Why do we still need the agency when we have AI?

Will AI make agency roles obsolete? Hardly, writes Amnet Asia’s Jeremy Lo.


AI is really just a buzzword

The term “artificial intelligence” (AI) has been around since John McCarthy invented it in 1955, describing the field as “the science and engineering of making intelligent machines”. Yet today, the topic is increasingly given overwhelming attention in the advertising industry as though it was thought of in recent years.


A new tech product with the incorporation of “AI” is thought to be more advanced and revolutionary. But is it really true? Frankly, what some smart companies brand as AI is simply a clever data analytics algorithm, machine learning or voice and image recognition. Over the past few years, bigger data sets, superior computer processing, together with better automation of manual steps in advertising workflow have contributed to machine learning. So, what is deemed to be AI in advertising could really just be vast knowledge, combined with a sophisticated and pretty user experience design (UX) and buzzwords.


Human intervention is still crucial

As Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO said, “Today’s AI is good at recognising patterns and bad at what we would call “common sense”; without common sense, AI systems can’t use knowledge they’ve learned in one area and easily apply it to another situation. This means they can’t effectively react to new problems or situations they haven’t seen before, which is so much of what we all do every day and what we call intelligence.”


I agree. Common sense and decision making draw on factors beyond data that include senses, awareness, empathy, attitudes, behaviours and thinking. Algorithms cannot influence consumer motivations without first learning the emotions and thought processes of brand guardians. More worryingly, recent studies have shown that machines have picked up on our biasedness resulting in cultural stereotypes and sexist effects. Machines therefore cannot be left to evolve on their own without human intervention. Human intelligence is therefore irreplaceable and will continue to be of great value.


In fact, as another Mark, surnamed Cuban, a billionaire tech investor puts it, the most prized talents in the future are “those who can make sense of the data that automation is spitting out” and with degrees in studies such as English, Philosophy, and foreign languages or who excel at “creative and critical thinking”.  And these talents certainly do not sound like machines to me.


Will agency roles become obsolete?

While the advertising industry has changed significantly with the onset of digital and continues to evolve, its purpose is still the same. Even as some deliberate about the pros and cons about the implication of ad tech, the basics remain consistent; that is to be able to reach the right audience at the right time in the right place with the right message, and more importantly than ever, at the right price.


Looking ahead, the future of AI in advertising is not to eliminate agencies but rather to improve efficiencies and effectiveness in driving returns on investment (ROI) for clients. We can use AI to capitalise on automated machine learning and big data sets, delivering predictive performance insights such as forecasting the performance of campaigns, further elevating our offerings.


In theory, for marketing teams that demand control, scope and scale, hiring an in-house team for ever-increasing automated digital marketing efforts might sound logical. In practice however, the ever growing and complex digital landscape requires specialised expertise and considerable resources. In fact, these challenges are increasing in intensity with mounting data, content, vendors, platforms and technologies to contend with. In consideration of the time, resources and expenses to recruit and run a well-oiled full service team consisting of digital experts such as traders, social leads, search specialists and data specialists, it is clear why brands are continuing to leverage on the value that external agencies can deliver.


The value of the agency partner remains strong

In recent months we have seen leading companies in the aviation and banking sectors in Asia cutting jobs across departments to focus on leaner and more efficient models. While unfortunate, this appears to be an unavoidable trend that looks set to continue and could potentially affect in-house marketing and digital teams in the future.


In working with agencies, clients can save on the costs of setting up specialist teams, incurring multiple recruitment fees, salaries, onboarding and training costs, office rent etc. This only scratches the surface of the benefits and value a specialist agency provides in terms of cost, productivity, and quality.


The activation of programmatic media requires a unique skill set and range of expert capabilities such as traders, data analysts, partnership specialists and more, to understand and manage the technology and technical platform processes behind programmatic buying. On top of this, the agency is responsible for providing campaign optimisation, reporting, insight and analysis at a granular level. Within our agency for example, a trader works together with an account manager to monitor the ongoing performance of a campaign, making adjustments daily to achieve optimal results for clients.


Given such complexity, the client can maximise the opportunity of an agency relationship, getting the best possible planning and buying, data and technology as well as strategy and insights, without having to carry the resource burden in-house. Essentially, this allows both the brand and the agency to focus on their respective areas of expertise and prioritise results to eventually add value to the bottom line.


Now, do we still need the agency when we have AI? The answer is simple: AI or no AI, creative or media; hiring an agency (and the right one) can only translate to higher ROI.

This article was first published on Campaign Asia.