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IPG CEO Philippe Krakowsky on AI in advertising: beware ‘reversion to the mean’


By Webb Wright, NY Reporter

June 12, 2024 | 7 min read

The longtime ad industry leader believes that AI could empower creativity – or cause it to stagnate. The crucial factor? Human intention.

Philippe Krakowsky

Long before joining IPG, Krakowsky helped to found an AI company that was sold to Apple in the late 1980s. / IPG

The suddenness with which AI has recently been launched into mainstream consciousness belies its long history.

The French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes theorized the invention of thinking machines – a precursor to what we’d now call AI – back in the 17th century. As an actual field of research, the origins of AI are usually traced back to a 1956 conference at Dartmouth College, organized by a cohort of the field's pioneers including Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy.

The point is that while AI might seem like an ’emerging’ technology, it's been a part of the zeitgeist for quite a while – albeit much less conspicuously than it is today.

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Interpublic Group (IPG) CEO Philippe Krakowsky had his finger directly on the pulse of AI decades before the world had ever heard of ChatGPT. After studying comparative literature and linguistics at Harvard, he helped to launch an AI company that was eventually acquired by Apple in the late 1980s. He arrived at IPG in 2002, following stints at Y&R (now VML) and BBDO. Nearly two decades later, in 2021, he was appointed CEO. He’s maintained a fascination with AI throughout that long journey.

In an exclusive interview with The Drum on Tuesday, Krakowsky emphasized his commitment to incorporating AI into the fabric of IPG, one of the largest advertising holding companies in the world.

”We want the technology embedded in our ways of working – we don’t want it sitting off to the side or siloed,” he said. ”We want it used as broadly as possible across the organization.”

IPG has spent at least $100m on its own, custom AI tech. In February, it announced a partnership with Adobe aimed at integrating some of the tech company’s AI-powered tools into its proprietary marketing platform, IPG Engine.

Krakowsky also underscored his belief that the ad industry tends to pay too much attention to the cost-cutting and productivity-boosting elements of AI. In his view, agencies would be better off focusing on automating rote, time-consuming tasks so that individual workers can “move upstream to work on higher-order, higher-value work [for] clients.“

Still, IPG is approaching AI with caution. For example, the company is “pretty resolved“ not to use AI to create digital renderings of humans, Krakowsky said at an event in Manhattan on Tuesday.

This has become a vibrant talking point within the tech and ad industries, in part due to a much-publicized incident earlier this year in which Google’s Gemini model was found to occasionally depict human beings in a manner which misrepresented important historical facts. In response, Google paused the model’s ability to generate images of people. Beauty brand Dove has also made a commitment not to use generative AI to represent women in its ads.

But the primary risk presented by AI-powered marketing, in Krakowsky’s view, is what he described onstage during Tuesday's event as “reversion to the mean.” That is, that the widespread use of the same generative AI models throughout the industry would lead to an era of creative stagnation, mediocrity and boring uniformity.

How can such an outcome be avoided? The key, Krakowsky told The Drum, is “co-intelligence” – a term he borrowed from a book of the same name by University of Pennsylvania professor Ethan Wollick, which attempts to lay out a pragmatic approach to the use of AI in daily life.

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Krakowsky argues that AI will not be enough in and of itself to produce great creative work; it must be used in concert with human beings who have a clear set of objectives, towards which progress can be measured via precise metrics.

Ultimately, he believes that agencies will play a key role in building this productive creative relationship between humans and AI. “The unlock is going to be getting folks on the agency side … who have really good judgment, and who are as much craftspeople as they are knowledge workers, and having them interface with the machines,” he says. ”That’s where you get to a place where you don’t revert to the mean.”

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