Are Robots Like These About to Take All the Ad Jobs?

Artificial intelligence is playing a significant role in creating ads

Team One and Zoic Labs debuted the first AI-created short film, Eclipse at Cannes last summer.
Team One, Zoic Labs

Robots are getting smarter, and, if you listen to high-ranking digital execs at Coca-Cola and other major brands, they’re coming for your advertising jobs.

No one knows that better than the tech geeks at Team One’s newly launched AI Lab, who are vowing to stay ahead of the machine-learning curve by surrounding themselves with all things futuristic in a stylish nook of the agency’s cavernous Playa Vista, Calif., headquarters.

The lab, a scaled-down re-creation of a smart home designed to look like a midcentury modern crash pad, is outfitted with Google Home, Amazon Echo, Philips Hue and a trunk full of cognitive toys. On the wish list: Kuri, the adorable helper bot that charmed crowds at this year’s CES. “It’s a dedicated space to experiment and brainstorm,” said Alastair Green, executive creative director, digital, who launched the agency’s tricked-out, gadget-heavy VR Lab onsite last year. “We want to spark ideas and create better work with AI. And to answer the brands’ question: ‘What’s the business case for it?’”

Team One, with Zoic Labs, already debuted the first-ever AI-created short film (commissioned as an experiment by Saatchi & Saatchi) at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity last summer. The film Eclipse was conceived, edited and directed by machines. More recently, execs launched an AI-spawned holiday carol, complete with 1800s-style music, dubbed “Happy Technolidays,” and love-themed greetings for Valentine’s Day, with an eye toward how their early tests can apply to marketing for client brands like Lexus, The Ritz-Carlton, Indian Motorcycle and Samsung’s Dacor appliances.

Team One's AI-driven "Happy Technolidays."

They’re far from alone in their aggressive push into AI. Facebook, Microsoft and Google are heavily invested in the technology, and Coke’s global senior digital director Mariano Bosaz told the Mobile World Congress recently that he foresees artificial intelligence cranking out ad creative in fairly short order. It’s already responsible for music and copy, and Bosaz wants to see what it can do with “automated narratives.”

Whether it’s immediately obvious or not, AI is playing a significant role in ads. French network Canal+ let loose a Pope Bot this winter (to hype HBO’s The Young Pope) that trolled people with Bible verses. Brands as varied as Campbell Soup, Domino’s, Olay and Starbucks are using AI as part of the trend away from “the traditional one-size-fits-all marketing approach toward one-to-one tailored experiences,” said Resh Sidhu, creative director at Framestore, recently named by IBM Watson as one of the AI Influencers of 2017.

“This stuff is not as over-imaginative or as distant as it may seem—in fact, it is much closer to science fact than science fiction,” Sidhu said by email. AI does more than bring efficiency to data and analytics, she said, because it can “anticipate user needs” and give brands “deeper insights about their customers.” And if ad agencies don’t have in-house expertise in AI, she believes, “they’re already behind.”

Word is apparently out. MDC Media Partners just opened an agency called Born, focused on AI, while GroupM, Crispin Porter + Bogusky and other ad mavens are working with IBM Watson and Facebook Messenger on AI-powered programs.

The Watson supercomputer, mainstream famous since its million-dollar victory on TV’s Jeopardy, now counts about 6,000 clients, among them Hilton Hotels (for voice-enabled concierges), Whirlpool and Visa (for potentially turning everyday appliances into ecommerce devices).

Because it’s such a fast-changing area—hardly a day goes by without an AI-fueled campaign or development—Team One has started sharing the latest information with the industry via thought-leader events. “Bots & Booze,” now a monthly meetup, recently hosted rocket scientist Sabri Sansoy in a talk about AI’s evolution.

As the Team One crew, and anyone who chats with Alexa, has found through ongoing interaction with smart machines, AI learns over time. Its answers become more spot-on, it hones a sense of humor (Google Home’s volume goes to 11 à la Spinal Tap), it acts more like a human. Yet, it isn’t.

“It’s a helper tool, not a killer bot,” said Mary Toves, the agency’s associate creative director. “It’s great at finding connections and analyzing data. It shortens the length of time between strategic insight and creative idea. It’s a problem solver.”

But, hopefully, not a job poacher.

This story first appeared in the March 13, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.