Nearly two years before Publicis dropped its Marcel news at the Cannes Lions, JWT embarked on an artificial intelligence mission of its own. In 2015, the agency quietly began developing Pangaea, an A.I.-powered system that's helping to turn the agency network's 12,000-strong staff into an information and problem-solving resource.
Pangaea takes its cues from the supercontinent that inspired its name -- by bringing together the JWT community across all cultures and disciplines. It invites any employee to pose a question or problem to the entire network in the hopes that they'll get useful advice from staffers with related experience and expertise. A question could be as specific as "What kind of communication innovation do you expect to see in the next World Cup?" or as philosophical as "What does the word 'destiny' mean to you?'"
While this may sounds like little more than throwing out a question over email or Slack, artificial intelligence acts as a differentiator.
"It's a bit like programmatic advertising," said JWT Worldwide Planning Director Guy Murphy. "It can tightly target, if need be, the questions to the most relevant person in the network."
For example, if a user asked, "Who can tell me about mobile in emerging markets?" the resource can solicit feedback from not only who is competent in mobile, but from who is already interacting in Pangaea around mobile and who has a point of view in emerging markets, explained JWT Worldwide Chief Technology Officer Jamie McLellan. "It helps frame the audience."
Although Pangaea might not return a solution immediately, it might tap users with related competencies, such as McLellan, who knows about mobile but not necessarily with the deep knowledge specific to the inquiry. He could then pass on referrals to more seasoned experts. Pangaea will then become "smarter," learning from those referrals and what they led to, to "determine who are the rockstars, based on insight or ability to contribute" in the given area.
To create Pangaea, JWT and its global digital agency Mirum (with staff from London, Brazil, New York, Santa Barbara, Chicago and Germany) hired Starmind, a Swiss A.I. software company that specializes in connecting knowledge experts. As for how the partnership worked, "We built the sports car, but Starminds supplied the engine," McLellan described.
Unlike Publicis with Marcel, JWT didn't make a big splash when it started to began development on Pangaea, or when it beta tested with a handful of employees in March 2016 or when it rolled out to the entire team last October.
"For us, this isn't a launch pad," said McLellan. "It's very much an evolutionary aspect where we're just leveraging A.I. and cognitive computing to enhance what we do and the talent we have. It's a journey and this is just one element of it."
Users interact with Pangaea through three mechanisms: a standalone website, an Android/IOS app and a desktop app. But those just scratch the surface of where JWT plans to take it.
Voice is the next big step, and JWT is now looking to make Pangaea omnipresent through Alexa integration. "If we have an Alexa or equivalent in every board room or meeting room, now it's not just eight people trying to crack the problem. You could actually reach out on Pangaea, via Alexa, to the entire network for help," said McLellan.
"We're really exploring to make this as seamless to our business as possible," McLellan said. Other goals include integrating with Watson and building voice interaction across all languages (currently Pangaea can "speak" English, Spanish and Portuguese).
So far, Pangaea is starting to pay off. About a third of the network are active users, and it's already helped the agency on new business and client projects. A Brazilian team, for example, was in the final stage of a pitch when the content lead posed a crucial inquiry to Pangaea: "How are cable TV providers in your country dealing with the new streaming technologies that are now available? Have you ever worked with a cable TV brand? Any cases to share?"
Within minutes, a Toronto staffer who had spent five years on the client side at a Canadian telecom company responded with information on cable industry trends and offered to answer more questions directly. That insight and the further consult helped the agency win the pitch.
McLellan said Pangaea has required a significant investment from the company, but perhaps not to such an extreme that the agency has had to opt out of award shows. "It still very much fits within our technology budget," he said. "We've invested hard dollars and a huge amount of time. We've prioritized it, but it hasn't been outlandish. We wanted to prove it first, and we'll continue to invest as we recognize value."