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The Agency AI Arms Race Heats Up


LBB’s Laura Swinton on how JWT’s Pangaea measures up to Publicis Groupe’s Marcel…

The Agency AI Arms Race Heats Up
It’s Rocky versus Ivan Drago all over again. In the red corner, there’s Marcel, who’s been talking up the big fight since June. And limbering up in the blue corner is newcomer Pangaea, who has seemingly come from nowhere, fully formed and ready to rumble. The agency AIs are here and they’re gearing up for battle as holding companies and agencies race to become the first to prove themselves in the age of artificial intelligence.

Marcel, the Publicis Groupe voice assistant, was pretty much all anyone was talking about in Cannes – though the focus was less on the tech and more on the fact that the holding company-wide AI would be funded by a moratorium on award entries. The ambition is that Marcel will better connect the company’s talent to opportunities and capabilities across the group, allowing clients to better benefit from everything Publicis Groupe has to offer. However, there’s no indication of a specific launch date for Marcel and, if it warrants an awards pause to fund it, one might surmise that there’s still work to be done on it.

Enter Pangaea, J. Walter Thompson’s recently revealed efforts. Work began on the project in 2015, with testing in early 2016 and a quiet internal launch last October. Pangaea has entered the world relatively fully formed compared with its French counterpart. Built with fellow WPP shop Mirum and external AI expert Starmind (and can we just stop a minute to appreciate a brand name that sounds like it’s come straight from Josh Kirby-era Marvel?), Pangaea is about pooling the collective insight and experience of the agency’s 12,000 people and using AI to serve up the best answers to employee’s questions. And the more queries it deals with, the smarter and faster this neural network should become.

There’s a lot to learn from both the similarities and differences of the two AIs. The launch strategy for one. (Notably, Pangaea hasn’t necessitated any pause in awards entries.) As a continuously learning entity, it would be inaccurate to describe any machine learning AI as ‘complete’, but Pangaea has entered the world as, more or less, a working tool. With Marcel, we’ve heard a lot about what it will be but less about what state it’s in right now.

Conversely, J. Walter Thompson’s Pangaea has been built with an outside collaborator who has worked with a number of other companies to create AI systems. Marcel is being used as a test case for Publicis.Sapient’s internal capabilities. That puts it under more pressure to succeed, but if it does the payoff is potentially greater as it becomes a calling card for a whole new kind of service to sell to clients.

But what about the parallels? Marcel is held up as an example of Publicis Groupe’s ‘Power of One’ philosophy – breaking down barriers between internal units and enabling collaboration. Pangaea is named after the supercontinent that existed before the Triassic period, which comprised Eurasia, North America, South America, India, Australia and Antarctica. An analogy, perhaps, for bringing internal units closer together and, err, enabling collaboration. 

Both, it seems, wrest the sort of information and data that often stays locked in individuals’ or departments’ brains and pools it into an ‘intelligent’, constantly evolving database. For now, they don’t look to be replacing any creative functions – though perhaps HR and operations might be feeling a little nervous.

Ultimately, they face the challenge that humans – those inconvenient meat sacks – can be quite intractable. For either to succeed, they need engagement from everyone in the respective organisations and that will require a shift in culture, habit and mindset. It has to be frictionless and easy to use or people simply won’t bother.

As the AI arms race heats up, Marcel and Pangaea may be the first to the fight but they’re unlikely to be the only agency contenders to enter the ring. Just as a swanky reception was seen as a standard client-impressing must-have in the bricks-and-mortar days of the ‘80s, a functioning internal AI may become the new showboat prerequisite. For one thing, it’s got to be the most effective way to convince a client that AI is the future of their business to flog them some new-fangled neural network or machine learning-driven piece of creative. 

But for now, it’s Marcel vs. Pangaea. Who will deliver the knock out blow?

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LBB Editorial, Tue, 25 Jul 2017 16:37:01 GMT