Once More With Feeling: Just Do AI!

I’ve written a lot of columns exhorting marketers to jump into artificial intelligence and learn it like their lives depend on it. Make that “livelihoods.”

You see, I know something you may not. After nearly four decades as a technology journalist, I observed firsthand the increasing tempo of tech-wrought change. Adoption of an entirely new paradigm that took 10 years during the 1980s required only five in the 1990s, then 2.5 in the 2000s. Here in the 2010s, you’re talking about a year, give or take.

At the same time, digital technology subjects ALL industries to network effects, so first (or second) movers who “get it right” win big. If you’re third, well then, not so much. It’s hard to make an impact unless you come up with an incredibly powerful innovation.

Facebook, for instance, followed MySpace and Friendster, which superficially look like roughly the same thing. But Facebook’s platform was built with a laser focus on the human psychology of sharing your own information — it wasn’t about being an NSYNC fanboy or Avril Lavigne fangirl. And sharing wasn’t just another capability of the platform: it was sharing-driven. Bang, zoom, to the moon!

In the new world ruled by network effects, when a company falls behind, it’s almost impossible to recover. Notably,“The penalty for being late to the party is higher than it’s ever been … the concept of ‘first mover advantage’ is rapidly being replaced with ‘death by inertia,’” as  Greg Cudahy, global leader of the technology, media & entertainment and telecommunications practice at professional services firm EY, recently wrote on LinkedIn.

For marketers and AI, this all comes to a point succinctly stated last week at MediaPost’s AI Forum by Christopher Neff, senior director of innovation at cross-cultural agency The Community.

“We're at an early stage,” Neff said during “The Learning Machines” panel. “But the people who dive in first and start to disrupt their own business by experimenting and trying some different things out, they're going to meet a lot of success. And it's going to happen quickly where those who don't are just going to be rendered irrelevant.”

There’s lots more to unpack from the conference, but another relevant point was made by the same man. When the panel was asked whether clients experienced “sticker shock” over AI program prices, a couple of panelists acknowledged it was a concern — before Neff said, “AI is not as expensive as you think to start playing with, but you have to think about it in a scrappy way.”

By scrappy, Neff meant open-source, “using your own machines on Linux,” and “developers who understand Python and how to write certain scripts.” That’s how you should experiment with AI. “Once you understand how to do it in a scrappy way, I've actually experienced a lack of sticker shock, to be completely honest. People are somewhat surprised and say, ‘Wow, you can do that for that price?’” added Neff.

Amid the myriad implications of Neff’s comment is a future of marketers managing technology, but that’s a whole other bandwagon that you should be comfortable with by now. After all, based on Gartner’s famous 2012 prediction, 2017 is the year in which CMOs will surpass CIOs in technology spend — and in a report from earlier this year, Gartner confirmed CMOs are on track to do so!

To sum up: AI’s major impact on marketing will be felt much sooner than you think; if you don’t move early to learn through experimentation, you will be screwed and never recover; it won’t cost as much as you think to experiment.

Just do AI!

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