with different creative tribes, and I was at a place where I could see all of those things become connected.”

And what was intriguing to him about the internet then has certainly played out in the decades since. RGA, under the Greenberg brothers, made a very conscious decision to shift from being a technology and production company, that worked on things like the film titles for Alien and Ghostbusters, to the emerging internet.

“The interesting thing about the internet was that the medium changed constantly. Every six months there was a new programming language to worry about, and a new utility, and so it grew. I think that it helped that RGA came from a production background because they had a very pragmatic view on skills.”

When Flash became important, they hired animators. They built the agency stack from the bottom up, eventually reaching business transformation and start-up investing. But, in the background, a different transformation was hampering the industry’s ability to take advantage of digital.

The media/creative split

“In the late 1980s, somebody had the bright idea of separating media from creative in advertising agencies. And that’s proven to be the engine of holding companies’ profits: media,” says Law. “So it was the right decision in that sense, but it was ruinous for the creatives. Creativity is about your relationship with a medium.”

In his experience, creatives aren’t very good at coming up with ideas without pre-visualising them in a medium. Meanwhile, agencies were busy selling ideas for a new medium based on the last medium they were fluent in: broadcast.

“And so, the creatives separated from their media, and developed this strange idea that their ideas were primal, disconnected from the medium. They were, in fact, mapping against a very specific medium, broadcast, at the same time this great fragmentation was happening.”

Media habits — and potential — changed exponentially at the dawning of the digital age. And that was not a great time for creatives to detach from media.

An agency structure that works

“You know, it would have been fine if the media had been static and the language they had learnt didn’t change,” says Law. “But the internet changed everything to such an extent that it impacted their work — and their organisation.”

Even today, in many agencies, the new disciplines nest under this immutable agency structure that has its roots in the 1950s. They filter all their work through these established narratives.

“It’s basically a TV spot extruded into pixels,” he sighs. “You’re taking work designed for a medium with no interface, and putting it into a suite of mediums that are defined by interface, by how you interact with them.”

And that, for Law, is how the agency world lost its way.

Creatives elevate a new medium

“There’s a teething period of an emerging innovation, where the potential of that innovation is not completely exploited because creative people haven’t yet been introduced to it,” he says.

The early photographers were actually chemists because they had to figure out how to fix an image onto a glass plate. But then the technology is refined, and the artists come along and start creating the compositional language. But the original technologists using it had a shorthand from the old grammar. Early film was a fixed camera recording a play.

“I think that we’re at that period of the metaverse, where we’re imagining what the potential of spatial computing and blockchain and all of these things might be based on our previous experience and previous grammar.”

Imagination + New Technology = Creativity

Law believes strongly that adding imagination to emerging technologies unlocks their potential. Just doing what you did before with new technology tends not to work. That’s a reason he’s a believer in agencies led by creative people, rather than operations and financial people. Creative people can still be smart about business. He cites the example of Steve Jobs’ Apple, which was led by product people, but had an outstanding operations team, led by Tim Cook.

David Droga’s appointment as CEO of Accenture Song was a big part of the attraction in joining the company for Law. And he has very specific attributes he looks for in potential hires:

“As a creative, I think you need to be curious enough to keep trying new mediums, but also committed enough to actually develop a craft across those mediums. Now, there’s an inherent tension there because if you believe in the maxim that it takes 10,000 hours to become good at something, then you’ve got to figure that balance out. You want to avoid sliding across the top of a bunch of mediums and never mastering any.

“In the end, execution is the last mile of creativity, and if you can’t do that, nothing that happens before that matters.”

The next frontiers

What does Law see as the potentially disruptive technologies of the near future?

“I’m excited by AR because I see a medium where you can map creativity in all of these different contexts,” he says. “You’re still in the real world with AR, so you’re mapping to ace context.”

He sees potential for augmenting reality in both a professional and consumer context. It’s another example of technology collapsing two worlds together. “To make the most of it, you need a sensibility of both temporality and storytelling, but also the infinite possibilities of that within a space.”

A new age of generative creativity

He’s also fascinated by the interaction between generative AI and humanity, and the astonishingly creative outputs that it produces. He predicts that, as people master the ability to create prompts, that skill will become a new discipline. As people master the techniques and the nuance, we’ll accelerate the process from idea to creative output to the point it is almost instantaneous.

“You know, we’re terrible at predicting because we predict based on the past and there’s no version of the future that looks like the past,” he explains. “Look at the elections that have happened lately, where whole models have been proven wrong. It doesn’t mean that these models aren’t useful, but it does mean imagination is something that is in some ways more powerful. You can take these leaps, these intuitive leaps based on your understanding of the world, which can use data to inform it.”

He argues that data won’t lead methodically towards what is right; you need creative people involved, too. That way, you avoid “extruding the most artless crap” around the web.

And we’d all appreciate that.

This is a summary of an interview with Nick Law conducted by David Mattin. It was broadcast on the NEXT–SHOW on 12th April 2023. You can catch up with Nick and his work on LinkedIn.