As advertisers and media planners, should we be afraid of AI?
When I first saw Terminator: Judgement Day as a kid, I was in awe. Not because I understood everything about the movie, I was in awe about a future that had robots that could do a man's job; I was in awe of a robot that was capable of such independent thought to complete a mission so sinister. That was close to 20 years ago. Today, when AI or Machine Learning is knocking on our doors, I am thinking of the future and what the next generation of advertisers and agency folk would really be doing if AI takes over.
The other day my wife was complaining about HDFC bank sending her an email saying that it's time to buy a new car as the EMI on the existing car was about to be completed. Keeping aside minor glitches, it was a great advertising tactic by the bank. No human intervention would have enabled such precise targeting and communication. Besides, I have been reading about how Google AI has written poems, Japanese AI has written a novel and so on. I wonder if this is a death knell to over 40% of the workforce in advertising in the coming days. These are pure creative domains that machines are taking over. This means that the planning function is on the verge of extinction.
In advertising, planning is one of the most important as well as complex jobs. It is important because planners decide the future of the brands that they work on and it is complex because the amount of data crunching involved - present, past and future. To add more layers, they need to understand consumers, the brand, competition, the category, and media habits which are never linear and always evolving. A minor miss with planning has dire consequences on the brand's future.
Just to put into perspective the amount of data that is processed by the planning team - imagine a doctor doing a heart surgery; (s)he needs to monitor every aspect of the patient and also have a key understanding of how any action would impact various different organs in the body. The precision required by the surgeon in the diagnosis and prognosis is the same kind of precision that the planning team needs to understand from the data crunching. This is precisely the reason why the planning team is revered by the brands, the way a doctor is revered by patients.
Fast forward to the future and machines have taken over a lot of functions from humans and diagnosis and prognosis are done more objectively by the machines. You can already see a glimpse of that in today's programmatic buying platforms that don't have ulterior motives like kickbacks, but only a single-minded objective of delivering the ad impression to the right consumers, irrespective of destination and in a fraction of the time that a media planner would have taken. The operational efficiency and the profitability of the company have gone up thanks to programmatic platforms. Brands love this concept and are actively seeking ways to fix the pitfalls in the system and it won't be too long till that happens.
Coming back to the larger function of planning; machines act objectively to arrive at goals by:
1. Collating and analysing historical data of the brand across paid, owned and earned media and creating certain patterns or modelling for future predictions.
2. Understanding the competition better by crawling through all available data points that humans can't. Furthermore, it can easily identify certain spikes in data points on one platform, correlate to something that happened on a different platform or due to certain outside factors and create easily understood patterns.
3. Understanding the category by going through data from all possible sources, which would take humans forever.
4. Using planning and research tools, it can directly get information about the consumers to create qualitative as well as quantitative profiles of the consumers.
5. Creating a plan of action across budgets, platforms, owned media, scheduling, communication, etc.
On a large scale, automated planning becomes cost-effective, increases operational efficiency manifold, decreases the risk by leaps and bounds, and thus, can effectively leave the next generation of planners jobless.
With the spends on self-server platforms increasing, including Facebook and Google, these planning tools would soon be plugged into buying platforms as well and thereby destroy the role of media planners and buyers in one stroke.
It can safely be assumed that AI would make huge strides in the coming days in the field of creativity. In such a scenario, it wouldn't be a far-fetched dream to say that my colleagues down the aisle, in the creative bay, are also looking at a bleak future. Machines would be faster, more efficient and be able to create more personalised communication at scale as they would know everything about the consumers including context, relevance, time, etc.
It would be a stupid pipe dream to think that whatever I have mentioned is possible only in fiction. AI or ML is knocking on the doors aggressively and waiting to spread its wings and fly. It is important that we start thinking of how the current set of media planners, creative teams et al, should evolve and reskill ourselves before it is too late. Let there not be an iota of doubt that we can retain our jobs, but in such a scenario, mediocrity and politics are bound to fail.
(The author is founder and chief executive officer, What Clicks, a digital media audit and strategy firm)