Commentary

Brain Against The Machine

Display ads are getting smarter.  Both humans and machines are driving that confluence.

I should expect to see ads for hot coffee when it's cold, and iced coffee when it's hot.  I should expect to see ads for umbrellas, raincoats, and boots pointing me to the local pharmacy/retail store when it's raining.  

I should expect to see coupons for a breakfast sandwich in the morning and for dinner specials in the evening.  These are things that humans should expect from their advertising, and it's what machines are starting to give them.

Imagine that.  Reading an article about motor trends -- it’s 80 degrees and sunny out -- and seeing an ad for a convertible with your local dealer price.  It’s almost like divine intervention.  Thousands of years ago, this type of thing might have spawned a religion. But today, it’s just another amazing possibility brought on by advancements in technology.  

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And while some might think it is all about technology, it is not.  It is also about people. But where does the technology actually start and where does the human element come into play. On a panel at OMMA Display recently, we discussed this very topic trying to break down the relationship of “Man vs. Machine.”

One of the questions posed was: With all the incredible advancements in technology, how do you keep the human element involved?

Let’s revisit my anecdote about a convertible.  What is really happening behind the scenes is a perfect example of this blend of human and machine.  A multitude of real-time decisions are being made simultaneously, taking into account the ad placement, the surrounding content, in addition to other signals like the weather, the geographic location of the consumer and much more (prices, behavioral, etc.).  

This may all seem like the machine.  But if you look closely, the human element is abundantly clear.  The technology has to be imagined and developed by humans. The ad creative has to be conceived and built.  Media has to be bought (via RTB of course).  The campaign data then has to be analyzed by humans.  The machine has to be studied and streamlined.  Optimizations need to happen on the fly.  And so the virtuous cycle continues.

In the advertising industry, it’s not that the human is disappearing, but rather that the role of the human is changing.  

I touched on this topic in a previous article; the current generation of creative thinkers is the technologists. That is where the shift is taking place.  Richard Hartell of Mediavest @richhartell made a great point during the panel that 10 to 15 years ago in media agencies, the majority of employees were fairly similar -- a balanced mix of creative and analytical thinkers.  

But now, the industry is more focused on specialization and brilliance at a specific task. At the same time, the dollars are flowing into the digital advertising industry, which is attracting top talent from top universities.  So we’re at a point where supply is directly aligned with demand.  Machines are not replacing humans, they are simply morphing human’s roles.

The final OMMA Display panel question will be my final point: When do machines get rid of us?  Of course, this was part humorous, but certainly with the speed in which technology has evolved and how fast it has changed the landscape of online advertising, it’s a fear that some people may have.  

Of course, humans will never be fully replaced, we are the ones inputting the machines.  But we’re also the ones passing judgment on the output, as Nathan Woodman of Adnetik said on the panel. The reality is that humans will always be involved, it’s a matter of how much and in what capacity.  We’re a long way away from machines programming themselves.

1 comment about "Brain Against The Machine".
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  1. Matt Straz from Namely, November 22, 2011 at 9:04 a.m.

    Great article, Ben. Really enjoyed this.

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