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Published on The Drum

The extraordinary power of digital technology, robotics, algorithms and all the machine-led tools that have transformed the media industry is something of a double-edged sword. At least that’s the message that has emerged from the new Rise of the Machines report, co-authored by Omnicom agencies TBWA and Hall & Partners.

On the one hand, they allow us to know our audiences better, sell more products more effectively and enhance our brands with extreme rapidity. But just as that power is liberating, so it can provoke extreme reactions – fear, intimidation and bewilderment. What will the age of the machine mean for jobs, do we need to craft new kinds of messages to suit the new technology, are we being seduced by cool gadgets rather than effective strategies?

Yes it’s scary, as one head of digital for a leading global bank told us. But it’s no good pretending that it’s not happening. All brands should be using smart machines as a marketing tool to make commercial decisions – the key is to know which ones are smart. He says: "All the while, we viewed the rise of the machine as something that helped human interaction. The real task is to work out which are dumb machines, which help you to do stuff like most social media channels, and which are smart, in that they help you impact commercial decisions. The smarter the machines, the better a tool they will be for marketers."

The smartest machines, say our respondents, are those that enable brands to converse and engage with consumers with greater efficacy. As we well know, this means they need to let go of that fear of needing to protect themselves from a world that which machines have turned into one that is always on.

Dane Lim of Singapore’s Economic Development Board believes machines mean marketing no longer needs to strive for perfection. Instead, immediacy, spontaneity and creativity should be allowed to flourish.

He says: "Successful brands are really trying to shift the brand language from that of governance and guardianship to that of brand interaction and exchange with their customers. For example, where traditionally we take brand and we feel a need to govern and trademark, where you see the 21st century brands emerging, they’re prepared to put the brand out there for consumers to talk to it and engage with. I think they are very comfortable with the fact that not everything is going to be positive but it’s a conversation they’re prepared to accept and take on. I feel that that’s probably a great learning opportunity to converse, as supposed to protect."

Indeed, those marketing leaders we spoke with agree with our own internal analysis that such conversations need to be conducted by humans as much as possible. Of course, technology can be used to tell stories but if we put the ‘coolness’ of such tools above the authenticity of telling meaningful stories, brands will suffer. Technology can bring greater consistency to those conversations, bringing a brand to life.

It’s something luxury brands are beginning to appreciate. After some reticence engaging with the most sophisticated tools, our report shows how they are now technology pioneers. Ian McLernon of Rémy Cointreau Global Travel Retail, says: "Technology can totally bring the brand experience to life. It’s about firstly not being scared of it and, secondly, realising that it’s a great way of getting more consistency around the world in terms of being able to bring that brand to life and creating real desire. You can also use tech quite easily in our business with multiple languages, which is another big asset, particularly when you’re working in Asia. It can transform communication."

Others are more cautious. Traffik’s David Loughnan believes that if you use technology, it has to align with what your brand stands for, rather than just being used for the sake of it. But he adds: "Don’t be afraid to try things, if there is a real reason to do it, go and experiment. Innovate and be ahead of the curve, but make sure you’ve got a real reason to do it."

Teams within TBWA and Hall & Partners know that the difference between marketing and planning must to be fully understood before embarking on machine-led strategies. It’s the same at one of the world’s leading tech companies, highly regarded for its research and development of AI algorithms who believe you need "systems that understand structured and unstructured information" otherwise "how can we then reason to make decisions or justifications to drive actions?" Marketing messages will always need human guidance, planning can be structured with algorithms. But, he adds: "Let’s not get hung up about AI, machine learning and all of that. Let’s focus on how it can help the individual - whether with a marketing expertise or not - make the right decision. That’s what the rise of the machines is all about."

Of course the rise of the machines is going to be essential in the way brands attract larger audiences and marketers craft their messaging but our respondents were unanimous that the role of technology is to help humans solve problems that we can’t solve ourselves, to help us make the right decisions. Not to make the decisions for us.

As market-leading media agencies, it’s something we are committed to – that to control the fear of what the machines can do, we need to control the machines.

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