Agencies won’t own the AI future – but they can be essential to it
Until the end of the year, we’re hearing marketing leaders’ visions of the agency of the future. Here, Brew’s Tom Inniss says that big tech may well monopolize AI, but there’ll still be a role for agencies.
Agencies can make themselves essential in the AI future by providing the human touch, says Tom Inniss / Ricardo Gomez Angel via Unsplash
What does the agency of the future look like? To really answer that question, we need to understand what agencies are, and the role they play.
Agencies, at their core, exist to solve marketing problems.
Not to devalue the work we do, but those problems come down to connecting with audiences to sell products or services. We saw an evolution during the rise of the internet, where Mad Men-esque physical advertising gave way to the sleek and microtargeting strategies of digital agencies, but although the medium developed, the core concept didn’t – it’s still all about connection.
Now, when you talk about the future – not just of marketing, but of everything – there are those who argue that it will be powered by one of those currently trendy words: the blockchain, web3, generative AI, ambient computing... Life will be abstracted away into large language models and cloud servers, and we’ll be able to do everything with just a click, no need to think about it (and certainly no need for a human to intervene).
Whose future are we building?
We’re expected to not only believe in but actively be excited by unproven, black-box technologies that have repeatedly had their limitations shown. But some of the loudest advocates have tanked their reputations in the process. At best, these cynical ‘techno-optimists’ are naive to the legitimate concerns around ‘innovating at all costs’. At worst, it’s an insidious ploy to undermine valid fears about the safety of society by wrapping it up in innovator angst. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that the peddlers of this future just so happen to be the ones attempting to build it (read: profit from it).
For me, their vision of the future feels decidedly lacking in human connection. Their talk of saving humanity runs contrary to the very thing that defines it; our ability to reason and our infinite capacity for creativity and compassion. These are the cornerstones of community, bringing people together, showing commonality, and celebrating difference.
I’ve written before about the possibilities of AI, but also of its inability to emulate these distinctly endearing traits. That’s why I struggle to see agencies existing in this Jetsonian future, where their product becomes a chatbot that can interact with a client and provide tailor-made marketing plans. To pursue such an ideal is a fool’s errand. No agency will have the resources to out-engineer the likes of Google, Meta, or Amazon, who are all already releasing tools to try and control the whole process – conception through to execution – and who will undoubtedly collect money at each stage.
Who benefits from technological ‘democratization’?
Yes, the democratization of generative tools will allow more people to do more on their own. But, as anyone who’s worked with clients will tell you: understanding what a client needs, not just what they say, is half the battle. AI will only ever be as good as the dataset it’s created with, and prompt engineering will become an art in its own right. So, far from removing human interaction, I suspect the most successful future agencies will be the ones who emphasize it.
Much as it is now, knowledge, experience, and the ability to gel with a customer to transform their wants (known and unknown) into expertly executed campaigns that deliver meaningful results will be an agency’s true USP. AI could never have conceptualized Apple’s ‘Get a Mac’ commercial, or come up with Nike’s iconic ‘Just Do It’ slogan. Companies that want to stand out from the crowd of ‘perfectly fine’ campaigns will eschew the ready-made tools in favor of personal and bespoke campaigns; choosing creativity over convenience.
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This isn’t to say that agencies must shun new technologies – far from it. At Brew Digital, we’re even on the record as using AI to help speed up code production. But that’s really where I think AI will play its biggest role: a thin layer of innovation to speed up a process, or reduce administrative tasks. It’s not going to suddenly be doing the heavy lifting of creating campaigns or interacting with our clients – and we wouldn’t want it to.
We have always placed emphasis on meaningful, collaborative relationships where we work with clients, not just for them, and to retain that sense of fun and spontaneity that brings out the best in people. It’s why we do what we do, and why we have clients that keep coming back.
Nothing I’ve seen has convinced me that customers will be better served by AI than actual people. That laser focus on what’s best for the customer – rather than what’s new and flashy – is how agencies will flourish, now and in the future.
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