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Marketing embraces automation


If computers are good at one thing – and they are good at many – it’s automating tasks we used to have to do manually. This seems obvious now but it’s only since the 1980s that this capability has been in the hands of the average person. The speed of technological development since then has been astounding. In 1985 a Cray-2 supercomputer – the fastest in the world – was about as powerful as an iPhone 4. We are all wandering around with supercomputers in our pockets, and connected via the internet to much more super ones.

In the world of advertising and marketing, technology has made an enormous mark. The internet, at first, a way of academics sharing information and geeks geeking – has become the most ubiquitous and expansive advertising medium ever to exist. Much of the innovation in the past 20 or so years has focused on the delivery of the right ad to the right person at the right time – and then profiling and tracking that person for future ads. While faster internet speeds have slowly moved ads from boring blocks of text to rich multimedia experiences, there is much more that computer power can challenge, improve and add to the advertising world.

In some ways the ad business has been slow to adapt to the digital revolution. Scepticism about the ability for digital ads to emotionally engage people has led to widescale inertia in the industry. While there are countless examples of smart, innovative digital work, the centre of gravity for advertising still feels like it’s in film – even if that film is distributed online.

But to think all that technology offers is a new distribution mechanism for the same old advertising is to miss the even bigger opportunity and change that it has wrought. Automating processes and activities in the marketing supply chain to remove cost, increase speed and accuracy and ultimately to link advertising spend to the business value it drives.

Creative people sometimes baulk at this notion. So do old school advertising people who see advertising as a people business, trading in human-centric and emotive communication. They worry that technology and automation will suck the soul out of what we do as they feel putting campaigns through research before launching them has done.

The truth is that, as with most computing applications, the stuff computers can do better than us are best handed over. Fighting automation didn’t work for the ice sellers facing refrigeration or the CD makers fighting the internet. It won’t work for marketers or advertising people. This isn’t a matter of taste – it’s a matter of results. Imagine trying to buy digital advertising spots by calling and negotiating with every online publication. It hasn’t taken long for technology to make that proposition sound absurd. It’s not that humans can’t perform digital ad serving well enough by hand. They literally can’t do it at all anymore.

This will become true of a wide variety of classic functions and processes within the ad business. And the pressure to change will be, as it often is, financial. The geeks like me are ready to install any software any day. But adoption isn’t a product of enthusiasm. It’s a product of undeniable superiority.

So where are the opportunities to automate emerging in the value chain? Here are just two examples.

First, how agencies get briefed, traffic that brief and communicate on progress with clients is due for a significant revision. Digital traffic systems have been around for some time but most simply replace paper with digital paper. These systems take learnings from software development models like Kanban and Scrum as well as embrace technologies that allow for online comment and approvals of creative work. Used well, these tools remove the need for many of the typical status meetings agencies hold and enable clients to engage with the work in real-time actively.

Second is the emerging role of “dynamic creative optimisation” or DCO. If delivering the right content to the right person at the right time is the role of media automation, creative optimisation is about customising (or even creating) the content itself. For now, this technology can instantly assemble creative components dynamically to produce the final asset (for example switching out photos, text or colours on a banner). It does this by using data to target the right messaging at the right people. In time it will extend to real-time changes to audio and video and over time, even the generation of original content.

This last bucket of tools is perhaps most triggering for creatives. How can a computer know how to make emotionally engaging content? All those painstaking hours spent choosing precisely the right visual with exactly the right text placement, and now you’re saying a few lines of code on a machine can do it better?

The truth is – to go back to what I said earlier – this is content designed to provoke action. The minute you can measure action, you can optimise the content. It’s up to those of us who believe in the integrity and importance of creativity to show that great work can be optimised better and achieve better results. But that requires a mindset change and the willingness to become partners to the technology not sceptics of it.

Like the movement of “Centaur Chess” popularised by Garry Kasparov, the magic lies in the collaboration of human and machine. There will be casualties in roles which are just not needed anymore. But the potential is startling and the business case unarguable.

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