For Karim Sanjabi, who's taking on the new role, it's a step
agencies are going to have to take. Sanjabi previously started
Freestyle Interactive, which was acquired by Carat Interactive in 2003, and most recently
was CEO of Robot Stampede, a creative tech company based in San
"If agencies don't make this kind of change right now, and
really understand they have to really commit to it, we're going to
have an evolutionary separation," he said. "We're going to have two
different species of agencies: One that evolved with AI and one
He said snubbing AI would be akin to an agency turning its back
on social media 10 years ago.
Though Sanjabi has taken the top seat at Crossmedia's new
cognitive consulting practice, he wants to handle it in a way where
the work bleeds across the entire agency, instead of siloing AI off
into a separate business unit. His mandate, he said, is to help the
agency sift through the tech options and find ways to improve
internal operations and client solutions using these new
"I want our existing media buyers and planners, I want everyone
in the company to think in terms of cognitive solutions," he said.
"I just want to be a resource to everyone in the agency to help
empower them to come up with this kind of stuff. This isn't a
standalone, separate thing — this is the core of the agency.
We're changing the way everyone thinks about this."
Champions over chiefs
As the possibilities of AI are becoming known, agencies are
grappling with the best way to bring in that knowledge.
"The power of this stuff is such that it surpasses traditional
agency shiny object syndrome," said Dave Meeker, a VP who focuses
on innovation at Dentsu Aegis Network-owned digital marketing
agency Isobar. "We see really the capabilities of
what a well-trained or well-designed AI is capable of."
Isobar doesn't have a head of AI, but does rely on employees'
expertise to understand how it can help the business until it's
more deeply ingrained. Meeker said employees work on the forefront
of new technologies, and once it really catches on, the company
starts more formalized training across all employees. The company
has an "Isobar Academy," an online curriculum available to its
"Right now, we're in this age of understanding this stuff. You
need people with really specific domain expertise," he said. "In
time, that expertise becomes cooked into a lot of the software and
things that we're doing, to where it's not like you then have to
have an AI person because all of us kind of have the tools at our
disposal that do that."
Whatever the approach, the key to success, say agency vets, is
incorporating the new technology in ways that everyone across the
agency can master it. Which in turn could ultimately render the
need for a chief of AI obsolete.
Tom Kelshaw, director of innovation at GroupM shop Maxus, said agencies have a history of hiring
executives to head up areas like data, digital or innovation. The
risk there, he said, is that "it tends to become stale." Kelshaw
pointed out that transformational new ideas should be absorbed
across all leadership once a topic is understood, instead of
letting it live with a sole executive or business unit.
At Maxus, Kelshaw said when it comes to AI and innovation more
generally, his company relies on employees to figure out where
tools and techniques can deliver operational efficiencies and
improve clients' business.
"It's about getting champions, rather than chiefs, into the
business," he said.
Some agencies may feel it's on the early side to make big
investments into this area. Though digital agency PMG does a fair amount of work using AI, the
agency doesn't have any defined titles relating to cognitive or
machine learning or artificial intelligence.
"Advertisers and brands realize the need for artificial
intelligence, but very few are at the point where they're going to
the board and saying, 'We're betting everything on artificial
intelligence,' said Dustin Engel, head of analytics and data
activation at PMG. "They know the risk of not being part of AI, but
they're not quite willing to bet the farm on that risk."
He said factors like data quality make some areas of AI still
relatively immature. PMG does work with clients on data onboarding,
cleansing and standardizing so it will one day be useful in AI
applications. It also uses AI when it come to data science and data
Engel added that AI appears to be polarizing with
"Some are excited about it but don't have clear use cases. Some
are skeptical of the hype of AI being the business disruption
panacea. Some are cautiously optimistic -- stressing cautiously. So
it may be early for advertisers as opposed to the agencies," he
wrote in an email. "As for PMG, we not only see AI possibilities in
our client media programs but also in managing the operational
complexity of our fast-growing business."