Aaron Shapiro, co-founder and former CEO of Huge, has launched a new agency called Product that focuses on using artificial intelligence to help clients “future-proof” their businesses with a sustainability mindset.
Huge co-founder launches agency focused on AI and sustainability
The agency's clients include Google, Post Consumer Brands, Better, Chubb, GoodRX and Seeking Alpha.
This is the latest venture for Shapiro, who led Huge for 13 years and helped grow the agency to 1,500 employees before he departed in 2018. He is also the founder of marketing automation software company Silverpop, which was acquired by IBM, as well as Interpublic Group of Cos.' agency Elephant, and D2C life insurance company Dayforward, for which he will remain the CEO moving forward.
Product currently has 24 employees including its executive team. Shapiro is chairman while Chris Stempky, previously a managing director at Huge, is the managing partner handling day-to-day operations. Tim Nolan, who has held executive creative director roles at Havas Chicago and Huge, is the lead creative for the agency. Auro Trini Castelli, who was hired as the chief strategy officer for DDB New York last May, was named partner, strategy and sustainability. Carolyn Shapiro, formerly a director of venture capital fund Reciprocal Ventures, will lead finance and operations. Carolyn and Aaron Shapiro are married.
A quiet revolution
For Shapiro, the inspiration for the new shop was three-fold: a decreased need for digital-only shops, the increasing influence of AI in the industry and the growth of the net-zero economy movement among businesses.
“I don't think it makes sense to be a digital agency anymore,” said Shapiro, adding that digital will still be in the mix of the agency's work. He said Product's capabilities include strategy, creative and technology, all with machine learning at its core.
“We're seeing advances in AI that I think is kind of a quiet revolution happening in marketing that's going to upend literally every part of how communications and marketing works that a lot of agencies aren't addressing,” Shapiro said. “Perhaps the biggest shift of all is that the decarbonization of our economy is a lot more than just electric cars and solar panels. It really affects every single aspect of our economy from how food is grown to how buildings are made. There's not a single part that's not going to change as we move to a carbon zero economy. When you combine those things, I saw that there wasn't really an agency built for this kind of future, which to me at its core is around future-proofing of businesses.”
More than just the environment
The agency is working with clients that have a sole sustainability focus such as Post Consumer Brands, which last year launched its first-ever “climate-friendly” snack, Airly. The snack is made from oats that are grown in a way that removes CO2 emissions from the air. But Product is also working with others working toward curbing CO2 emissions.
“The second piece is all the work that we do, even if it's not explicitly for a sustainable brand, we're looking at it through that lens,” Shapiro said. “It’s about how do we make sure that the brand is truly delivering on its promise…and there is a sustainable impact happening as a result of the work that's being done.”
But for Shapiro, sustainability goes beyond an environmental focus.
“If you think about the UN charter for sustainability, it's about a sustainable society, which is about equity and inclusion and things like that,” Shapiro said. One example of that type of work that Product has produced includes a GoodRx campaign that focused on raising awareness of hypertension in the Black community.
AI in the industry
Product uses AI to help find campaign insights before launching them full scale, according to Shapiro.
“Before we launch a major campaign, we run tons of AI-driven test campaign initiatives to see exactly what's going to work for its target audience with a very small investment,” Shapiro said. “So once we do launch a campaign, there's a high probability of success because it's already been vetted in advance.”
The use of AI in the industry has become increasingly popular, heightened by the recent spike in interest in text-to-image generators such as Dalle-2 and Stable Diffusion, which agencies have been using for brainstorming and creative purposes.
Supernatural, an agency that already uses AI to inform its strategy, launched an AI consulting practice in October to help educate brands on the use cases of the technology. In September, Boston-based agency Boathouse launched its own offering that uses various AI tools for analytics, strategy, and creative. Fort Worth, Texas-based agency PMG has its own AI software called Alli, which it uses across all aspects of its business, and Mindshare launched an AI tool earlier this year meant to evaluate the social impact of editorial content on minority communities. In 2020, Stagwell launched its own AI-driven PR company called PRophet.
Read more: How agencies use AI image generators
While there are clear benefits of AI, it can also pose a threat to the environment. The act of training a single AI model can emit as much carbon dioxide as five cars in their lifetimes, according to a 2019 report by the University of Massachusetts Amherst. But Shapiro said there is a way to work around this.
“There is a way to do AI machine learning sustainably, which is you power the machines that do that in a carbon-neutral fashion,” Shapiro said. “So Google, for example, is fully carbon neutral because their plants are powered by solar wind power and that kind of stuff. So that's kind of how we think about it. But we think that the benefits of machine learning and AI properly is fundamentally around much more efficiency and decision-making. That is, if harnessed the right way, a sustainable proposition because it's about using fewer resources."
The agency is also thinking about its own carbon footprint and is in the process of becoming a B Corp.
“I want to think about how we set up our organization to have a positive influence and impact on the world around us,” Stempky said. “The big thing for me is that I'm a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community. As I think about how we shape and grow this organization, I want to make sure that we're using equitable and inclusive hiring practices processes in ways in which we share and learn from one another as we go forward. So from the very foundation of Product, I want to make sure that we're set up for our own sustainability and our own success.”