Brand-Inflected AI Demands A Profusion Of Diverse Skills

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, December 22, 2016
There’s a bit of a sotto voce debate going on among agencies right now about the best organizational model for exploiting the potential of artificial intelligence for their clients.

Some say AI and machine learning are so new and impactful, you’ve got to focus a team and fence it off in a separate division or subsidiary so that it can explore their potential free of the politics and mundane, everyday influences of current mainstream work. Others say AI and ML need to be integrated into everything you do for each client.

Having lived through a very analogous situation during the early rise of the Internet when I was SVP, internet business, for a major technology publisher, I know the answer. You fence it off — but you instill formal and informal mechanisms for collaboration between the focused team and other business units; you provide pointed compensation incentives to foster that collaboration; and you plan from day one to re-integrate when AI/ML usage reaches a predefined maturation point.

But that isn’t the point of this column.

I had a fascinating conversation recently with Mike Nicholas, a founder of Born, the new AI-focused agency subsidiary of MDC Media Partners announced last month. I probably have a dozen or more columns to unpack from that conversation, but one thing he said struck a resonant chord from my early-days-of-the-Internet experience.

“The startups that have the best AI technology chops know nothing about brand, and the great creative brand storytellers don’t understand AI technology,” said Nicholas.

Rewind to the mid-to-late 1990s, when agency executives were bemoaning the disparity of skills and temperament between HTML coders and brand storytellers. I can remember a small conference room in Dana Point, Calif. during that prior millennium, where we decided there must arise a new class of tech-savvy creative staff — and it did.

The same will happen with AI and brand storytelling. I’m not talking about people who can design neural networks and deep learning algorithms while writing prize-winning creative copy. I’m talking about people who understand AI’s strengths and weaknesses and can use the tools AI provides to add intelligence to innovative new kinds of customer-experience narratives.

That, of course, is a bit out in the future. But getting to that future requires someone to imagine it today. Nicholas offers a great example along those lines. Imagine a media company with a hot new character or set of characters —- the next Harry Potter or Batman. Or maybe just imagine Harry Potter or Batman. “What powers entertainment companies are their characters and their narratives — but a character has extremely low availability,” explains Nicholas. “For an entertainment company, a key potential of AI is to provide high availability of those characters so they can be leveraged in new ways — to make the character available to consumers on a one-to-one basis, at scale.”

For a bank, the story is different. AI has the potential to enable high-touch service with high availability, at scale. According to Nicholas, “The bank says, ‘Wow, we can save millions and have character-based bots that really fulfill customers’ needs.’”

You’re no doubt shuddering in horror now, thinking of your last IVR interaction with any company of more than 50 employees. Instead, think of "Knight Rider" or Samantha (in "Her"), or how well Dave and Hal 9000 got along before Hal went all psycho killer (qu'est-ce que c'est?). In other words, someone who “gets” your problem, or need, right away — or anticipates it — and provides just the right solution at the right time.

For a hotel, AI might provide an awesome concierge, at scale. “If your butler is an AI, you don’t have to stay at the St. Regis to have a butler. Everyone can have a butler,” points out Nicholas.

For every industry and each brand, there is a lot to learn about where AI’s value will lie and how to engage customers. In Nicholas’ colorful idiom: “AI technology is not going to be ‘one ring to rule them all.’ It will be more like the Avengers.” For those unfamiliar with Marvel Comics lore, the Avengers are a team of superheroes who all bring some special talent to each new let’s-save-the-world party.

But are these use cases “media”? I suspect they are. Again, here’s Nicholas: “Somebody once said that media is a word invented because brands don’t have direct relationships with their customers. But that’s changed now.” Interactions between brands and consumers, mediated by digital technology — and, now-ish/soon, AI — can take place anywhere and anyplace. Not messaging/positioning, but brand-inflected customer experience that solves problems or addresses concerns, in the moment.

There’s still a lot to learn about developing lifelike AI-based characters, building engaging narratives, and enabling those characters to tap into commerce or services on customers’ behalf. But today, that future vision already is fueling the sudden rise of chatbots (since bots are really just a UI for AI). Note the potential for high-touch service, at scale, already being experimented with by North Face and IBM Watson in my earlier "Chatbots Rising" column.

Today’s chatbots, though, are really only “fart bots,” according to Nicholas — recalling the early days of Apple’s App Store, when the best-selling apps simply made fart sounds. For now, marketers who want to do more than fart around — who wish to use AI effectively in creative interactions with customers — will have to build teams that combine skills from AI technology, character-building, narrative, and deep domain knowledge of business operations. All these elements are necessary for the creation of true customer utility — what Nicholas calls “brand as service.”

For now, you’ll need such cross-functional teams. Later, as suggested above, individuals will emerge who combine all the needed specifications.

Ultimately, though, there’ll be an AI for that.

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