AI to Ad Blocking: Are Robots the Future?
My first foray into this year’s Advertising Week Europe was
on the subject of programmatic for branding in ‘Can a Robot Make You Cry?’.
Many moons ago, I watched the Steven Spielberg classic A.I., so my kneejerk
response was a resounding yes – I remember physically sobbing. But… this panel was
probably less versed in the magical acting of child-star Haley Joel Osment, than
the role of artificial intelligence in creativity.
Chaired by Richard Newton, author of ‘The End of Nice: how to be human in a world run by robots’, the discussion covered everything from chatbots to targeted ads through data collection. Newton asked many questions that stemmed from his own ‘robo-paranoia’ and led the panel from ideology to regulation.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, all our human panellists agreed that humans were still the better source of a creative idea. Damon Westbury from Clear Channel didn’t believe that a robot could have conjured up the many layers that makes the John Lewis Christmas ads such an emotional hit – but he wasn’t so convinced that a machine couldn’t have randomly spewed out the idea behind Cadbury’s Gorilla spot.
David Coplin, Chief Envisioning Officer at Microsoft, believed effective storytelling just relied on a formula: “Robots can be given a pattern to be creative. Give them a protagonist and a resolution, and an algorithm could do it.”
The conversation quickly moved into data targeting and curating content to meet the reader’s unique needs. Jarrod Dicker, Head of Advertising Product and Technology at the Washington Post, explained how they apply the same data they use to target news content to readers, to advertising and media sales. It was making for a much richer experience he argued, and using that data for news targeting was not the same as using it for sales: “We can see the last ten headlines you clicked on and deliver you news relevant to your interests. But we’re transparent about it and not looking to sell you anything.”
Still a hot topic, personal data was discussed, as a means to understanding consumers, and Coplin was clear, “It comes down to the ‘Amazons’ and ‘Googles’ of this world gaining our trust – if we drop the ball with your data then we die.”
The last topic led nicely into my next session on ad blocking. Coplin believes that quality is to blame for consumers turning to tech to filter out digital ads: “People are not blocking ads because they hate advertising – they just hate crap advertising.” And Joel Christie, Strategist at Rocket Fuel, said there was a fine line to tow when it comes to shaping the consumer. “[When you] start to get content that tries to take you down a political path or sell you an idea – that becomes more disconcerting.”
Of course, no conversation about A.I. would be complete without a mention of the now infamous Microsoft chatbot Tay who recently fell a bit off topic. The issue with chatbots, it was agreed, is that humans feed into the conversation and ultimately drive it. But Dicker believes they are here to stay. “The most exciting thing about chatbots is that it’s something that everyone can benefit from”.
Ultimately everyone was in agreement – humans are the driving force behind artificial intelligence, and it is through teaching and learning that it will improve.
“We need to change the rhetoric,” said Coplin, rounding up the session. “It’s not humans versus machines but humans plus machines.”
Perhaps we should stop worrying about being replaced but consider how we can be improved?
Are ad blockers punishment or an extortion racket?
After a quick roam around the lovely Picturehouse Central venue, and a gratis cappuccino in the lounge, I made my way back up to the Getty Stage for a session on The Economics of Ad Blocking.
Hosted by Robert Cookson, Digital Media Correspondent at the Financial Times, this was an impassioned panel that included the outspoken Bob Wootten, soon-to-be ex-Director of Media and Advertising at ISBA, and Rotem Dar from Eyeo – creators of Adblocker Plus.
Intrusive advertising and heightened security concerns were cited as the perfect storm in which ad blocking grows. But Dominic Good, Global Sales Director at the FT, did not seem concerned about any imminent impact on the publisher. “Until you’re sold out there is always inventory to sell and ad blocking isn’t going to change that – we’ve come close but it hasn’t happened yet.”
Wootton was happy to take some of the responsibility on behalf of the advertisers. “We as an industry have made a right old hash of this, and I mean everyone involved… we are empowered consumers and some of these ads are absolute shit.”
Maxus CEO Nick Baughan sees ad blocking as just the latest
punishment for bad creative. “If we do a bad job we’re put on the consumer
naughty step – but today that comes in the form of ad-blocking.”
The softly spoken Rotem Dar held his own, maintaining that ad blocking companies like Eyeo aren’t the enemy. “Ad blockers are not extortion and were around before we came into the picture”. Good was also quick to come to Dar’s defence “[It’s] a response to consumer demand – so fair play to these companies.”
Baughan seemed less convinced that it wasn’t extortion, likening their model to a protection racket. “There are more ad blockers coming down the path, are we going to have to pay them all? How many will there be? And are they really for the consumer or just creating a revenue stream?”
Wootton agreed but didn’t think counteraction with tech was the right solution. “We’re starting an arms race to create an ultimate blocker-blocker and it’s just more bollocks,” while Good agreed it sent the wrong message to consumers: “Ad blocking blockers aren’t a good idea – it’s saying ‘we know you don’t like these ads and we don’t care’.”
Dar was quick to point out that ISBA and others could have taken on the moderator’s role before they hit the market with blockers, and they weren’t providing censorship – just answering a consumer demand. Wootton was sympathetic: “Had we had our wits about us we would have acted pre-emptively,” he said. But in response to moderation, he was quick to defend creativity. “Look at the history of advertising so far. It’s difficult to standardise it and had we tried, we’d be far less illustrious, and British advertising is very illustrious.”
What the panel agreed upon was the need for better advertising, and the role that ad blocking plays in ‘upping’ the industry’s game. But the overwhelming concern was that even with better content, the programs would continue to block regardless. “The problem with ad blocking is that it’s indiscriminate, you miss the good stuff,” said Wootton.
Cookson felt improvement was a bit futile: “We’re told to make better ads but as long as someone is making crap ones, the ad blockers will block both.”
The panel also raised the fact that ads can be a necessary payment for the content that consumers want. “You’ve got to educate the reader about the value exchange,” said Good. “If you want to continue, you have to accept the advertising.”
Questioning the long-term goals of companies like Eyeo, Baughan asked Dar: “Surely if you got your aim to clean up advertising, ad blockers would cease to exist.” Dar’s response was depressingly realistic: “Maybe if we were talking about a utopian future.”
The panel concluded by agreeing that for the situation to improve, consumers need to want to see good ads. If they are indifferent to the content it will do little to raise the bar of creative ideas. Cynicism voiced from the audience was that no one wants to be interrupted by ads, but Good was quick to remind us of better times. “You might be too young to remember but there was a time we used to watch Chris Tarrant present the best ads in the world. It was a whole TV programme and people loved it. There really are people that enjoy ads.”
And that’s why we’re all here.