Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Patrick Collister: Mistakes are opportunities in disguise

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Patrick Collister, NDA’s monthly creative columnist, is the Curator of The Caples Awards, Editor of Directory and a friend to Ad-Lib.io.

Is that why Elon Musk makes so many?

I would love this story to be true.

It concerns Van den Berghs, a food company which used to make Mattessons sausages and pâtés.

This would be at the back end of the 80s.

A young brand manager ordered more sausage meat and was confounded when 30 tons of salami were delivered.

“Nah, I ain’t takin’ it back, mate. It’s on the docket, look. Salami.”

This was the end of his career in marketing. Unless…unless…

He went to his bosses.

“Mums have got a problem,” he told them. “They send their kids off to school every day with cheese and crisps in their lunch boxes but hardly ever anything meat based and healthy-ish. I’ve had an idea to change that. How about individually wrapped snacks made of, uh…salami.”

And thus was Peperami born.   

There’s nothing like a cock-up to stimulate creativity.

The Post-It note, for example. It originated in a project at 3M to make a super-super-glue that could stick together the steel plates of a ship’s hull. Lots of time and money went into producing a glue that turned out to be only a little bit sticky.

Art Fry, one of the team, thought that’s interesting.

Google was supposed to be called Googol but Sergei spelled it wrong.

Neil Gaiman wrote a letter to a friend and spelled Caroline Coraline, which started a train of ideas that led to a novella and the film that grossed $125 million.

Actually, the human race is a mistake.

A couple of million years ago every species of Hominidae had grasping hands. Then one popped up with an opposable thumb and discovered it could do things no other animal could. Make a fire, for instance.

That’s a creative leap for you.

Now, I’ve just gone to ChatGPT and told it I’m a brand manager who ordered 30 tons of pate and got 30 tons of salami instead. What should I do?

The advice is:

Check the agreement and contracts. 

Return the salami and receive the correct product, negotiating a discount for the salami.

Review your ordering and communication processes.

Consider seeking legal advice.

All very sensible except I’d still get fired.

Fear, the sphincter-tightening imperative to find a solution that will save your ass, is not something AI does. 

The human mind, however, can be goaded by an unreasonable problem into finding an unreasonable solution.

This is Rory Sutherland’s area of expertise.

Logic, he says, can only get you so far. Illogic can get you a whole lot further.

As yet, bots can’t be programmed to imagine anything new. They lack awareness of a wider world beyond the data they have been fed.

This gap in understanding is what distinguishes human creativity from GenAI.

In fact, it’s pleasantly reassuring when AIs make mistakes.

A self-driving car in California ran into and killed a pedestrian.

It had been taught that pedestrians cross the road at zebra crossings. It didn’t recognise a jaywalker when it saw one.

And don’t ever get ChatGPT to give a diagnosis if you’re feeling ill.

One healthcare chatbot told a patient he should kill himself and offered to help.

Obviously, human intervention will help prevent further blunders like these.

Collaboration is the way forward.

Human intelligence plus intelligent automation equals products and services that will further transform the world.

Which brings me to the Middle East. And X and Elon Musk.

And to a whole series of what might turn out to be catastrophic mistakes.

The first of these is Musk’s mugging of the Trust and Safety team, reduced from 230 when he bought Twitter to 15 today.

Not sensible.

On top of that, he has withdrawn X from the EU’s voluntary disinformation code of practice.

Not good.

Today X is said to be “flooded” with fakery and lies about the conflict in Gaza at “a level researchers have never seen.”

Reporting on the terrorist attack on the Supernova Festival in Israel, I saw a BBC post about a UK citizen who was killed. More shocking than the bile in the comments below was a video ad for a computer game. Use your Math skills to beat the Enemy!

It’s mistakes like this that alarm major advertisers.

They were withdrawing from X even before Musk made what appears to be an antisemitic comment in mid-November.  

Oh dear.

Interviewed at the DealBook conference on November 29th, he could have acknowledged the errors but didn’t.

Instead, he told his biggest advertisers, Sony, IBM and Disney, “Go fu*k yourselves.”

Since 90% of X’s revenues come from advertising, this was unwise.

Or was it?

I can’t help wondering if this is evidence of a highly creative mind at work.  

Is Musk deliberately manufacturing a situation in which X must go under unless…unless he can turn pâté into salami?

At the end of October he told staff he wants to transform X into “the everything app” that will replace YouTube, LinkedIn, Zoom, dating sites and even the banks.

Is he giving himself a big problem in order to force himself into having a big idea?

Or is it simply the case that while machines can and do learn from their mistakes some humans never do?

We shall see.