Innovator Insights: Shutterstock Creative Director Flo Lau

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When Flo Lau learned that her husband had bought a cowboy hat not long ago, she wasn’t initially a fan. It wasn’t the kind of purchase she expected him to make. Then she saw the data, and suddenly it all made sense. 

When Flo Lau learned that her husband had bought a cowboy hat not long ago, she wasn’t initially a fan. It wasn’t the kind of purchase she expected him to make. Then she saw the data, and suddenly it all made sense. 

As the creative director of New York-based creative platform, Shutterstock, Lau was among the first to get a look at the findings of its annual Creative Trends Report. Launched in late January, the research is based on the most common searches across the company’s database of high-quality licensed photographs, vectors, illustrations, videos and music. 

The Creative Trends Report organized the data into six different categories that fall under themes of time and space. These include a spike in interest for wild west environments, and prairie fields. Searches for “wild horses,” for example, rising by 1961%. No wonder Lau’s husband was interested in a cowboy hat. 

“Usually the data shows a combination of more design-focused themes and a few cultural themes,” Lau told Brand Innovators. “This year everything is just about fantasy, escapism and an exploration of where people would like to be.”

Some of the other space and time categories, for example, include “on the road,” with a 14,911% increase in searches for biking content. Then there is “the macabre,” with the data revealing a particular focus on dystopian and post apocalyptic futures. 

As Lau pointed out, it’s not hard to determine what’s driving some of these trends, given how the pandemic has played out over the past two years.

“Everyone was so restricted with lockdowns and canceled trips and events. It’s almost like they really want to take back control,” she said, adding that lockdowns may have also contributed to the “What’s Cooking” theme, with searches for ingredients like Porcini and Panna Cotta skyrocketing on Shutterstock.

Beyond a reflection of activity across its platform, this year Shutterstock is complementing the Creative Trends report with performance data from its artificial intelligence (AI) tool, Shutterstock.AI, which the company says can pinpoint the content that will drive the highest click-through rates.

This year also marks the first time Shutterstock has localized data from the Creative Trends report, breaking down patterns across not only the U.S. but the U.K., France, Japan and Brazil.  

“Marketers that manage global brands want to be able to really speak specifically to audiences in a given country,” she said. “We want to help them create content for those audiences based on what's really performing in each culture, so that their ads will be authentic and truly resonate.”

Lau offered some other observations on the future creativity and the role of technology:

AI Doesn’t Replace Creativity, But It Can Augment It

As a creative herself, Lau has no interest in letting machines completely take over the process of developing ads. Instead, she suggested agencies and brands use the Creative Trends report to think through the details of campaign assets in order to drive the best outcomes. 

Within every creative project, or instance, there are a variety of decisions to be made. This includes where to set the scene, as well as the mood. For certain ads, the Creative Trends report could provide click-through data that shows a wild west scene would deliver stronger results than one set on the beach, or that audiences would be compelled by a creepy mood akin to a thriller or horror movie instead of something bright and cheerful. The ultimate choices remain with creative teams. 

“We all understand that the creative process is very organic,” she said. “This is a guide to help you make your next creative decision, but this is not going to dictate what you're going to make.”

Creativity Thrives When You Can Start From a Strong Foundation

There’s little question that marketers have seen their work disrupted by the outbreak of COVID-19 just like their peers in other roles. Even as the pandemic is slowly contained, there is an increased urgency to get campaigns done and keep brands visible to consumers. It’s a harder challenge than many even realize, Lau said. 

“The usual production timing is just not working for a lot of brands and agencies anymore, because everyone has to create something so quickly. And in some cases they can’t actually do traditional production because of social distancing,” she said. 

This has underscored the value of Shutterstock’s library of content, Lau added, in that it can help marketers keep pace with the need to create new work and refresh or update work for emerging platforms. Besides online ads, social media ads and video ads, she pointed to the Metaverse as a new environment where branding will be critical. 

“Meeting Customers Where They Are” Starts With Search

Brands and agencies have been conducting keyword research for years to determine what their customers will be typing into sites like Google, but oftentimes the results that come up are links to articles and other web sites. 

Lau noted that Shutterstock is one of the 500 most visited sites in the world, and the multimedia-based nature of its content may offer clues to what consumers are feeling as well as thinking. Shutterstock also benefits from being a largely user-generated platform, in that it adds hundreds of thousands of images each week from a community of more than 1.9 million contributors. 

“Our search data information is an exceptionally strong indicator of what's going to come up in the marketing world,” she said. “Now, of course we could make predictions from the search data, but now we can use AI to validate our predictions even further, because it shows what kind of content is really performing. When you combine trending topics and performance, I think that’s where it gets really interesting.”

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