‘It’s a lot of chasing shiny objects’: Confessions of an agency exec on AI

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Artificial intelligence is the thing right now, so naturally, any modern marketer can’t afford to miss out. In the latest edition of Confessions, where we trade anonymity for candor, a senior media agency exec argues that most clients chasing AI are mostly doing it for public relations, not business objectives. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited.

There’s a lot of interest around AI.
You have the senior-most clients, generally CMOs and even CEOs, who are trying to make sure their company is in the press, saying, “Brand X is doing something innovative.” And there are only two things at their shiniest point right now, and that’s AI and blockchain. The conversations start with, “We want to be innovative.” Then, there’s a big pause. That translates into: “I’d like to have some press about it and speak on stage about it.”

How bad is the misinformation?
I’ve had clients asking me how to buy [an IBM] Watson. We see a lot of this. We try to talk them down, to say there’s a lot of this that’s based on promise, not reality. The year of mobile is a perfect example of that. Until the phones became widely distributed and platforms emerged to use them, it was just talk.

Is there even agreement on what AI is in the first place?

There are as many definitions as there are grains of sand on the beach — like programmatic, it’s become a word that has many meanings.

Will AI mature into something important?
I’m hugely bullish that it’ll transform our business, but I’m realistic. If you have very large data sets, these algorithms can process them in a way that humans can’t figure out, like understanding how to bid on programmatic for different kinds of audiences. The problem is, very few clients have their data act together. So they all want to try AI, but they don’t have anything to feed it.

What do you say to them?
Who’s in charge of your data? They list multiple people, which is always a problem. There are some things you can do that are AI-ish, like dynamic creative that doesn’t require as much data. So it’ll create 10,000 versions of that ad and optimize to the five that actually work. That’s AI training wheels.

It must be hard to try to meet their demands but still be realistic.
People get so lost in the tactics of what’s going on, so if you can be the guy saying, “What business problem are we solving with this?” all of a sudden people get back on safe ground. That usually resonates really well. More often than not, it ends up being additive to something we’re doing.

It sounds like this AI obsession speaks to something bigger, though.
A lot of innovation changing boils down to fame. It’s, how can we be recognized for our efforts publicly? So it’s building the brand’s fame or individual’s fame. It ends up with a lot of chasing shiny objects. The story is the same, but the rate of change keeps accelerating.

What about blockchain?
Today I received my first client-specific request saying they want to be part of a story that involves blockchain. The issue is, it’s so nascent that there are a couple actors in the place talking about it, but they’re purely formative. [Clients] don’t understand it’s not a thing; it’s just an ingredient. I guarantee it’ll be as talked about as AI.

What do the clients think they can do with blockchain?
They want to cancel their subscription to their brand-safety vendor and just do blockchain. It’s just so far from being a reality. Some want to use blockchain as a third-party ad server. It’s reflective of them not understanding what it is. It’s 70 percent chasing an object and 30 percent pushing the boundaries of the future. The jokes about robots taking over have pretty much stopped, though. Nobody’s expecting them anytime soon. So that’s good.

What’s the cost of all this chasing shiny objects?
I think some chasing the shiny object is healthy because even if don’t get all the way there, we get down the path. The cost is that some programs that we know are working get starved a little. The money’s always coming from somewhere. Most will cut the print budget — that’s the first cupboard that gets raided — or the platforms they’ve had a long time. We do spend a lot of time chasing down different opportunities that turn out not to be a thing.


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