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Marketing leaders in dialogue at AI summit in New York: ‘This is 2001 all over again’


By Webb Wright, NY Reporter

June 7, 2024 | 5 min read

The conversation elicited a range of opinions around whether or not AI should be used as a primary creative tool in the ad industry.

AI Trailblazers Summit panel

From left to right: Suzanne Vranica, Jean-Paul Jansen, Jonathan Halvorson, Cheryl Guerin, Sophie Kelly, Marisa Thalberg.

On Thursday, a cohort of marketing experts from high-profile companies gathered onstage during the AI Trailblazers Summit in Manhattan – part of New York Tech Week 2024 – to discuss the growing role of AI within their industry.

The assembled marketing experts spoke cheerily about AI and its potential to transform virtually everything in the industry, creating an atmosphere that was countered by a cluster of low rain clouds that had settled over Manhattan.

While there was a general consensus among speakers that AI – and generative AI especially – was a game changer for some of the more mundane marketing tasks, like copywriting and boosting overall employee productivity, there was some disagreement about its potential to assist with the generation of audience-facing content.

Cheryl Guerin, executive vice-president of global brand strategy and innovation at MasterCard, argued that AI was not quite ready for the limelight of leading creative development within marketing teams. “I’m not expecting the really amazing, breakthrough creativity to come from AI at scale,” she said.

Jonathan Halvorson, global senior vice president of consumer experiences at food and beverage giant Mondel​​ēz, had a slightly different perspective, portraying AI as a tool that he and his team were already using at the tip of the spear in their creative work.

Halvorson adamantly believes that AI can fill what he calls “the creative excellence gap” – in other words, that it can help marketers to attain a degree of creativity and personalization in campaigns that was not previously possible due to financial limitations within brands. “[AI] unlocks that,” he said.

Throughout the conversation, Halvorson discussed AI with zeal. In the process of embracing AI, he noted that there would, of course, be “fences” that brands will encounter – barriers that must be overcome through education and training. “And once you get over a fence,“ he said, “you see a whole new world … [and] you’re gonna start running.”

In response to the question of whether or not AI should be used as a primary tool for creative development, Sophie Kelly, senior vice-president of global tequila and mezcal categories at alcoholic beverage company Diageo, urged caution. “Alignment on what ‘good’ looks like creatively, I think, is a big point of discussion at the moment.”

In this sense, Kelly harkens back to a major question that’s arisen throughout the marketing world since the release of ChatGPT in late 2022: Just because brands can use generative AI, should they? Or, put another way, is AI-generated marketing content worth putting out into the world for its own sake? Or is it wiser for teams to hold off on implementing the technology until they can become educated about its strengths and weaknesses?

During the early days of the generative AI frenzy, some brands were quick to deploy the technology in ad campaigns – a familiar trend following a previous wave of excitement around the metaverse.

These days, following a raft of lawsuits against OpenAI and some early steps toward government regulation of the broader AI industry, most marketers seem to have adopted a more cautious attitude. The safe and ethical adoption of AI was a theme of conversation throughout Thursday’s summit.

Predictably, nobody speaking onstage during yesterday’s summit went so far as to say that AI would inevitably render human creativity obsolete within the marketing industry.

Marisa Thalberg, chief marketing officer of theme park and entertainment company United Parks & Resorts, nicely summarized what has become an oft-heard theme from marketing experts on the subject of AI: AI won’t replace human marketers, but marketers who are actively using AI will absolutely replace marketers who aren’t.

“[AI is] not utopian, and it’s not dystopian – it’s a tool,” Thalberg said. “Are certain jobs going to go away? Yes, that’s already happening. But is the need for [human] creativity going away? Absolutely not. The agencies that will continue to survive – if not thrive – are the ones that are going to change their model” to effectively harness AI in order to gain a competitive edge on the competition.

Panelists seemed to agree that AI could, in one form or another, aid marketers in the creative process, and that the embrace of the technology should be a top priority throughout the industry.

“This is 2001 all over again,” Halvorson said, referring to the historic moment in which brands were faced with the choice of establishing an online presence or not. “Those who don’t move will be left behind.”

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