Sunday 25 September 2016

Steve Dempsey: Should adland fear the rise of the robots?

Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30

'The report makes for grim reading for telemarketers, who have a 99pc probability of being automated' Stock photo: Depositphotos
'The report makes for grim reading for telemarketers, who have a 99pc probability of being automated' Stock photo: Depositphotos

Earlier last week, McCann Erickson Japan appointed a creative director with a difference. Its name is AI-CDβ - which stands for Artificial Intelligence Creative Director Beta - and you guessed it, it's a machine.

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If you're anything like me, your first reaction was to smell a robotic rat. It was April Fool's Day on Friday, after all.

But McCann's corporate communications director in New York scotched my cynicism and confirmed that AI-CDβ is real and not a hoax.

The new creative director will allow McCann to move away from what McCann calls "the intangible experience and know-how of human creators" and will produce work through logic-based creative direction grounded on past TV commercial data.

AI-CDβ will also analyse results after its commercials have aired to improve precision for future projects.

Here's what president and CEO of McCann Japan, Yasuyuki Katagi, said of his latest employee: "Artificial intelligence is already being used to create a wide variety of entertainment, including music, movies and TV drama - so we're very enthusiastic about the potential of AI-CDβ for the future of ad creation. The whole company is 100pc on board to support the development of our AI employee."

So here's the question: is AI-CDβ an interesting tool with a human title that amounts to PR stunt, or should creatives be genuinely worried about the rise of the marketing machines?

The almanac of automation is an academic paper from 2013 called The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation? by Oxford academics Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A Osborne. Frey and Osborne ranked 702 occupations by their likelihood of being taken over by computers and warned that around 47pc of all US employment was at risk of computerisation.

The report makes for grim reading for telemarketers, who have a 99pc probability of being automated. But it has better news for recreational therapists who have the least to fear from computers - they only have a 0.03pc chance of losing their job to a machine.

The world of advertising also seems to have little to fear - if Frey and Osborne are to be believed. They found that media jobs, like a handful of others, are in the low-risk category as they're intensive in generalist tasks and call for social intelligence. Marketing managers only have a 1pc chance of being automated; multimedia artists, animators and art directors have a 2pc chance, while writers are at 4pc and graphic designers at 8pc.

According to the authors, creativity is tough if you're a computer. Why? Because creativity involves novelty and value, the latter being subjective and subject to cultural variations.

"Thus, even if we could identify and encode our creative values to enable the computer to inform and monitor its own activities accordingly," the report says, "there would still be disagreement about whether the computer appeared to be creative.

"In the absence of engineering solutions to overcome this problem, it seems unlikely that occupations requiring a high degree of creative intelligence will be automated in the next decades."

But AI-CDβ aside, there is one area of advertising where automation has already taken hold. Programmatic ad buying - the automated purchase of ad inventory on public or private exchanges offers the promise of real-time efficiency and lower costs.

But there are problems with programmatic. There are issues with viewability and fraudulent impressions.

And there have been some claims that holding companies, many of which own and operate their own programmatic arms, are incentivising their media agencies to prioritise their own programmatic exchanges on behalf of clients.

As a result, clients may not be getting the lowest costs that programmatic promises.

If this level of uncertainty and human error exists on the more numerical and statistical side of advertising, I'd suggest that those working in advertising have little to fear from the likes of AI-CDβ or any other computerised creatives.

When asked on a TV show what advertising is, advertising legend George Lois said: "Advertising is poison gas. It should bring tears to your eyes, unhinge your nervous system and knock you out."

While AI-CDβ may be able to cross-reference creative ideas against a database of award-winning ads, it's unlikely to floor anyone with its creative genius.

For what it's worth, I asked McCann at what hourly rate AI-CDβ will be billed out to clients. I didn't get an answer.

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