Marketers must embrace the brutal simplicity of automation in order to capitalise on a new era of smart, data-driven marketing where automation augments rather than usurps human insight.
The triumph of artificial intelligence (AI) over human players has become the lens through which major breakthroughs in technology are understood. However, for many marketers, the rhetoric of “man versus machine” or “big data” has delivered a creative checkmate. This view of AI is an instinctively combative one, which is in danger of overshadowing how automation and AI can better empower marketers as opposed to simply render their jobs obsolete.
Tom Goodwin, executive vice-president and head of innovation at Zenith USA, said: “Automation is a profound way of thinking about new forms of advertising, which can become more personalised, more context specific, more timely, and thus be more relevant and more helpful. We tend to assume the worst with new technology, that it will kill jobs or creativity, and it can. But if we collectively consider this a more sophisticated canvas and toolkit to use, new forms of advertising are actually really exciting.”
Mind The ‘Big Data’ Gap
For marketers, the automation of disciplines that used to require significant man-hours offers much promise, both in terms of freeing up their time for strategic decisions and simplifying marketing process, for example, managing customer journeys or using automated algorithms to better predict simple consumer behaviours and deliver targeted messages at key sales moments such as sunny weather. Jean-Paul Edwards, strategy and product development director EMEA at OMD, says that technology is not only enabling marketers to process more signals from consumers, but, also, it is reducing the cost of this prediction.
However, despite the rhetoric of “big data,” some industry experts believe that many brands remain stubbornly wedded to manual processes and the human error they entail. Aurelia Noel, global digital partner at media agency Carat, says that all marketing areas should adhere to an 80/20 rule of 80% automated and 20% manual. The heavy lifting—planning, buying, reporting, conversion optimisation, lead generation, testing, content generation, and insight generation is automated. While the 20% is strategy, interpretation, activation, and promotion. She explains that this allows brands to “take better control of their transformation and decide how they should operate and future-proof.”
The reluctance of businesses to embrace this 80/20 model could well be linked to the high-profile shortcomings of programmatic media buying, underlined by headlines on brands funding terrorism in The Times this year. Nick Gill, co-founder and strategy partner at Team Eleven, says that programmatic placement has been damaged from being associated with the direct mail spamming of yesteryear—a fate that is also befalling retargeting. He explains that while retargeting is “theoretically great,” “anyone who has browsed and subsequently purchased an item only to be retargeted is immediately reaching for the ad-blocking software to escape the stalking.” This is a state of play he links directly to the fact that nearly half of all millennials now use ad-blocking software, and 80% are skipping online ads because of this nuisance and noise.
The Empathy Deficit
Indeed, there remains significant anxiety amongst both marketers and consumers over the impact of automation. Rik Moore, head of strategy at Havas Media, says that we are in the midst of a period of time where there is a lot of imagination and projection of where AI might go, but, with that, come concern and uncertainty. He points to the example of the Microsoft AI that correctly predicted the outcome of every match in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, with the exception of the shock Japan win over South Africa. He said: “I think that is a wonderful analogy for the relationship between algorithms and human creativity. The algorithms can make us ever faster and more efficient, but it’s that creative leap that is inherently human. Both should be utilised to their fullest, and combined to maximise effect.”
However, to date some industry experts believe that this human element is what has been missing from the proliferation of automated marketing messages. Sven Hughes, CEO of Verbalisation, says that the elephant in the room in relation to AI is empathy. He explained: “Everyone is so focused on what the technology can do, they are overlooking the how. The next big AI breakthrough is likely to come from technology’s tone, as much as its content—for example, the ability of AI to pattern-match the audience’s mood as much as their unmet needs.”
Beyond the simplicity and time savings promised by automation, AI offers brands more boundary-pushing creative opportunities. However, experts believe marketers risk blurring the disciplines together, lurching from one shiny new thing to the next without getting the nuts and bolts of simple automation right. For what is the point of “big data” if brands do not have the resource or tools in place to filter and understand the ever-increasing range of consumer touch points?
“We need to be careful to draw a line between real AI—which is barely in existence—and just advanced algorithms and better data,” Zenith’s Goodwin said. “True AI will allow better images, recognition, smarter contextual placement, and more refined optimisation to be automated. It will allow ads to feel more relevant, be more useful, to work harder, and become a richer experience. Part of that will include weather-based targeting and automated creative, but the opportunities are way beyond just that.”
Beyond Man Versus Machine
Shifting the lens of automation and AI beyond the unnecessarily adversarial “man versus machine” paradigm should also empower marketers to better unleash the power of automation. OMD’s Edwards believes the industry is ripe for the next human intellectual leap. He points out that a good chess player with AI will beat a brilliant player. “Twenty years ago, we used to use books of TGI analysis, now we have technology to optimise the detail, but we still need people to find the big leaps.”
Trevor Hardy, CEO at The Future Laboratory, predicts that new marketing roles will be born from the ashes of automated jobs. He explained: “The promise of automation is that humans will be freed up to exercise our imagination and conceive new ways to help businesses and brands be more relevant to people’s needs and become part of the cultural conversation.” The onus is on smart marketers to set aside their anxieties and finally deliver on this promise.