The Centaur Agency

In his recent book, The Inevitable, former Wired editor Kevin Kelly lists Marketing among the fields that will soon become cognified, his term for being infused with and transformed by Artificial Intelligence.

“The amount of attention an individual reader or watcher spends on an advertisement can be multiplied by their social influence … in order to optimize their attention and influence per dollar. Done at the scale of millions, this is a job for AI.”

Although The Inevitable’s aim is to describe technologies that will shape our future, it’s clear that the first tendrils of that future reach back to today and that advertising is going to get cognified sooner than most suspect. In some ways, of course, it already has been. The entirety of Google’s search marketing platform is a machine learning algorithm that optimizes searches and revenue at massive scale. And other forms of paid media are rapidly following suit, with automatic targeting and optimizing becoming available and inevitable wherever media is planned and bought. But we’re beginning to see AI infiltrating other parts of advertising where it might not seem to be an obvious fit.

With this week’s rollout of Watson Ads, IBM has made the most direct play yet to integrate AI into advertising, literally. The ad units will initially roll out on Weather.com properties and integrate voice interaction capabilities. Companies like Campbell’s Soup will offer consumers the chance to talk to their ads and ask for recipe suggestions based on the local weather conditions. Whether or not consumers want to speak to ads in words other than profanities remains to be seen.

Regardless of whether conversing commercials become a thing, it’s clear that this future of advertising AI is happening now. In the last few weeks, we’ve evaluated AI software tools and platforms that are intended to augment or disrupt our agency’s work. The range of these tools is impressively broad. Many are clustered where the money is, in optimizing media spend and ad management. That concentration makes sense not only financially, but also because AI thrives on large datasets and numerous interactions to train it.

AI is exerting an impact upstream too. Social media listening and analytics tools are another obvious case for AI, ordering and extracting meaning from the unstructured clutter of social streams. And within social and messaging platforms, AI chatbots are popping up everywhere, offering the potential to become the new first-line customer support and sales agents. AI may quickly replace both humans and infuriating voice response systems in these roles. Even further upstream, we’ve looked at AI tools that provide strategic insights to inform and inspire brand strategies.

In The Inevitable, Kelly also reprises a story about what happened to the game of chess in the aftermath of Gary Kasparov’s historic loss to Deep Blue in 1997 (the first time a computer bested the world’s best human chess player). You can also read the chess story in Kelly’s 2014 Wired article on AI. At the time, people wondered if chess would dwindle in popularity, since human players would never best computers.

But chess didn’t die. It morphed. The best chess in the world these days is played not by humans or machines, but by Centaurs, Kasparov’s term for human-machine hybrids, human players who have AI assistance.

And the Centaur may be a pretty good metaphor for the agency of the future. It seems a good bet that agencies who learn to pair human intelligence, imagination, intuition and creativity with AI’s abilities in automation, 24/7 response and coping with big data along will survive and thrive in an era of AI Advertising.

At least until AI becomes the target consumer.