The current hype about AI reminds me of the tale of the nightingale who lived in a Chinese emperor’s garden. The nightingale sang for the emperor, and mightily pleased, the emperor bestowed great honour and respect on the little bird. However later, the emperor of Japan sent him a mechanical nightingale which sang even more beautifully than the real one. The Chinese emperor became enamoured with the mechanical bird and forced the nightingale to leave. Later, the mechanical bird broke and could no longer sing. The emperor fell ill and came close to death. Hearing of this turn of events, the nightingale came back and, perched on the bough of a tree outside his bedroom, began to sing. The emperor recovered and he and the nightingale became friends again.
I can draw parallels between this story and the world of marketing and advertising, where people often become obsessed with shiny new toys. Everyone is so busy being busy and pretending to be competent that they forget to think. I have been connected with the Pakistani marketing industry since 2005 and have seen both sides of the pendulum. The mad pursuit of fads and trends, like big data, virality, programmatic and now AI. I have also seen colleagues being resistant to using media such as radio, the internet and Facebook because they thought they were too niche and lacked critical mass. It’s akin to corporate professionals talking about how Google doesn’t require a degree to hire, while at the same time only choosing graduates from certain local or foreign business schools. We are always talking about trends and sea changes, but somehow believe that their time in Pakistan has not yet come.
This, however, does not seem to be the case with AI. If there were a rating for its adoption, the spread of AI in Pakistan is incredible. It is also interesting to note that the future of advertising and marketing as we know it seems tied to AI. Almost everyone seems to be fascinated by the phenomenon.
There are, however, a few naysayers like Tom Goodwin, who believe that we are using the technology for the wrong reasons. AI should not be used to do better what people can already do, but to do things that people don’t do well, like repetitive tasks. He argues that AI is not meant to execute creative tasks, but mundane tasks. In fact, he has labelled AI as the average of the internet, and this reminds me of the old computer terminology GIGO – Garbage In Garbage Out. The biggest issue, in his view, is that the software is absorbing information and ideas that people have created and expounded and therefore there is a high prevalence of flawed thinking. It’s like trying to remodel a house with faulty foundations. To work, the entire structure needs to be rebuilt.
Speaking of structure, Bob Hoffman who is known as the ‘Ad Contrarian’ said in 2019 that we have moved away from principles and strong bases in advertising. His is a voice of dissent in a marketing world that is either reactionary or riding the bandwagon. Most of us don’t have the courage to challenge the status quo and tend to go with the flow. He argued that every activity developed because of the gradual increase in knowledge. He gives the example of medicine, where first germs were discovered, later bacteria identified, and further on viruses. Science started with an earth-centric belief then a heliocentric one and later came the discovery of other planets and moons orbiting around the sun. When it comes to advertising, Hoffman’s view is that, “We used to believe that creativity was the essence of successful advertising. No longer. We used to believe that big ideas were the backbone of outstanding advertising. No more. We used to believe that an agency’s primary job was the delivery of outstanding ads to its clients. Not today.”
As I have said before, if you want to learn something you need to master the basics. If you want to become a good footballer, you need to learn the rules of the game and how to kick and pass a ball. You can watch a video of a well-known footballer scoring goals but you cannot imitate him without knowing and mastering the basics. Advertising and marketing are all about creativity. That is the foundation of the profession. Whether it’s part art or science or both is something we can debate about until the end of time. Data and AI, like everything else, can only build on that foundation.
As Goodwin says, the information we can extract from AI will probably not be able to tell us the story behind the information. As he wrote in a LinkedIn post a month ago, “People tend to think insights are about understanding what people do, which you can get from data – but it’s really about the why people make the decisions they do, which won’t ever be in it.”
Martin Lindstrom would agree. When people were losing their minds over big data, he coined the term ‘small data’ and proved its effectiveness. Marketing, like any function, is about people, and people are not logical or rational and, to quote Margaret Mead, we are all unique and special. Trying to segment people using data or AI can be a bad force fit with negative consequences.
Going back to the nightingale, the tale apparently is not an old Chinese one. It was penned by Hans Christian Andersen, who remains best known for his fairy tales. Andersen used his gift of imagination and tapped into the power of culture and stories – and we can harness this power in advertising. You can read the story of the nightingale online, and it is much funnier and touching than the abridged version I have written here (and I do not doubt that there are several versions of the original out there); this is because when we transmit the information we like to enrich it with our own flavour or bias.
The power of stories and the transformation that occurs to them as we transmit and communicate them is like the nightingale and AI and the nature of mechanical things like the artificial bird. They can dazzle for a while but they can never replace humans.
Tyrone Tellis is Senior Manager Corporate Sales and PR, Bogo. firstname.lastname@example.org