AI media

AI : A Moment of Reckoning For Media Agencies?

Media experts on why the industry must stop limiting its focus of AI to productivity and profitability gains

By Dani Gibson

In a rapidly evolving landscape, the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) has sparked both excitement and apprehension within the media industry. As technology continues to advance, professionals are grappling with the potential transformation of their roles. Recent reports, like Goldman Sachs, report the displacement of 300 million jobs worldwide, and have intensified these concerns. Another report - this time from Forrester Research - forecasts that agencies will replace 7.5 per cent of jobs with automation by 2030 amid the rise of generative AI. About one-third of agency jobs will be at risk of replacement by 2030. Also, advertisers have not hesitated to experiment with the tech, with about 56 per cent of business-to-consumer marketers already applying generative AI, according to Forrester data. Another 40 per cent are in the exploratory phase.

Yet, Forrester’s findings suggest that creative jobs might be among the least at-risk. While these fields will be highly influenced by generative AI, the tech could enhance their productivity. Is this then a moment of reckoning for media agencies? We have already witnessed the algorithmic automation of media processes to perform (often tedious) roles that were once performed by human beings. And if much of the industry’s product is the delivery of scaled operations, will generative AI be the answer?

An uncertain economy and elevated interest rates has accelerated a sense of macroeconomic foreboding across the industry. Does that mean that AI automation of jobs in the media industry - a cheaper and more efficient alternative to human labour - is just around the corner?

So how will it revolutionise media planning and buying? What jobs will AI replace, and what skills will remain essential in this evolving landscape? As agencies navigate a sea of client data, open-source feeds, and automation promises, we ask media experts how they must strategise to stay ahead of the curve.

James Parnum, managing partner and head of planning, EssenceMediacom

Without doubt, generative AI will impact every role and every department in media agencies. In partnership with ChatGPT-Microsoft, EssenceMediacom has already created a private and secure AI assistant, emChat, to become the first generative-AI augmented media agency. In only a few short months this tool is helping us raise the floor by getting to answers quicker, while also raising the ceiling by challenging our human thinking.

But AI has been part of our world for many years with AI capabilities and routines embedded into some of our most sophisticated tools, such as our million strong audience survey, our econometric models, and L&D bots – all trained to offer enhanced insight, forecasting and best practice for our agency and clients.

Therefore, we firmly believe that AI is not here to take our jobs, but will continue to be a personal assistant to us all and take away the jobs we don’t enjoy, have time for or even have the human capacity to compute.

Emily Jones, digital planning and strategy director, Gravity Road

I believe AI will give media planners the means and momentum to facilitate a move to ’The Conscious Attention Economy'.

The acceleration of AI will inevitably phase out the bulk of manual campaign implementation hours across paid channels, but this is a good thing.

We have an opportunity to look up from the weeds (and anyone who knows the manual labour of campaign building and optimisation should rejoice!) and shift focus to our ability, as an industry, to create broader positive social impact.

As the media world wakes up to the huge effect of our work on the well-being of people and the planet, advancements in AI (think emissions footprints and regenerative media activations demonstrated by the work of Scope 3) also offer the solution to measuring and modelling socially positive outcomes for brands.

Skill-sets will change, that’s true, but new young talent will (hopefully) see this translate into more meaningful strategic roles attuned to encouraging positive human behaviour, with a focus on developing social impact KPIs and well-being based metrics and analytics.

If AI levels the playing field in terms of media efficiencies, the concept of attention or “Time Spent” (as our agency motto we take this very seriously at Gravity Road) as a vehicle to create positive societal feedback loops will differentiate agencies looking to the future, and those looking to cost-cut on headcount.

Thomas Laranjo, CEO, Total Media

One of my favourite quotes on AI comes from the brilliant Cathy O’Neil, who said “Big data processes codify the past, they do not write the future.” If ethically done, agencies are the perfect environment for AI to thrive as they have the imagination to look beyond the predictable operating efficiencies and towards innovative and creative solutions to our clients' challenges.

This can only happen if as agencies we remain curious and willing to imagine the future differently to what we see now in the present. This also requires us to be adaptable. Agencies as a whole have shown time and again enormous capacity to change, even in the face of constant crisis (just look at the financial crisis of 2008, the global pandemic, the climate crisis, war, recession) and through huge shifts in consumer behaviours. Despite all this challenge and change, the industry is still bursting with talented and constantly replenished stock of great agencies.

Confidence is key. It’s a double-edged-sword but agencies generally possess confidence, which could be a great benefit when taking our first steps into the wider use of AI by not fearing the unknown and being a step ahead of everyone else.

Humility is a very under-appreciated skill to have in today’s society - there is rightly huge excitement amongst agencies about the explosion of AI solutions and an eagerness to take advantage of the potential gains in productivity, creativity and innovation. However, alongside this excitement, we all need to recognise that we are at the beginning of the AI journey and we should focus more of our enthusiasm on learning and understanding. While it can be tempting to leap headlong into evangelising about or using AI, no agencies possess enough information to truly calculate the impact that the explosion of AI will have on industry and society at large. We should have the humility to recognise our current limited understanding and the integrity to recognise the importance of learning before we leap!

It’s also vital to ensure that we are encouraging collaboration across all stakeholders – agencies have enormous capacity to understand and embed new technology and innovative thinking into our businesses and we have done this through an industry-wide ability to embrace collaboration between different disciplines and skill sets. Truly leveraging the benefits of AI will demand collaboration between all stakeholder groups – employees and managers, publishers and brands, businesses and consumers – working together we can use AI to help all stakeholders thrive and not lazily see only a bottom-line dividend.

I’d also reiterate the importance of empathy and understanding of the societal challenges of AI. Ingrained bias in the data, fear of the impact of AI on jobs, flaws in the technology, fear of the unjust and undisclosed application of AI, the global challenge to copyright, are just a few of the wider issues we must openly and transparently face when effectively looking to apply effectively and ethically. To have empathy and show understanding for concerns when adopting new technologies is vital to ensure your teams feel psychologically safe.

Finally, it will not be enough to simply land new technology in an agency and expect immediate benefits, nor should agencies just test-and-learn their way to best practice use of AI tools. Instead, we can all look at supporting the behaviours that will help us answer key questions like: “how do we encourage people to want to use AI and not fear losing their role?” or “How do we provide space for safe debate and challenge when considering the ethics of a given AI solution?” Agencies that consider behaviour change as an integral part of the roll-out of AI solutions will see a significant increase in effective use.

While huge pressure exists on all agencies to drive financial performance in an uncertain climate, it would be a huge shame and a significant missed opportunity if we limit our focus of AI to productivity gains and profitability gains. Applied AI represents a huge opportunity to use technology that can help us all to thrive in our work environments if we ask the right questions: “how can we use AI to reduce time on manual, highly repetitive or complex tasks, to free up time to focus on strategy, creativity and greater work-life balance?” AI will provide a huge boost to our industry if it is not considered a solution in search of a problem but rather a solution to solving clearly identified challenges.

Andrew Mason, chief media officer, Digitas UK

There is little doubt that AI can and will enhance media planning and buying, and aide agencies and clients in driving greater efficiency and agility. But let’s also not forget that AI is not new. At Digitas, we have been successfully adopting AI and integrating it within our working practices for a number of years now. Our people have learnt new skills along the way, which in turn has translated into us driving even greater impact for our clients.

Some immediate gains can be made around reporting for example - pulling trends and insights at pace. Channel planning is another area that can be greatly enhanced by its application.

With the introduction of AI there is the obvious concern around what this means for talent. AI will almost certainly aide with certain tasks, but it will not replace. We are an industry built on people and will continue to be so. The agencies that will gain the greatest success will be those that embrace AI, develop its application and use it to the benefit of their people and clients.

Harry Evans, account director, VCCP Media

It is now almost impossible to ignore the concept of artificial intelligence, no matter your line of work, or your level of interest or disinterest in technology. At the time of writing this, there were 185 pieces of content ranked on Google News around the search term 'artificial intelligence' in the past 24 hours alone; a number that no doubt pales in comparison to the vast swathes of social and blog posts filling up timelines with the subject all day, every day. And with the top suggested search term completion for "will AI..." being "...take over the world," it's safe to say that not everyone is entirely comfortable with the prospect of this new technology.

So, should we, in the world of media planning and buying, be sharing the worrisome sentiment of the Googlesphere? Many don't think so, and I do count myself within that optimistic bunch - but not without a relatively heavy hint of caution.

From a VCCP Media perspective, we believe that when it comes to its application to media agencies, particularly in the planning space, the most obvious advantage that AI delivers is its ability to collate, organise, and understand unstructured information. We have acres of data and insights at our disposal, through web results, research subscriptions, and our own sources - all of which is hugely useful - but with such agony of choice, planners and strategists can often find themselves condemned to hours of pouring through a seemingly endless cycle of content, settling on the most suitable insight when the deadline looms. AI can often provide an opportunity to slash this workflow down to a fraction of the time by providing a solution which does the heavy lifting for us, leaving space for actual planning with greater creative thinking at its core.

The empowerment of creativity through AI is something that hasn't been overlooked across the wider VCCP Group, evidenced by the recent launch of our AI-powered creative agency faith, with the team there focusing on utilising the tech responsibly to make it an 'unparalleled accelerator of human creativity'. While so many in the creative industries have lamented at the role this tech will have on the creative process, faith believes that it can do the opposite, and supercharge it.

With the growth and development of AI happening at such a rapid pace, questions around the relevance of human job roles are never far away. It can certainly be tempting to make lofty assumptions around the inevitable demise of human requirements, particularly in the world of professional services; but is it really all doom and gloom?

We must remember that AI, particularly generative AI in its current form at least, is only as good as the input prompts it gets from users, so human thinking will remain a key starting point to help extrapolate unique perspectives, ideas, and output from the tech. There is also the question of whether agency competitiveness will suffer. The argument is often that with developments in new tech available to all, how will agencies differentiate? But this brings us back to the importance of real-life people. Agencies have always had largely the same access to research, 3rd party data, and channels; but what often sets one apart from the other is the thinking, the culture and, crucially, the people.

As smart as we can make AI tech, it is unlikely that it will ever replace the human experience, and the ideas, worldview, and nuances generated from that. Developments in technology have almost always been about a race towards achieving tidy, logical, perfection, but few brilliant ideas have ever been perfect.

In the words of William Moore Kelly, “Man is a slow, sloppy and brilliant thinker; the machine is fast, accurate and stupid.” While this may not be quite as true nowadays, I think we can all agree that the little spark of madness that makes us human will be difficult to replicate by a machine that’s based on existing banks of neatly stored data, rather than real-life experience.

Regardless, I’ll take a system that can eliminate the tediousness of number crunching any old day.

Sam Holt, managing director, Performics

The first thing to say is that AI has been prevalent in agency life for some time now whether it be working with off the shelf products provided by the large digital ecosystems, proprietary tools within agency data, tech and measurement practices or through things like Marcel, Publicis’ internal AI assistant – all of these have been in place for over 3 years now. So, for me, it’s not a translation of skills necessarily, more a democratising of those skills. The good news for agencies is that the workforce is made up largely of younger, digital natives that have rapid change and digital adoption already baked into their way of life – I see speed/acceptance of adoption as being one of the biggest skills/behaviours we’ll need.

Having a good understanding of data and how it can be constructed and modelled aids in the process of understanding what AI is and how it works. Being able to highlight areas of your job that you could point AI that will have high impact requires a good understanding of your own and your client’s business and finally you need to be inquisitive – in the early days of search you had to learn what to ask a search engine and AI is the same in the form of prompts – we will only get better at using AI in our daily work if we test and play with it.

I’m a big believer in bottom-up innovation. By giving all of our employees a safe space, via PublicisGPT, to test and learn we hope that innovation can happen at every level, across every team and it’s the people driving change themselves.

While huge pressure exists on all agencies to drive financial performance in an uncertain climate, it would be a huge shame and a significant missed opportunity if we limit our focus of AI to productivity gains and profitability gains.

Thomas Laranjo, CEO, Total Media

If AI levels the playing field in terms of media efficiencies, the concept of attention or “Time Spent” as a vehicle to create positive societal feedback loops will differentiate agencies looking to the future, and those looking to cost-cut on headcount.

Emily Jones, digital planning and strategy director, Gravity Road


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