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Don't sack your copywriter yet, but are machines set to take over?

Technological advancement seldom cares for the workers it displaces, but there are assumptions that certain jobs, creative roles in particular, will always require a human touch. So when persuasive language generator Persado raised $21m in funding earlier this year, The Drum’s Thomas O’Neill asked whether copywriters should be worried.

The idea of computers outsmarting and outperforming humans is nothing new. Just ask IBM. Back in 1997, the then reigning world chess champion (and still considered by many to be the game’s greatest ever exponent) Garry Kasparov was defeated by the company’s Deep Blue computer. More recently, the tech giant’s Watson supercomputer took on and beat two recordholding winners of American quiz show Jeopardy.

There’s no denying that technological progress has long displaced workers, whether they be assembling our cars or selling us groceries. Indeed, a recent study by the Oxford Martin School predicts that nearly half of all US jobs will be automated in the next decade or two.

But surely if there is one sector immune to this march of the machines it is the creative industries, and in particular, and with unapologetic bias, those who write for a living.

Surely a computer is never going to come close to the agonised soul-searching of a Shakespeare sonnet, or the wild, maniacal, drug-fuelled and obscenity-laden prose of Hunter S Thompson. And surely a robot is never going to declare Kia Ora ‘too orangey for crows’. Surely.

IBM isn’t claiming the scalps this time around (although Watson did launch its own cookbook earlier this year) but it is true that an increasing amount of what we read is being created by computer algorithms rather than humans.

In her most recent byline in the New York Times, Shelley Podolny of search specialists H5 says we should hardly be surprised by this move towards artificial intelligence. “The information assaulting us 24/7 couldn’t all have been created by people bent over their laptops… the multitude of digital avenues now available to us demand content with an appetite that human effort can no longer satisfy.”

These “robo-writers” are fed data and produce the narrative that tells whatever story needs to be told. But they don’t just regurgitate data. “They create human-sounding stories... and when you read the output, you’d never guess the writer doesn’t have a heartbeat.”

Podolny goes on to say that these algorithms and natural language generators are getting better and faster as demand spurs investment and innovation. “The sheer volume and complexity of the big data we generate, too much for mere mortals to tackle, calls for artificial rather than human intelligence to derive meaning from it all.”

Much of this automation will happen in journalism, with the Associated Press already using an automated platform to generate thousands of financial reports a year, and the LA Times using algorithms to analyse geological data. Kristian Hammond, co-founder of natural language generation platform Narrative Science, meanwhile estimates 90 per cent of news could be algorithmically generated by the mid-2020s.

Understandably now very much in fear for my job, it is probably worth considering how the marketing industry also features in all this. Could a computer ever replace a copywriter?

I drop in on David Atlas, the chief marketing officer at persuasive language startup Persado, to ask him just that. Briefly in town on his way back to San Francisco following a speaking gig in Amsterdam, he moves to allay any fears the company’s technology might be giving rise to since raising $21m in funding.

As a result of the funding earlier this year, he tells me, “there have been many headlines along the lines of ‘ooh ooh, the robot copywriter is going to put human copywriters out of work’”.

He’s not complaining – “as a marketer, as the head of PR for my company, I’m delighted because I got a lot of articles, a lot of enquiries, but it doesn’t really put copywriters out of business”. In reality, he says, it is “less a robot replacement and more a bionic man” – an “algorithmic prosthesis”, comparable to using spellcheck to fix sloppy copy.

He explains it thus: “What Persado is is a new technology that generates the most persuasive language for communications designed to drive action.”

These, he says, are digital communications used predominantly in digital marketing and advertising, but also in fundraising or in elections, where you are trying to get people to respond or adopt a new behaviour.

“Now, to be clear, there’s a ton of things we don’t do – we don’t do short messages, we don’t do poetry, we don’t do inspirational slogans, we don’t do longform, we don’t do press releases or blogs.

“What we do do is, under 600 characters, things like email marketing messages, display ads, tweets, SMS, push notifications – anything where the language is designed precisely to make people go ‘yes I want to buy a product’, ‘yes I want to register’, ‘yes I want to like, share or do something’.”

Atlas says “human copywriters,” (and quickly laughs at himself for having uttered those words) “at best might write two, three, four versions and compare”. But what about all the other versions? What about the millions they didn’t write?

“We start to break down the language, organise it, looking at emotional language, descriptive language and functional language, and in this way you can start to calculate, swapping in, using a whole bunch of artificial intelligence technology I don’t really understand because I’m an English major, like natural language generation, experimental design, deep learning machine learning, and we’ll come up with a better result.”

Starting with a version written by a human, pretty soon the program has modelled 16m others a copywriter would never have thought to write, generating the one that is going to work best.

“I’m 52, I’ve been in this a long time, and I’ve worked in companies where you are trying to say ‘this is great’, ‘this one goes to 11’, ‘this one comes in blue’, and you know, you’re pitching these minimally differentiated features, but the reality is, this really is a whole new class of stuff.”

In spite of his enthusiasm for the technology, he doesn’t shy away from admitting his first impression of its output was less than flattering.

“I started out as a copywriter and when I first looked at this stuff I thought ‘this is horrible’, but I’ve seen it generate 80 per cent improvement in order rate, which can translate into tens of millions of dollars”. It’s no wonder the likes of Verizon, Vodafone, American Express, Citi Bank, Norwegian Cruise Lines and Expedia are already on board.

“There are no ethics, there are no aesthetics, there is math and efficiency, and a knowledge of what works.”

Before we leave off I can’t resist returning to the idea of computers killing off copywriters, but still Atlas refuses to give me the headline grabbing quote I’m after. “It doesn’t put writers out of business. It just eliminates the drudgery of what is very often pretty repetitive fast turnaround writing, where you are just looking for an effect.”

Which leaves me wondering, the copywriter may not be dead, but in this age of constant messages across a multitude of platforms, more often designed to be scanned than read, maybe copywriting already is.

This feature was first published in the 13 May issue of The Drum.

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Thomas O'neill

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