Agencies Agency Models How Do You Solve a Problem Like...

Not every campaign needs to use generative AI, but how do you tell your clients that?


By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

March 28, 2023 | 14 min read

This week, as part of our Tech Takeover deep dive where we look at everything from AI to web3, we ask agency leaders how they can keep clients away from the siren call of a new gimmick.

How should agencies react to clients over-eager about AI?

How should agencies react to clients over-eager about AI?

Advertising clients won’t shut up about generative AI. According to agency execs at least, there’s no end of questions over whether their strategies, next campaign or upcoming activations should incorporate these new tools.

In some cases, they’ll find a good fit. But it’s quite likely there are plenty of situations where it’s not – where basing a slogan on a throwaway ChatGPT line, or ditching photography for Dall-E would lead to humiliating failure – and their agency colleagues are required to talk them back from the cliff edge.

It might not be an easy task. So, we asked the advice of dozens of industry experts. How do you persuade your client that the new, shiny, possibly revolutionary new tech isn’t the way to help them grow their business – without seeming like you’re just being stubborn?

How do you solve a problem like... guiding clients away from the bandwagon?

Scott Mager, chief marketing officer, Deloitte Consulting: “The best way to get clients away from the bandwagon is to get ahead of it yourself. That means experimenting with new tech internally long before it's in the public domain – that way we’re steering clients with tested solutions, not speculation. When tech trends do take off in the shiny spotlight, the time to be involved in an impactful way has already passed. You need to have your backend set up in advance to move fast. Investing in the right tech at the right time is the single most valuable investment you can make to prepare your business to overcome challenges and grow. In the same vein, investing in constant curiosity and learning yourself means clients have advanced insight when new technology doesn’t hold value for their business.”

Katy Wright, chief executive officer, FCB Inferno: “If you’re reacting to your clients asking about this then you’ve probably already failed. Or maybe, you are responding to say how you are already using tech.

“Agencies should understand clients’ business needs and advise accordingly as to how some new ‘channels’ could impact their business.

“Test and learn, trial but don’t commit too much budget. Like all innovation – it’s about the right application and knowing how to use it. We have to be open to the fact that it can make our lives easier.

“My dad, a BA Pilot for 35 years, said passengers would often come up to the flight deck and ask ‘Is the computer flying the plane now,’ and he’d smile, mildly insulted but respond: ‘no, I’m flying the airplane and the computer is helping me!’

“Microsoft announced ‘Microsoft365 Copilot’ – its intention is to ChatGPT your PowerPoint, Emails, Teams, Excel, etc – I’m all for it. No one can say they’d be opposed to using technology to speed up time-consuming admin. Remember, we still need to fly; thank heavens, we have the tech to help us.”

Gareth Davies, chief executive officer, Leagas Delaney: “Is all that glitters gold? Evidently not but, as an industry, we are an innately curious bunch, drawn towards the promise of innovation. However, the truth is that most bandwagons are as quickly jumped off as they are jumped on. Which, of course, stands to reason; after all, not every innovation can bear scrutiny. AI, though, is markedly different. It is no cliff-edge to be talked back from. Its influence is likely to be so significant that it is in everyone’s interest to understand and embrace it. Progressive businesses are already on that journey, everyone else is playing catch up.”

Jim Dyer

Jim Dyer, head of client leadership, Wunderman Thompson: “There’s nothing inherently wrong with jumping on the bandwagon. The role of the creative agency is to lead with the idea – if the idea is best brought to life via the metaverse, then bring it to life via the metaverse. But if it’s not the metaverse, then as long as you’re informed on the benefits and shortcomings of the platform to be able to have an honest client conversation, the work will always win out, whether it’s a cave painting or AI.”

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Paulo Salomao, co-founder and business lead, The Or: “My lord, does adland love chasing glittering things. Sure, we have a duty to enlighten our clients about trends and innovations, but we shouldn’t blindly throw them into every creative idea. In our industry, we need to remember we are 99% early adopters, which means the average consumer is likely to have never heard of that glitter ball in front of you. You only need to point to past hype that’s dissipated (hello NFTs, HQ Trivia, HouseParty and Chatbots) as examples of why we need to continue to analyze and understand the shiny stuff, enlighten our clients along the way, but never ever jump blindly.”

Damian Ferrar, senior vice-president, innovation director and global head, Jack X at Jack Morton: “This is a super interesting question and there are a number of points to cover here. Firstly, AI is a massive area of emerging technology. We, along with thousands of other brands and agencies have been using AI to fuel relevance, deliver value and drive growth for many years. The current excitement is around a specific flavor, that of Generative AI – using prompts to create outputs including, but not limited to text, images and video.

“The next challenge is to reframe the ask. So, rather than using new technology to create a novelty solution, we’re identifying working with clients to understand what business challenges we could solve and what value we can create. Finally, this means we rarely guide clients away from the bandwagon, but instead help them understand how they can experiment, test and learn because what may seem like an overhyped new technology now will be instrumental to business success in the near future.”

ed palmer

Ed Palmer, managing director, St Luke’s: “Amara’s Law says that we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run. Heuristics such as the 70/20/10 rule can be helpful in minimizing the risk of going all in on the hype, while still keeping an eye on the future.

“And importantly, any conversation about a new technology needs to start with the audience and the brand. Does it have the potential to meet a genuine need, and does it fit with the world we’ve created for the brand? If the answer is no to either, then risks being simply the shiny bauble of the neophile.”

Daniel Young, brand marketing, Ogilvy Australia: “AI in its various forms is becoming ubiquitous through app integrations and standalone tools and is already used by millions globally – it does not bear comparison to the metaverse and Web3, which both suffered from usability and accessibility issues. Instead, this technology will revolutionize the way we work, how we use the web and how content is created – making us all much more productive. So it’s important to encourage clients and the organizations we work for and represent, to understand AI's limitations, benefits and risks in performance marketing, customer experience, content production and personalization.

“The tech sector is one large hype squad, but before engaging or dismissing new developments, clients and agencies must assess each new tech on its merits, potential, implications and reach, based on individual business requirements and objectives.”

Barbara Yolles Ludwig, chief executive officer, Ludwig+: “New technology is only as revolutionary as it serves a purpose for your brand and business. For example, AI is revolutionary when you are in a business that requires real-time or 24-hour solutions for your clients or customers. We have one client in the fintech space who lowered their call-center volume, achieved improved customer satisfaction ratings, and improved the bottom line by $80m because AI technology provided the answers customers needed right at their fingertips. The metaverse can also be revolutionary if it activates a brand experience, allows for branded trial experience and can create a stickier relationship.”

Mick Mahoney, creative partner, Harbour: “Curiosity is the ultimate definition of creativity. Pushing into unknown places and spaces has brought about every evolution and revolution since time began. So, I’m [all for] taking chances. I’m [all for] the pioneers and the ‘crazy ones’ as Apple defined them in their seminal ad. I’ll never side with the cynics. Because cynics create nothing new. If you wait for everything to have a proven metric then don’t expect anyone to consider your brand progressive or interesting. If that doesn’t matter to you then carry on ignoring the new, but prepare to manage decline.”

Tim Leake, senior vice-president, chief marketing and innovation officer, RPA: “A friend of mine once shared this gem of wisdom with me: ‘most new technology doesn’t truly get valuable until it gets boring’. ‘Boring’ comes after the hype and prognostications (and don’t get me wrong, I love a good prognostication) settle down and we establish processes, practices, and tools that align the tech with real goals. Our filter question should be, ‘Is this valuable to our goals right now?’ Sometimes there’s value in a first-mover advantage or the buzz of a ‘never-done-before’ idea. But more often, it’s smarter to watch and wait for the value to grow.”

Jef Loeb, creative director and writer: “Aside from coming up with gobsmackingly brilliant creative, the theory is that we’re also hired for objectivity. That being so we have a standard response when asked about Web3 ephemera, AI, and similar glitterati—rely on the last refuge of scoundrels and tell the truth. That’s been particularly important with AI, where agencies appear, prima facie, to have a vested interest in slowing the roll. So far, so good: once they know you’re on their side in both taking advantage and helping them avoid expensive stumbles, the tension evaporates and the conversation shifts to what are, quite frankly, intriguing possibilities.”

Ben Bush, partner and head of strategy, The Frameworks: “It shouldn’t need saying, but if you want to incorporate AI into your business model, don’t start by asking a brand strategist. Instead, work out if this tech could make a difference to your customer experience. Unless your brand team is embedded at the highest level of your business strategy, it’s probably not their call.

“Where they should play a part is in working out whether the chosen use of AI will fundamentally change your brand promise. If you do have something new to say, say it. But don’t just AI-wash your brand narrative; give it the consideration it deserves.”

Douglas Brundage, founder and chief executive officer, Kingsland: “I like to remind clients that all technology was once new, and there are two ways to use it: one, as a novelty (e.g. monkey NFTs) and two, as a solution to a problem. If you’re a novelty brand, then sure, do a stunt. But in general, this yields little besides some press, if you’re lucky. Just because something is new does not mean it’s the right tool for the brief a client has issued. I always like to refocus on the customer in these moments – if your customer doesn’t care, neither should you. AI has a lot of applications, way more than the metaverse, but its effects on search and digital marketing will be outsized compared to the focus right now: is it going to take our jobs!? Writing a campaign with AI is not an idea. Using AI to solve an actual problem your target customer faces? That might be a good idea. But you’ll still need human creativity, for now, to get it across the finish line.”

Scott Harkey, chief executive officer, The Harkey Group: “I like to look at trend participation as a math equation. Upfront with clients, we’ll create a ‘never been done’ budget, which allows for innovation while setting reasonable expectations. The budget can be a certain percentage of their marketing budget, and that allows them to allocate funding to what’s trendy accordingly: you all know at the onset that it’ll most likely be failures and learnings. If a trend isn’t organic to your client, you have to be blunt and tell them that. Clients want a consultant that tells them what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.”

For more on the latest happenings in AI, web3 and other cutting-edge technologies, check out The Drum’s latest Deep Dive – AI to Web3: the Tech Takeover. And don’t forget to sign up for The Emerging Tech Briefing newsletter.

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