Magic and logic: the alchemy of advertising

Ahead of travelling to Silicon Valley to meet with tech industry leaders, IPA President Sarah Golding looks at the latest developments that will shape the future of advertising.

Magic and logic: the alchemy of advertising

Advertising is often boiled down to getting the right message, in front of the right people, in the right environment, at the right time, for the right price. But that reduces it to something sounding pretty simple and pretty logical. There’s another way to think about it… Joseph Schumpeter, the acclaimed economist talked of the ‘alchemy of advertising’. The ability to turn base metals into gold. Or in his example, confound economic theory by creating demand when there should be none. Through insight and creativity, advertising can achieve almost magical things:

  • It can change beliefs, behaviours and businesses.
  • It can create crazes, challenge conventions and empower causes.
  • It can sell more boxes and save more lives than almost any other industry on the planet.

This is how we think of advertising: magic and logic.

Of course, advertising is not immune to technological progress. Quite the opposite. While it doesn’t always feel like it, it has had a symbiotic relationship with technology. The printing press, wireless radio and television broadcasts all revolutionized the media landscape and all came to be dominated by advertising-based business models, with ads created to make the most of each medium. In the smartphone era it’s easy to forget the seismic changes created by each of these now historical media technology revolutions.

Aside from the common place technologies of the day adopted by all business categories – the telephones, the printers, the PCs and Macs – the advertising industry has also sought out the latest audio-visual technologies to surprise and delight, to bring stories to life, and to transport storytelling to new heights.

However, the latest technologies are insufficient on their own; the business of commercial messaging, born of insight and creativity, is augmented by the technology not replaced by it.

This is the essence of my Magic and the Machines agenda as IPA President. We have a habit of conceiving of technological change like a chess match: a binary competition in which there is a winner and loser. We have inherited a centuries-old narrative about man versus machine. History shows, however, there need not be any losers in this game. Time and again, technology that seemed on the verge of making human labour obsolete has ended up making what we do even more valuable.

Perhaps understandably given our grounding in creativity and human understanding, we are firm supporters of Moravec’s Paradox. To the uninitiated, this can best be described as “that which we find hard, machines find easy; that which we find easy, machines find hard”.

We think AI is best seen, not as a threat to our industry, but as a challenge; a raising of the bar. It will sweep away many of the tasks that currently keep us busy, particularly tasks that are based on existing patterns of behaviour, and which can easily be quantified and ranked. But that should in turn inspire us to be more creative, more empathetic, less predictable. For the foreseeable future, we see man plus machine as a winning combination.

It is a given that the media function of advertising – deciding where ads should run, and for what price you’re prepared to pay – has been revolutionized by data driven, rules-based automation. Even some of the unforeseen consequences arising from this, like ads appearing next to inappropriate content, are increasingly addressed by combining the volume capacity of AI content verification with nuanced human vetting.

Beyond media, the creative function is benefiting from specifically smart tools and services to assist with the preparation, incubation and illumination of creative output. For example, those that curate and classify brand visuals (Picasso Labs), that assist email copy writing (Persado & Phrasee) and that can even develop and iterate music (IBM Watson Beat & Jukedeck).

We’re aware every time the AI community figure out another piece of it, it stops being magical and onlookers deride the breakthrough as just computation. This so-called AI Effect means while the ad community has found ways to offer innovative one-offs to clients (like the Comic Relief Swear Jar and HostelWorld’s Speak The World campaign), really significant utilization of natural language processing and voice interfaces by brands will be technically mundane but insightful and empathetic. We’ve always described brands as needing a tone of voice, but now we want to be part of delivering that literally. Along with sound logos, sonic branding and everything else audio-specific, down to strategies for service engagement over interruptive ad formats.

Returning to the latest developments in visual technologies, we are particularly excited by augmented reality for two reasons beyond the obvious. The first is the built-in scale delivered via near ubiquitous smartphone ownership. ARCore and ARKit between them mean that virtually everyone now has access to augmented reality. Snapchat, the current scale innovators in AR advertising, have already shown their creative potential, not least with the AR Lens promotion of TV series Stranger Things for Netflix.

Secondly, we’re eagerly awaiting the roll out of 5G and its promise of superfast connections with low latency for lightweight headsets. Like many others, we think this will be a game changer for augmented and possibly virtual reality, and now is the time to get familiar with them.

The upside to technological progress is huge for our industry and the world at large, but with great power comes great responsibility. We are more than aware of the challenges fast-paced change can serve up. We have watched with dismay as advertising technology benignly designed for promoting products and services has been weaponized by some political messaging. Our submission to the DCMS Select Committee inquiry into disinformation and ‘Fake News’ has been incorporated into its recommendations. In our own industry, the prevalence of ad fraud and the need for GDPR-compliant data usage is leading us to look at blockchain-based solutions.

While there is a need for vigilance, we remain tremendously optimistic. The future is bright. As our devices become smaller, smarter and even more ubiquitous we foresee a world where they effectively disappear leaving, in the words of Dr. Kate Stone, “a future looking more magical than technical”.

The IPA is teaming up with the AA and Department for International Trade (DIT) for an exciting West Coast USA Interactive Trade Mission from Sunday 4th November to Friday 9th November 2018, visiting San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Hollywood. The IPA delegation, including Paul Bainsfair and Sarah Golding, and agency representatives will meet the thought leaders in the tech industry, promoting the UK as a global hub post-Brexit and learn key insights into upcoming tech trends to bring back to the UK ad industry.

Follow #PromoteUK on Twitter to keep up to date with the latest insights from the fact-finding mission.

Last updated 21 January 2022