2016 was a banner year for artificial intelligence (AI). Across customer experiences, marketing and business it was a year with many inflection points. Understanding them will help us better gauge how it will gain even more traction in 2017.
Five years after the debut of Siri on the iPhone 4S, Apple's new AirPods gave new life to its virtual assistant. Amazon and Google have brought AI into our living rooms in a massive way – this past holiday season, Amazon sold millions of Alexa devices worldwide. Smart brands were at the ready to take advantage of that winter bounty: Jamie Oliver, National Rail, Spotify, and Just Eat all offered useful skills for Alexa.
Chatbots, the text-based cousins of virtual assistants, saw phenomenal growth as well. Platforms such as Facebook Messenger and Kik launched developer APIs and "bot stores". By July there were more than 11,000 bots on just Facebook Messenger. Brands as diverse as 1-800-Flowers, Clarks, CNN, KLM and Uber have experimented with customer-facing bots. Other companies, such as RBS with its Luvo bot, have brought the power of chatbots to internal teams.
At Cannes AI was a huge winner as well. JWT's The Next Rembrandt for ING took home the grand prix in the cyber and creative data categories. Google's Deep Mind Alpha Go effort won the grand prix in the innovation category too. Both efforts sparked cultural dialogue about automation making beachheads in creative spaces. They also demonstrated the unequivocal power of data as fuel for creativity.
To better position themselves for an AI-empowered marketing era, agency networks formed partnerships. Havas Group allied with IBM to create Havas Cognitive to bring Watson into their work. Publicis.Sapient established its AI practice with a minority stake investment in Lucid.
So what assumptions can we make from all that as we look to 2017?
1. Even more data-driven creative
Nothing breeds imitation like success. Given the award show domination of the aforementioned projects we'll see more like them. And given Cannes’ propensity for new categories I wouldn't be surprised if they made one for AI.
It'll be an open playing field for where the best work comes from too. More traditional agencies (JWT, BBH, Ogilvy etc) and more digital agencies (R/GA, AKQA, Huge) will each have unique strengths to bring to bear. And don't forget about the consultancies (Accenture, Deloitte, Cognizant) either.
2. The rise of counter-intuitive data analysis
AI is useless without a lot of good data. Trump and Brexit have taught us some harsh lessons about trust, bias and data. Havas Cognitive actually predicted Trump's election when so many others didn’t. Data analysts will be under intense scrutiny to make sure they don't fuck up with brand dollars. Expect more time spent looking at fringe results.
3. Performance marketing and programmatic will go on steroids
As brands and marketers strive to maximise every single penny spent you'll see a lot of heat here. Automated sentiment analysis, machine-generated copy, and more from companies like Adoreboard, Narrative Science and so on. Expect brands like BT, Aviva etc that are already invested in such efforts to increase spend. Programmatic media trading is already powered by machine learning and AI. What we will see is more companies like the brilliant Brainlabs start-up fill the demand.
4. Chatbots will take the reins of customer service
If social media has taught us anything, it’s that people love to complain. Chatbots allow customers the same opportunity, but in a discreet venue that's more personal for the consumers and less damaging to brands. It's also just more helpful to have a one-on-one service experience.
The rise of chatbots will blur the lines between UX designers and copywriters. When language becomes your interface, words drive your experience. Expect agencies to cross-train these disciplines in improv skills and the like. Companies like the BBC already use "UX writers" in their design & engineering team.
5. More partnerships, more M&A activity
For agencies and brands to pull all this off, expect even more handshakes. Google's Deepmind is a client of UsTwo – how long until they forge a genuine partnership? How long until IBM IX officially turns into a "creative shop" for Watson? How long until Deloitte acquires an agency with strong AI skills? Time will tell but expect headlines like this in 2017.
Daniel Harvey is the chief creative officer for Zone.