Industry leaders discuss a future without advertising, technology and gender, AI and creativity and more
This year’s ad:tech Sydney saw the industry come together in celebration of not only advertising technology, but the broader implications of how advertising and marketing’s use of it influences the wider world.
This article originally appeared in The Madtech Brief, Marketing‘s second print issue for 2019
Keynotes and panels spanned from the hard technical to the intangible abstract – the convergence of ad- and martech, ethics in modern-day marketing, learning from privacy scandals past, how augmented reality is posed to transform the digital landscape, serious discussions on the future of data in media, not-so-serious discussions on the state of personalisation in marketing – you name it.
Sitting in a packed audience on the third level of Sydney’s Hilton, surrounded by hungry young marketers scribbling down notes and seasoned conference veterans listening with arms crossed, it’s not difficult to understand why so many are seduced into this profession. Speakers battled with the most difficult questions facing the landscape, shared mind-blowing and completely counterintuitive perspectives on tech and data and, most of all, emphasised the depth of responsibility placed on marketers to lead public perceptions and steer society’s technological attitudes.
A future without advertising
Presenter: Ana Milicevic, co-founder, Sparrow Advisers
“We’ve never spent more money on advertising than today. [We’ve] certainly never spent more money on visible advertising than today.” She’s right. According to Zenith’s Advertising Expenditure Forecasts, total global internet ad spend in 2018 was US$246 (AU$345) billion.
“But that relationship between what the value of advertising is and how clear that is to the young consumer is really precarious.”
Milicevic implored her audience of advertisers, technology vendors and marketers to consider the true value of advertising to the individual viewing it. “There’s a chasm between this promise of personalised one-to-one advertising that we all subscribe to and the daily realities of how that manifests to the consumer.”
Tracing the steps of how display advertising arrived at its current state, it appears almost organic the way advertising has crept into every corner of the internet. Milicevic suggested that for the past 20-odd years, most content destined for online has had the same issue – how do we monetise this? “Oh, just run some ads against it and it’ll be fine,” Milicevic mocked. “Well, it kind of caught up to us. ‘It’ll be fine’ is maybe not really fine.”
On top of that, we’re also in the golden age of content. According to Milicevic, the average person will consume somewhere in the neighbourhood of seven and a half hours of media every day – and as much as 10 hours in the US.
“Just before I got here I spent some time on CNN and thought I’d share the misery with you guys – I’m not blasting them here… this is the reality of what a premium media experience looks like today.”
The CNN web article is topped with an accordion ad, indenting the article is an auto-play video block. “I thought I was reading a text article, but there’s a video player that’s launching itself at me with pre-roll and mid-roll and other things.” Further down the page, more ad spaces flank the text, “There are ads on the left, there are ads on the right.
“There are ads everywhere and they are alternating between content blocks that look very similar to the ads that you’re seeing.”
Milicevic went on to explain her disappointment. “This does not look like a premium experience at all to me, let alone a premium advertising experience.”
Citing a separate incident of ad annoyance, Milicevic brought up a recent Viber video call she had with her father. She gestured to the screen; the call has ended, her father’s parting face has been blurred, lying over it is a square ad for what Milicevic understood to be an offshore drilling company.
“We hung up and this is the experience that I’m sure made a lot of sense in somebody’s spreadsheet, but [for me] as a consumer is just deadly.
“I don’t ever want to see an ad over my dad’s face. That’s just me, but also I’m not quite sure who these people are and why they are advertising to me to begin with. I’d really like to talk to their ad buyer to understand how this happened.”
Milicevic went on to showcase several more comically cringeworthy instances of invasive ads, personalisation failures and other general marketing mishaps. The result? “eMarketer Research has ad blocker adoption somewhere around 30% of all users. That’s a pretty scary number to think of – people that right off the bat opted out of any type of advertisement.
“I understand why, because if you look at previous examples it’s pretty clear that it’s better not to see any of this mess than to continually be exposed to it.”
According to Milicevic, we’re in an age she calls ‘The Inbetween’ – on the precipice of a sudden and inconceivable technological revolution, and yet still learning to operate on the platforms we’ve had for years.
“It’s the equivalent of starting a basketball game and, at half-time, the team you’re playing against all of a sudden gets seven players on court and every shot they make counts as a three-pointer.
“What can we do as marketers and as advertisers? We can prioritise flexibility, which is really hard to do today in our regimented world of pre-designed budgets and line items.
“We need to try to get ourselves out of that frame of thinking and be much more flexible. We need to think like a consumer more often.”
So what does a future with advertising look like? According to Milicevic, it’s not a difficult one to imagine, “but I’ll correct that by saying it’s really easy to imagine a future without today’s advertising.”
The future she pictures doesn’t necessarily involve zero points of discovery; people will always want to learn about new things and new products, it’s a “fundamentally human position”, according to Milicevic.
“As a species we’ve always been storytellers, and a few people [at ad:tech] called that out – how we tell stories and how we tell more meaningful stories. I think the way advertising evolves in the future is that every interaction becomes advertising, so it’s not just transactional.”
Milicevic described a future reframed, where instantaneous attention is not fought over as a scarce resource, impressions don’t measure brand-customer relationship, and where personalisation isn’t an awkward, superficial lure.
According to Milicevic, the brand-customer relationship is to evolve into a “much more all encompassing relationship that tells stories across channels, tells continuous stories and doesn’t lose context depending on whether somebody is on a mobile or desktop”.
Tech, gender, brand
Presenter: Daye Moffitt, executive director of strategy, Landor
Moffit brought up an interesting observation. Think of every personal AI assistant out there – Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Samsung’s Bixby, Google Assistant. Notice anything? Just about every consumer voice assistant in the market, designed as a subservient weather checking, appointment making, call scheduling subordinate, arrives with a default female voice.
Then consider IBM’s Watson – generating medical hypotheses, processing meteorology data, calculating taxes. “He’s bringing home the bacon,” as Moffitt put it.
Is it just gender stereotypes infiltrating the minds of technology moguls? Is it because Silicon Valley is so male-dominant? Unconscious bias?
A study from Indiana University found that both men and women prefer female voice assistants because they interpret the machine as being more welcoming and understanding. Another study from Stanford University showed that a male voice was preferred by participants when learning about computers, but a female voice was preferred when hearing about love and relationships. Tech companies cite similar research to explain their female-slanted voice assistants.
To an evolutionary psychologist, there’s an argument to be made for females being the more nurturant of the two sexes. So it may only make sense that people feel more comfortable being supported by a maternal voice. However, according to Beatrice Alba (research fellow at the School of Psychology and Public Health at La Trobe University), evolutionary differences between the sexes do not imply that gender inequality (insofar as it’s manifested in these circumstances) is not determined by our biology.
“But just because male domination may be in some sense natural for our species, this does not make it necessary,” says Alba. “The fact that something may be human nature doesn’t mean it is good and in many cases, it is clearly the contrary.”
Moffitt closed with the suggestion that brand owners have faith in the powers of their own brands, and consider heavily the wider implications of gendered actions, “with the new industrial revolution comes the new social order.”
AI and creativity: even better than the real thing?
Presenter: Tom Eslinger, global chief creative officer, Burson Cohn and Wolfe
Perhaps the conference’s most thought-provoking speaker, Eslinger opened to his audience with a proposition: do we need humans for creativity? Picture it: a scarily near future where human and AI creatives produce work almost indistinguishable from each other.
Phoney sci-fi nonsense? Perhaps not.
Eslinger brought up the ‘creative genome project’ from ad agency McCann Japan’s creative planner Shun Matsuzaka – pitting his human creative team against an AI to create a television spot for breath mint brand Clorets. The custom-made AI was equipped with a deconstructed database of Japan’s most decorated advertising from the prior 10 years, issued with the task of delivering both a creative brief and the ad’s tonal elements.
“Can you imagine that? ‘Hey I’ve got a great idea for a brief, let’s put my entire creative department out of business’,” Eslinger joked.
The result? The AI’s spot was chaos – it lacked narrative, characters appeared without context, the music was sporadic and the punchline seemed to arrive out of nowhere. The problem was, it was also great. Matsuzaka’s AI didn’t pass the ad-making Turing test by any means, but that’s not to say it wasn’t fantastic to watch. Raw, unrefined, manic and completely scattered. It was chaotically beautiful: an explosion, a cyclone, a mushroom cloud.
“The AI one is pretty cool because there’s no filter, it’s just weird. So it fits the category perfectly. Diapers? Probably not, but for selling gum, it’s pretty cool.”
Next, Eslinger played a clip demonstrating how motion targeting technology can be used to assign the movements of one person’s body to another’s.
Ever wanted to dance like Bruno Mars? Now you can:
The technology isn’t far off from Deep Fake AI technology, which, given enough source material, can map the appearance of any individual’s face onto another’s – matching facial movements, lip syncing and tracking with body movements. Using the two technologies in conjunction, you could just about make anyone appear to be doing anything.
Ignoring the more insidious potential applications for AI, Eslinger said marketers should be brimming with excitement over the possible use cases, “In our careers we’ll be able to buy this stuff. And this is just the stuff we can imagine. This is just stuff that’s [being made] now.”
If Eslinger had his way, it seems our advertising would be a little more experimental than we’re used to, and certainly a little too wacky for some of the more conservative brands.
“One of the reasons that I don’t want to be in big companies anymore is you just can’t do this stuff on a regular basis. It’s hard to do it. If enough of us are brave enough… this stuff is going to rise to the surface a lot faster than just scientists doing it by themselves. Because you know what? Scientists don’t know what’s cool.
“All of us have clients that, when we bring them a weird idea, go, ‘Well I need to see 12 case studies of how it worked before, and what the measurement was…’ before they’re gonna open up the purse strings.”
As Eslinger sees it, a future of AI-integrated creativity is an inevitability. And as the technology develops, he appeared optimistic that there will always be a place for the lowly human among future marketing. “I always look at this and say, ‘It’s not Us versus Them.’ Humans bring the EQ – the emotional levels – and the IQ comes from the AI, because our human experience is something that a machine will never have. You can’t put into it your memories and conversations.”
For his parting words, Eslinger left with the late, great science writer Arthur C Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
The (I)nfluencer (Q)uotient
Presenter: Pamela Kaupinen, senior vice president of strategy, HelloSociety
The crux of Kaupinen’s keynote was that influencers have changed the social dynamic between brand and consumer. A self-proclaimed ‘social-mediaholic’, Kaupinen described herself as a social media optimist, “I think if you look for the good in it, you’ll find the good in it.”
Kaupinen mentioned that for the most part, those who interact with and talk about brands on social media don’t actually follow those brands. Enter the influencer, a force for brands to communicate that they are ultimately made up of people too. Influencer marketing poses as an incredibly powerful tool for marketers to humanise their brands, according to Kaupinen, to capitalise on the organic and genuine dynamic of the influencer-follower relationship – to take advantage of digitalised word of mouth. The issue, according to Kaupinen, is a misunderstanding on the part of brands in interpreting this relationship.
Brands have become accustomed to being in total control of their messaging, regardless of channel. Influencer marketing, explained Kaupinen, does not and cannot work the same way. She prefers to view influencers as creators, and to view the practice as organised brand advocacy.
In Kaupinen’s view, the best way for brands to get the most out of their influencer marketing is to afford the influencer (or creator) their creative agency. The influencer knows their own audience and knows the kind of content that will be attractive to their audience. “The next time you engage influencers, remove the term ‘influencer’ from your mind for the duration of hiring them. Approach it through that lens and you’ll have more success.”
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Image credit:Jamie Davies