AI in Marketing – how will it disrupt the agency world?


Human Writer image for AI in Marketing Artificial Intelligence post

There’s been a fair bit of commentary recently about the accelerating development of AI in Marketing. Wider conversations about Artificial Intelligence have gone beyond the uh-oh moment of Watson winning game shows etc.

And I got to thinking about what that might mean in my industry. What does the rise of AI in Marketing, in all aspects of the business, mean for marketing communications – and specifically the agency world?

In general terms, now that we’re getting closer to real Artificial Intelligence, people cleverer than me are getting jittery.

Look at recent comments from Stephen Hawkins, Elon Musk and Bill Gates. All have a dystopian view of what the exponential growth of AI could mean for business, employment and wider culture.

To be clear, I’m of a less dystopian mindset. Ignorance is bliss, eh? I like the idea of future populated with personal assistant/s that help me navigate my meshed/Internet of Things connected world.  That’s years of reading Gibson, Banks et al.

But I do feel some disquiet in thinking through the obvious impact that AI have will be having soon in the world of work. Initially centred – but not restricted to – manual work (already the case in manufacturing of course, with ‘smart’ but essentially tethered robots). But with AI + Robots, the need for fewer human operatives in many industries becomes clear. Google’s driverless car is just the start in transport. Bye-bye, bus / taxi / lorry / train drivers.

And think it will just affect manual or repetitive information retrieval or types of office ‘admin’ jobs?
Think the creative / advertising industry is safe? Nope, AI in Marketing will have a big impact on the agency (and client marketer) world.

I remember working with a ‘neural net’ program (loaded via a floppy disk, kids) many years ago which parsed a database of prospect and customer segments and their responses to various direct mail campaigns. The idea being that it would learn past behaviour and so help us predict what type of offers / creative / CTAs would work best in the future. If I remember rightly it kind of worked but very inconclusively and we went back to using stats / confidence tables and a calculator for future campaign tests. It wasn’t proper AI of course.

The real McCoy is on the way though, witness the rise of programmatic marketing and companies like Rocket Fuel. In a nutshell, they use big data and machine learning to place online ads before the most relevant demographics for brands / marketers. (The CEO of Rocket Fuel really is a rocket scientist, having spent time at NASA).

And the use of AI goes beyond delivering out ads and in to helping businesses optimize their operations in marketing. Sounding a warning bell for human number crunchers and analysts. So algorithms have already started to impact the ad serving and allied CRM world.

And they are moving in to social media marketing too: The business cited in the link above is Cortex ( and they say that “using AI, Cortex handles social media Planning and Execution, so you can focus on Content Creation“


That implies we humans still have a job in advertising and marketing, around Content Creation a.k.a  ‘Creative’.

But is that true in the long-term? The imagery that’s used and the copy / calls to action – you need a human, creative brain for that don’t you? Well, for the time being. For example, the company that ran the Cortex story (above) is Skyword and they have a recruited pool of human talent (content creators) to call on for their brand clients (writers, animators, photographers). Which implies that these specialist creative skills are ‘safe’, to differing degrees, for a while into the future.

However, copywriting looks like the first area that will be commercially assailed by machine minds. An example of the move towards machine-based copy is and their goal of  “Machine Generated Marketing Communications”. Persado uses a blend of machine learning, natural language processing, advanced statistics and computational linguistics to create those apparently impactful (according to the brand testimonials) copy blocks for a range of marketing instances.

To quote Persado: ‘The software uses semantic algorithms to map emotions and generate language for marketing communications such as emails, landing pages, mobile, push notifications and social media”. I’m assuming the same would be true for PPC and banner ads, those little bits of copy that have been written by human copywriters over the last 15 years or so. Interestingly, Persado are currently recruiting for a (human) freelance copywriter. But let’s not have an ‘aha – caught you out!’ moment here: I’m guessing that’s just to feed the machine with some starter fuel in different languages?

There’s a difference between short-form / CTA type of copy and longer form article / story-telling type of copy though.

I don’t think we’re there yet in terms of a machine-mind copywriter passing the Turing test with its new book / blog post / white paper, as discussed by Jamie Bartlett a while back. Or, maybe we are, sooner rather than later. AI has started to egress out from short ‘rules-based’ CTA copy and into longer form – via the use of automated reporting and data storytelling (with some Agencies signing up as clients), see for more.

As for the other areas of commercial creativity: there are still only a few (but significant) examples of ‘computational creativity’. Read this article for a great round up:

I think we are a few years away (not decades but possibly a dozen to twenty) from AI fully taking over from commercial storytelling / content creation. Humans will (very probably) still conceive of the big campaign idea, (most likely, until androids are ubiquitous) take the photos, (most likely) shoot beautiful film and (probably) create the illustrations. But much of the long form copy, all the CTA selling copy, all the ad placement and all the campaign optimisation will be machine manufactured.

Finally have a read of this article from a year back (it is still on the money I think and even though it talks about Robots, it includes the impact of AI too).

Account handlers, planners and business development, I think you are safe for a while yet. Which resonates with the report. Well, maybe more so the latter two. Sorry, account handers.


Update Aug’15 : interesting article on exactly this subject in Campaign: AI will light a fire under Advertising

[post image courtesy of]

4 thoughts on “AI in Marketing – how will it disrupt the agency world?”

  1. Good article, Mark. Your focus on AI replacing us in creative work is an interesting topic. We generally think of machines automating the mundane tasks, like finding information. But, as you mention, AI is being applied to what we would classify as more creative, or at least “human,” work, like email communication (full disclosure…I work for Conversica, where we are doing just that.)

    I’m with you that creative endeavors are safe for now, and instead of worrying about losing those jobs, we should celebrate wherever smart machines can help off load the work we do today so we can spend more time on creative pursuits, strategy and other high-level activities the machines can’t do!

    • Thanks, Carl – much appreciated!
      You have a really interesting business / platform there, now added to my feedly to keep up with what you guys are doing.

  2. Great article, really interesting! I’m very interested in how AI will effect coding, there’s been some great developments in recent years. There’s certainly a high level of creativity in the way a developer approaches the build and coding of something which current automatic systems just can’t do any where near as efficiently or logically as a human.

    • Thanks Chris and good point about coding – that juxtaposition of creative problem solving and concurrently logical and efficient thinking is (as you say) currently outside of an artificial mind’s grasp

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