In the world of media, artificial intelligence may be hot, but it's no shiny object.
Concepts like artificial intelligence, machine learning and natural language processing are bleeding into all facets of the ad business. Today, media shops can set up AI dashboards that alert them to strange patterns in their metrics, and some agencies are looking at ways to use AI to make their internal processes more efficient and make employees happier.
And, of course, clients are looking for work that has AI woven in, whether it's Alexa skills or chatbots.
Any time an explosive new technology takes hold, agencies have to navigate how it fits into their business. While some may be waiting until it has taken a deeper hold, others, like New York-based Crossmedia, are bullish.
The independent media agency just hired a new executive director of cognitive solutions, who will head up the agency's work in that area — covering everything from client projects that use AI like chatbots or Alexa skills to other areas of cognitive solutions. The field includes data-driven creative work that might change according to weather, stock fluctuations or time of day, and data science, which encompasses deep learning and pattern detection.
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 Francisco.
"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 that didn't."
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 concepts.
"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 6,000 employees.
"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 innovation.
Engel added that AI appears to be polarizing with advertisers.
"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."