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Clients want to know about agency AI capabilities. How can you stand out?

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By Sam Bradley, Journalist

December 5, 2023 | 14 min read

Marketers have begun to prioritize AI credentials in reviews. But most agencies are playing with the same tools. How can they distinguish themselves?

A smartphone showing ChatGPT on the browser

How can agencies distinguish themselves in the AI race? And should they try to? / Unsplash

Though it’s only been a year since ChatGPT was released, an agency’s expertise and capabilities in the AI space have already become calling cards in pitches and reviews. Industry sources tell us that questions about AI have become commonplace from marketers shopping around for their next agency – sometimes displacing queries around an agency’s environmental or sustainability chops.

But while legal issues and copyright concerns limit how generative AI tools can be used commercially – and with most agencies having access to the same range of tools – it can be difficult to outline a stance that is distinct from the competition. We wanted to find out how top agencies were grappling with that problem, so we asked them.

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How do you solve a problem like… standing out in the AI race?

Matt Henry, innovation lead, AMV BBDO: “Just for a little bit, I hope we can treat AI like it isn’t a race. We have some pretty big problems to solve within these models, and we need to solve them as a creative community. Having said that, of course, we want to be creating the best work with AI. We have some incredible proprietary software within Omnicom, such as OMNI assist, as well as partnerships with Google, Getty and Microsoft that put us in a great place to be first movers with a lot of their solutions. However, like everyone, we know that these tools are only ever as good as the people who creatively engineer them. Whilst we will use AI to help us create work that has never been possible before, our superpower will still be making sure that work is brilliantly unexpected and radically empathetic at the same time.”

Stuart Rentzler, chief technologist, Barbarian: “What distinguishes one agency from the rest is not merely having access to AI tools, but rather the intelligence, skill, and inquisitiveness of the individuals who wield these tools. Their curiosity goes deeper than simple prompts, as they strategize and explore answers through AI tools.

“The true value of any agency is in the collective human capital it houses. In the age of AI, it is talent with depth of knowledge and broad expertise that are in the right position to extract brilliant insights from AI. Highlighting the broad and deep thinkers of an agency is the answer to showing the strength of an agency in a world where we all have equal access to the same tools. Broad expertise versus narrow-scoped novices, hoping to derive the true solution for a client by the lucky roll of the dice.”

Jenny Kelly, head of content, Deloitte Digital: “The best way to stand out is an approach that starts with a client’s existing tech solution. Navigating how to integrate GenAI into the mix can be complex, so minimizing the technology change is the right place to start. What we’re hearing from numerous brands is that while they want to hear the possibilities for transformation – they need to know how to get started. So, bringing clear, tactical use cases that allow teams to start small and build the right foundation for GenAI will allow them to train their people, figure out business guidelines, and display real transformation.”

Gareth Davies, chief executive officer, Leagas Delaney: “It’s useful to draw parallels with the way that agencies responded to the arrival of ‘digital.’ Those who understood its likely significance, not only changed their output but moreover, their working models. It created a chasm in our industry between those who ‘got it’ and those who were simply too slow to adapt. The rise of AI is another profound moment of change, with consequences for our services, teams and commercial models. The risk for agencies is that they productize their response to AI, in the same way many did with ‘digital,’ rather than understanding that the level of change is, once again, more fundamental to how we all operate.“

Erik Hamilton, vice-president of search and social, Good Apple: “The danger with AI work is that it is trained on existing output and, as of right now, is calibrated towards delivering efficient C+/B- work. The way to stand out is the same as it has always been: Have good, smart, and creative people at the helm to inject originality and a human voice.”

Jeremiah Knight, chief operating officer, Saatchi & Saatchi: “Gen AI is, by design, pervasive. It’s rapidly being embedded into desktop and enterprise tools, into remarkable creative engines, and into wild custom GPTs. No raft of prompt engineers will solve for all angles of that future. So, the key is to Get Curious – to strive to learn continuously, to provide access to learning modules and safe spaces for everyone to play, to fail, to learn the IP risks, and to adapt responsibly. This way, Saatchi can carry on creating its unique blend of love and fervor around the brands we support, but with powerful new tools at our disposal.”

A headshot of Adelynne Chao

Adelynne Chao, founder, Untold Insights: ”We see AI as another tool in a suite of business tools agencies already use, like Excel or Figma. Clients don’t work with agencies to gain access to those tools, they work with agencies because of their unique abilities to harness those tools to deliver client outcomes. In the end, everyone can have access to Figma but not everyone can deliver a beautiful UX or visual identity. In the same way, although everyone can have access to AI models, not everyone can deliver outstanding results from them. This makes it crucial that agencies continue to invest in building their team’s AI expertise.”

Jason Downie, US chief executive officer, Making Science: “We conduct privacy audits/assessments revealing a company’s digital privacy tech infrastructure maturity to determine its digital agility and ability to implement GenAI and Predictive AI capabilities. This effort is about activating privacy-preserving technologies that leverage consented first-party data. Essentially, we help clients collect, store, organize, and activate proprietary data, then layer AI to fill the information gaps. We use first-party data and GA4 to create audience modeling and predict outcomes, improving performance and preparing the business for impending AI regulations. We believe performance and privacy go hand in hand, and we help clients achieve great results while remaining privacy-forward.”

Marc Linder, technical director, Imagination: “Agencies should focus on delivering an AI approach that combines innovation and customization while addressing client challenges in novel ways. Rather than focusing on specific tools, agencies should adopt a 'hybrid' strategy that combines various AI tools with their agency expertise to create unique concepts and bespoke workflows for potential prospects. However, they should keep in mind that the key here will be to demonstrate a track record of successful projects that showcase the tangible impact of your approach on client businesses.”

Pablo Bertero, chief innovation officer, Wunderman Thompson: “It’s simple, agencies must innovate. But innovation is more than just technology and tools, it’s about applying them to solve real-world business challenges. Clients have seen enough flashy demos that promise the world at a click; instead, they’re asking ‘What does this mean for my business?’. To stand out, agencies must demonstrate how they’ll implement AI tools into clients’ existing infrastructure, processes and regulations, moving beyond those generic GenAI demos to show that they truly understand their clients and can deliver tangible business results.“

James Calvert, chief data strategy officer, M&C Saatchi London: “Counterintuitively, the answer here isn’t technology. True distinction comes from delivering concrete, real-world outcomes, that can showcase your agency mastery of AI in pursuit of achieving your client’s business goals. It’s not about special access to a particular AI model or tech tool; opening the wallet solves that. Instead, we’ve been focused on ensuring AI is embedded into the fabric of our culture. Demonstrating how we use AI to solve specific client problems. Being clear on how AI has changed our workflow, importantly for the clients benefit. Then proof in hand, gather glowing client testimonials from all who have benefitted, and share freely with prospects and intermediaries.”

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George Roberts, marketing director, Five by Five: “At Five by Five we’re using AI in a few different ways. The first is probably no different to most agencies, we’re using it in our strategic and creative development - sometimes to help us find interesting territories quickly but actually more often than not it just shows us what we should avoid so we don’t add to the sea of sameness already out there. There’s a reason ‘you sound like Chat GPT’ has become an insult. The other way we are using it is in the development of our digital creative. By asking these tools the right questions we’ve been able to shepherd AI into helping us reduce file sizes of digital ads whilst keeping high-quality moving graphics and images in beautifully crafted ads. And our clients are loving these incremental gains and it’s having a positive impact on campaign performance.”

Peter Van Jaarsveld, global head of production, Oliver: “The thing with the AI race is it’s not really about the technology at all, it’s about context. It’s important to understand the tech, but the real differentiation is in how we combine the tech with smart people and bespoke processes to create something both differentiated and sustainable. Stand out happens by understanding what’s most valuable for clients, then marrying smart talent with tech expertise and experience in process design to deploy the technology and deliver proprietary competitive advantage. This means that although some common and some proprietary tools are used, the outcome is one where unique value is created in highly bespoke and relevant ways.”

Dan Gardner, co-founder, Code and Theory: “If your goal is to standout in the AI race, you’ve already lost because you are thinking too short. AI is going to be to creativity what the calculator is to mathematics. So it’s less about the short game, and more about the long game – effectively investing in the right infrastructure (and even culture) that allows you to be ready for the rapidly changing landscape. The right infrastructure includes: getting your private data organized and utilized; using AI for operational effectiveness to communicate faster across teams; developing a framework for AI ethical and legal decision-making; and embarking on a new landscape analysis for potential disruption. This means visioning and roadmapping around future new customer relationships. Most importantly, it’s about redefining a creative workforce to maximize the most uniquely human trait, creativity, for a world where every decision can be multiplied through this evolving AI toolset landscape.”

Matt Rebeiro, executive strategy director, Iris: “For agencies, keeping up with AI can feel a bit like a game of whack-a-mole… let alone standing out. It also depends who you want to stand out to: a client desperate for a Lion and a Côte d’Azur tan; a procurement team licking their lips at perceived ‘efficiencies’; or possibly even a legal counsel desperate to see some guardrails. So, to stand out you might need to be innovative, efficient and compliant. What’s worked for us so far: Ignore the hype; be the adult in the room; and treat AI as a means not an end.”

Jef Loeb, creative director, Brainchild Creative: “Speaking from the small/indie side of the playground, we’re not really trying to ‘stand out’ in AI because, frankly, it’s just client clickbait in the present context. That said, we’re approaching this from what I consider to be the only intelligent direction – leveraging the real, exploring how it adds efficiency, and leaving minds open to what is incredibly fluid. Boiled down: using it to do a better job, rather than preen about being utterly au courant, long before that’s really sustainable. Others clearly have different view, but I remain highly aware of the trap of shinynewtoyitis. Witness last year’s folly over the metaverse and NFTs. When do we learn?”

We’d love to include your thoughts in our next edition. Give me (Sam) a shout if you’d like to know next week’s topics.

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