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Can you automate a great idea? You know, a really creative one...

Michelle Greenwald, CEO of Catalyzing Innovation, seems to think so. She believes that with Apple ending its IDFA and Google putting a stop to 3rd party cookie tracking in early 2022, AI will be the key to creating measurable ads that resonate with audiences. 

“AI powered creative takes the guesswork out of advertising with more actionable, diagnostic information, within the context of brand campaign big ideas,” she said in a recent Forbes article

And David Olesnevich, Head of Product at IBM Watson Advertising, shares the sentiment. 

He reckons AI in advertising will be “...a welcome change for creatives, who find it empowering because they can think more broadly, experiment more, and learn faster.” 

But there was a time when creatives could experiment broadly - long before MarTech was even a pipedream.

From Madison Avenue to MarTech – how did we get here? 

Popularised by Don Draper and the slick, suited creatives of Mad Men, the 1950s is commonly seen as the golden age of advertising. 


But from ads that put health and wellbeing to the wayside - just take a look at Lucky Strike’s “It’s toasted” campaign - to outdated and patriarchal portrayals of women, how did it get this reputation?

“...advertising up until the 1950s was little more than scientific bullying,” said Lous Benedictus for The Guardian. “Different lines of argument, some truthful, would be tested on consumers until the most promising weak spot had been identified,” he said. 

Well, the 1950s ‘creative revolution’ changed everything. 

Copywriter turned agency owner David Ogilvy brought narrative flair to advertising and popularised the theory that great brands have personalities:

“Every advertisement is part of the investment in the personality of the brand," he famously said in a speech from 1955

Not only that, Bill Bernbach and his band of creative beatniks brought a sense of originality and honesty into the ideation process. In fact, they were responsible for what’s widely considered to be the greatest advert of all time; turning what had once been a car with difficult connotations for American citizens into a highly desirable automobile. 

However, advertising never stands still for long; I mean, even by 1969, the “madmen” had a computer. Fast-forward 40 years and with over 8,000 MarTech solutions battling to make the lives of marketers a little easier - not to mention the advent of AI - are we in danger of leaving those tried-and-tested fundamentals behind?

Embrace digital change (but don’t forget the fundamentals)

In Confessions of an Advertising Man, David Ogilvy - the "Father of Advertising" and founder of Ogilvy & Mather - stresses the importance of keeping advertising contemporary in order to cut through. Because even in his heyday in the early 60s, the average family was already being exposed to over 1500 adverts a day - all competing for space in their memories. 

“If you want your voice to be heard above this ear-splitting barrage, your voice must be unique,” said Ogilvy.

But coming up with something unique in today’s market is no easy feat - especially when it’s estimated that the average user is exposed to between 6,000 - 10,000 ads per day

This is where AI steps in.

IBM Watson has been on a quest for AI creativity for the past few years. Particularly, whether or not it can be more than just a virtual assistant in the creative process. 

"It is not our goal to recreate the human mind—that's not what we're trying to do. What we're more interested in are the techniques of interacting with humans that inspire creativity in humans,” says Rob High, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for IBM Watson. 

So, creatives shouldn’t worry that losing their jobs to machines? 

Not just yet, anyway. Because at the end of the day, you can’t automate emotion - can you?

Create messages around emotions (not necessities)

Like having a one-on-one conversation instead of shouting across a crowded room, David Ogilvy believed that a good advert sells the product without drawing attention to itself. 

“It should rivet the reader’s attention on the product. Instead of saying, ‘What a clever advertisement,’ the reader says, ‘I never knew that before. I must try this product,’” he said.

But he also argued that it’s the content of your ad that persuades people to make a purchase - not its form. Your brand promise needs to clearly communicate the benefits to customers but, because you’re trying to tap into real emotions, “ should never rely on guesswork to decide it,” he said.

Undoubtedly, AI can help with the data insight we need to fill in the blanks, In fact, its ‘deep learning’ capabilities even allow it to do so without supervision. Handy.

But can AI helps us do more than just sell? What about those meaningful experiences we try and create for our customers?

“In today’s world, technology has moved us forward so much that we often don’t actually need a product, and in turn, we must now connect with potential targets on a much more personal level,” said Sandy Rubenstein, CEO of DXagency, for Forbes Agency Council

OK, this is where the usefulness of AI becomes a little blurry. Think of the modern chatbot: you wouldn’t stick around and wax lyrical with them if you didn’t need something, would you?

And arguably, if personalisation is too automated, it can feel a little creepy. But whatever your opinion is on the subject, it does feel like all the while AI imitates human emotion, it’ll never replace the real thing. 

Great creative ideas don’t imitate - they innovate

“If you ever have the good fortune to create a great advertising campaign, you will soon see another agency steal it,” warned Ogilvy. “This is irritating, but don’t let it worry you; nobody has ever built a brand by imitating somebody else’s advertising,” he said.

Over the past few years, artificial intelligence has learnt to paint, write poetry and even play music. However, this isn’t something that should alarm creatives; it can be used to their advantage.

“It’s easy for AI to come up with something novel just randomly,” says John Smith, Manager of Multimedia and Vision at IBM Research. “But it’s very hard to come up with something that is novel and unexpected and useful.”

But even if AI does come up with something original and useful, humans will always play a part in the process. Marcus du Sautoy, an Oxford mathematician, reassured the interviewer at Vox of this:

“Rather than both of us being out of a job, what I hope is that maybe we’ll be able to push ourselves in interesting ways as the AI becomes a partner or tool to extend our own creativity,” he told senior reporter Sigal Samuel, in an interview with Vox.

Like many creatives, “I get so stuck in ways of thinking and sometimes I need something to kick me out of that,” said Sautoy. “AI can help us behave less like machines and more like creative humans. That’s the most exciting thing,”

It sure is. Watch this space...

4 tips for balancing a “Mad Men” mindset with machine learning tech

  • Flip the script - now, we’re not recommending the Lucky Strike “It’s Toasted” technique; probably greenwashing by today’s standards. But taking the less-travelled path when it comes to ideation can work wonders. And your virtual assistant? Well, it might just help get you there a little faster.
  • But don’t create as a committee - for Ogilvy, a lot of adverts looked like the minutes of a committee meeting - because they were. “Advertising seems to sell most when it is written by a solitary individual,” he said. But that doesn’t mean you can’t draw on your team and the power of technology for the research. This leads us to our next point...

  • Give them the facts - Ogilvy said: “When faced with the inconvenient fact that their brand is about the same as several others, most copywriters conclude there is no point in telling the consumer what is common to all brands.” - but facts are crucial to storytelling. And harnessing the power of AI’s deep learning can certainly give your creative an edge when it’s complemented with the right data.

  • Set some limitations - “it takes uncommon guts to stick to one style in the face of all the pressures to ‘come up with something new’ every six months. It is tragically easy to be stampeded into change,” said Ogilvy almost 60 years ago. But the importance of presenting a consistent image and tell a coherent story still holds true today. There’s always a temptation with tech to take advantage of its possibilities. So set some creative boundaries and reap the rewards. 

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