Why Stagwell’s Mark Penn sees AR and AI as the biggest disruptors to the industry

Stagwell’s Mark Penn believes every company today is a digital marketing company. His holding company’s aim is to elevate technology with an agency-driven approach into areas like artificial intelligence and augmented reality.

Penn, chairman and CEO of Stagwell, worked across politics, public relations and strategy at Microsoft before founding Stagwell in 2015. He has managed to grow the holding company to $2.7 billion in revenue in seven years, and in 2021 it merged with agency network MDC Partners to expand its roster of shops and assemble an array of digital services and marketing.

Penn contends that digital advertising is still in its infancy, especially with the shift to more online advertising and emerging formats like AR.

“As I always say, the best TV ads have already been done, and the best digital ads are a long way from being done,” Penn told Digiday. “So my question really is, how can we make advertising experiences more relevant, and yet also less cluttering to a consumer experience?”

In exploring more digital opportunities, Stagwell is also searching internally for the latest tech innovations and entrepreneurs. Now in its fifth year, Stagwell Marketing Cloud runs an annual innovation competition — like an internal “Shark Tank” — that awards winners $1 million to build a product to solve a marketing and technology problem. Some of the winners have created AR solutions for live events and sports, and generative and predictive AI tools for content.

“Inside every marketing company today are people who are bursting with ideas, potential innovations, and they are on the front lines of the market,” Penn said. “So the ‘Shark Tank’ [competition] was a way to tap into that.”

In this interview, Penn discusses the future of AR and AI applications, how Stagwell approaches full-service to self-service in the marketplace and which tech developments he doesn’t feel live up to the hype.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Where are emerging platforms like AR and AI going?

For a number of years, automated reality was under-emphasized in terms of potential long-term impact. I was at Microsoft when HoloLens was being developed. I see that there’s still a lot to do in terms of miniaturization, and I think it can be something that is as pervasive as a phone, as pervasive as a watch. That will be a critical part of people’s everyday lives. I think Apple has concluded that augmented reality and being able to put on a pair of glasses and get additional information is likely to be a strong marketplace. We will shift from the phone to glasses, but we want to be there in advance.

What is your long-term vision for tech and marketing innovation?

The overall vision and standards is that in the marketplace we can do everything from global full-service, down to small business self-service. There’s a large bit of B2B and corporate self-service, as well. I realized that there’s a synergy in being able to do all of the above, and when you’re doing full-service, they want to know you have a great tech stack. And when you’re doing self-service, they want to know you have easy, new software. I believe that trying to do those under one house and, in fact, both sides of the house, will support each other to provide better, more innovative technology that can be utilized system-wide.

How will AI transform agencies on the inside?

We think today AI is going to play a big role in shortening analysis time. Right now, people have to go through thousands of numbers, and we think AI can really do at least the first scan, pulling out the most significant aspects and tables at a time. For people who work in marketing, the two things that we target are highly-educated, highly-valuable people doing repetitive tasks. Then the second is: how can complex multi-step processes be automated and simplified so that almost all the things that we do or look at fall into one or both of those buckets.

How has Stagwell’s internal innovation competition evolved?

This went from a program where people kind of started scratching their heads to a real [successful] program that actually has produced incredible products. I was chief strategy officer at Microsoft, so it’s not like they take a raw idea and then they don’t just run with that. They take an idea, and work on it and refine it. In many ways, ‘Shark Tank’ has created an incubator of these tech ideas, each of which has an entrepreneur who gets a significant share and upside. We look at ARound that came up with some exceptional technology that is scaling ahead and augmented reality. And with AI, we started those projects years ago. We’re sitting here because we had the foresight to run this ‘Shark Tank’ process.

What tech innovations are less exciting to you?

I’m always less excited about driverless cars. Also, language translation is something where we’re getting closer and closer, then we aren’t getting closer. There are so many idioms across the languages and so much context — but I will say it’s getting better. It still takes a knowledgeable eye to really put the final touches right on this translation. My general message is that it’s the right mix of people and the right technology that really produces the most effective outcomes.

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