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15 agency leaders share how they’re tempering expectations around AI advertising

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By Sam Bradley, Journalist

April 4, 2023 | 14 min read

In this week’s debate, agency leaders explain how to deflect the desire for potentially ill-advised AI integrations from clients – with tact.

When your client’s latched on to a bandwagon, how can you talk them down?

When your client’s latched on to a bandwagon, how can you talk them down?

As businesses across borders and industries explore what might be possible through the use of machine learning and generative AI applications, the desire among marketers to involve the tech at some level, is on the rise.

That can put their agency partners in a tight bind. On the one hand, there have already been quite a few rubbish AI activations and there are bound to be more. On the other, advertising creative might itself be threatened by the use of generative AI – so a cynic would expect an agency exec to be reluctant to embrace it.

In either case, they’re tasked with talking their clients back from the cliff edge. To find out how to do that with finesse, we asked the advice of dozens of industry experts.

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Kerry Dawes, technical director, Digitas UK: “Whether it’s Dall-E or ChatGPT-4, before you jump on to the latest shiny new tool first ask yourself: “Is our last ‘next big thing’ working”? If the answer is ‘no’ or you’re not sure, take a pause and reassess before moving on to the next thing. Only 42% of brands are using their technologies according to Gartner’s latest report, and with technology advancing at an exponential rate, brands continue to struggle to make their tech work for them. At Digitas, we see brands still wrangle with their data and MarTech, and as a result, their teams are either unable to meet their goals or spend far too much time trying to make their tech work. And so, before getting excited about how the latest trends are working, we ask them to consider the following: do they have strong data foundations, do they have integrations in place that drive efficiency and are their technologies operational?”

James Calvert, chief data strategy officer, M&C Saatchi: “Counterintuitively, it’s okay to jump on the hype-bandwagon, but do so with eyes wide open and for the right reasons. Perhaps we want to signal cues of innovation, foster excitement around a new idea, or speak to an early adopter audience. Then getting in on the ground and riding the bandwagon up is a great investment. But if not one of those reasons, then sometimes an effective way to discover that now might not be the right time is to take an initial step closer to see what the fuss is all about.”

Simon Richings, executive creative director, We Are Social: “A good response is to ask, ’why?’ probably a few times until you can get an insight into what's behind the request to jump into this new technological playground. Often it stems from a client team’s desire for their brand to be perceived as innovative, so the medium becomes the message – they want the use of emerging tech to signify that they’re at the cutting edge. But after multiple ‘whys’, you can get to a better brief – one that connects innovation to the brand’s real truth and values. Then you can create work which speaks to consumers, and not just the marketing world.”

Peter Nicholson, chief creative officer, Hill Holliday: “New shiny tech objects and innovations pop up often. In many cases, clients have not delved into the innovation and are just curious based on what they’ve heard. Our biggest job is to always be investigating innovations that impact culture and, to use an overused but appropriate term, be there at beta stages to learn and understand the value to marketing, creativity and culture. Then we can determine cultural understanding and use. I tell clients that their brand’s purpose and value need to align with the stage of innovation that’s right for their customers. Not all brands are pioneers and don’t need to be first. Customers aren’t measuring what brands were first to use a new shiny object. They are looking for function and value in the innovative platform. It’s great that clients have awareness of NFTs, Discord, blockchain and metaverse AR. It makes conversations easier in explaining the value to the brand and its potential.”

stu morris

Stuart Morris, agency partner, OMD EMEA: “AI, the metaverse, web3, big data, gamification, influencer marketing, programmatic, mobile advertising… you travel back far enough and you build up a hefty collection of well-hyped opportunities that seem to be the marketing magic bullet of the day, but then move out of the way for the next hyped-up opportunity. Look in that collection and you’ll find many of those hyped-up opportunities became the marketing bedrock for a brand, but only after testing, interrogation, and alignment to a holistic strategy. OMD’s approach ensures any new opportunity delivers sustained growth for our clients, and not just chase the new and shiny.”

Matt Rebeiro, future strategy director, Iris: “There are two ways to think about jumping on bandwagons: distraction or option value. To work out which of these a technology is, we can assess it across two dimensions. Firstly, relevance to the business (can it make or save you money?) and secondly, relevance to the customer (will it meaningfully change your customers’ behavior?). If the answer to both questions is ‘no’ then any bandwagon-jumping could waste time and money. But, if the answer to both is ‘yes’, you should treat it as option value: early experimentation can create learnings and early-mover advantage as the tech scales in the mid-term. If you answer ‘yes’ to just one of these, then I’d treat it as a trend to monitor and revisit in six months when there is more data to make a more informed decision.”

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Chris Turney, head of strategy, Joan: “We stress with our clients from the first conversation to build brands that are equally timeless and timely, so whether it’s AI or metaverse or influencers or viral videos or guerilla, or, or, or… a meaningful idea has to come first. Building foundations that then let our clients experiment with wild abandon to be current and cultural. And that’s what AI is right now, especially in communications – an experiment. We’re only learning the power of what human creativity applied to AI can be, so it’s an exciting time for us to jump in and get our hands dirty.”

liz grabek

Liz Grabek, senior vice-president of strategy, Periscope: “Our approach with new technology is “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” As strategists, our job is to help clients and brands answer the simple but not-so-simple question, “What should we do?” Consumers have a low tolerance for insincerity, so when brands show up in spaces that don’t feel authentic, it does more harm than good. So, we ground the answer to that question in really understanding the people (not targets) the brand is trying to connect with and making sure our actions further their mission. Do people want to interact with their insurance provider in the metaverse? Probably not.”

Jess Dickenson, chief operating officer, Precis Digital: “Being on the cutting edge of technology seems cool, but in reality, many businesses simply aren’t ready for emerging tech like generative AI. Businesses need the right infrastructure, expertise, and culture to make these technologies work. The hype generated helps us to direct clients to be digitally mature in practical and impactful ways; helping them take smaller steps when adopting the latest tech instead of diving in head first. In parallel, we’re testing the integration of generative AI into our internal agency tech before making it widely available. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will AI-powered marketing campaigns.”

Richard Ryan, creative director, Something Different: “The future is coming, it just never ends up being quite what you think it’s going to be. Flying cars anyone? Look, you can’t stop the AI snowball. It’s already rolling down the mountain. So, yes, technology is coming for us. But the important word there is us. That’s the bit AI will never be: Us.

“And what makes us is our humanity, experiences, fears, neuroses, biases, our ability to tell jokes and place ourselves in the shoes of the people we’re speaking to. That humanness – flaws and all – is what people want to see and feel in their campaigns.”

Mark McDonagh, client services director, EBY: “It’s a case of re-enforcing the value you offer to clients, particularly with the noise around ChatGPT. The insights and knowledge developed by working in partnership with clients can’t be replicated by any AI. Furthermore, we’ve already shown clients examples of good and bad AI content and it proves there isn’t a shortcut to transition to AI-generated content (yet).”

Crispin Heath, group digital director, Teamspirit: “In any large organization, there’s likely to be multiple unfocused project groups considering web3 and the various emerging technology around. But understanding what’s just a new tech distraction and what’s worth jumping on to meet brand objectives is where the real consultancy lies.

“Do three things. First, a market audit and analysis to determine the brand’s opportunity in a web3 world. Second, identify a lead owner to keep the team one step ahead in its understanding, compared to your competitors. And third, by end of year, have a straw man proposition for how your brand could enter the web3 world in 2024.”

Bradley Williamson, analytics manager, Tribal Worldwide: “The story of Nokia failing to capitalize on their early advantage in the mobile phone industry, and Apple taking off, is often used as a sort of fable for needing an innovation mindset. Nobody wants to be left behind, especially when it comes to new technology.

“In pursuit of being innovative, you run the risk of false starts, wasting precious time and resources on a decision that is not right for your brand. To understand if adopting a new approach is right for your business, you need to take a data-informed approach.

“It ultimately comes down to a two-pronged plan: collecting data on your consumers to understand what they value in your brand, as well as considering what you want consumers to value in your brand in the future.

“Businesses need to have a fundamental understanding of the key drivers of success, using data to qualify what these drivers are. They must ensure that these changes align with a long-term business vision rather than simply following trends.”

Helen Jambunathan, associate insight director, Canvas8: “Hype cycles can be misleading about scale and speed of change – but the behavior doesn't lie. We encourage clients to focus on actual human adoption of change (or shifting attitudes to it), which provides far more enduring and accurate information for decision-making than media cycles.

“You don’t want to stifle excitement or desire to explore new things, but you do need to be the lens that helps decision-makers see things differently. For us, that’s saying: let’s look at whether consumers are adopting this, and then make a decision on whether the hype is a) justified and b) right for you as a brand.

“It’s not about saying a blanket ‘no’ to bandwagon-jumping – just saying ‘let’s be sure’.”

Meghan Labot, chief growth officer, FutureBrand: “We start by telling them they are asking the wrong question. It is not a question of if they should be considering ways to incorporate new technologies, it’s a question of how? To enter new territories, brands need to be guided by purpose to ensure every experience of the brand reflects that purpose. The new technologies of today will be the cost of entry in the future. Every brand will need to embrace these technologies and do so in a way that is an authentic reflection of its brand. Would we discourage a client from exploring opportunities with new technology? No. We would focus them on how they can do so in a way that is true to the brand.”

This week, we’re exploring the emerging AI revolution and the ongoing brand exploration of the metaverse with our Deep Dive into AI & web3.

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