How 4 Agencies Are Using Artificial Intelligence as Part of the Creative Process

Can algorithms replace humans?

Agencies are experimenting with different types of artificial intelligence. Source: Getty Images
Headshot of Lauren Johnson

A couple of weeks ago, Coca-Cola’s global senior digital director Mariano Bosaz told Adweek he wanted “to start experimenting” with “automated narratives,” including using bots for music and editing the closing credits of commercials.

Algorithms are already foundational to programmatic advertising and will likely only grow to be a bigger part of media buying, but can machine learning ever completely replace the creative process? It’s no surprise that agencies adamantly say no, that brands still need human creatives to handle strategy and come up with ideas. But creative shops are still preparing for a time when there will be fewer people to handle some parts of the business, especially those that involve time-consuming and manual tasks.

“To be honest, some of the first people who will lose their job because of AI will be marketing managers,” said Firstborn’s executive creative director Dave Snyder. “If your job is really to move numbers around a spreadsheet and optimizing it based on what’s performing, the computer is going to be way better than you and faster.”

Still, Andy Hood, head of emerging technologies for AKQA, said that shop has “invested heavily in AI services” but that “the best is brought out of the human in the AI.” At least for now.

“At some point in the future, complete automation may be possible—it may even be desirable,” Hood said. “But I think for the more foreseeable future, we’re looking at these intelligent tools that combine with creative teams to find the best results.”

Here’s a look at how four agencies are using AI as part of the creative process:


AKQA is testing an internal tool it built using IBM Watson for clients that scours online platforms to find new groups of consumers for brands.

“It finds new audiences and reaches out proactively to those new audiences that clients aren’t necessarily talking directly to,” said AKQA’s Hood. He declined to say which clients are using it, but you could imagine a travel brand being able to find people who are talking about traveling without mentioning a specific brand.

However, the system is not totally hands-off. Hood referenced Microsoft’s “Tay” chatbot that spit out racist and anti-Semitic language as an example of why AI still needs humans behind it.

“It takes a degree of confidence in your automated system to just give it access to your public and turn it loose—I’m not quite sure that we’re there yet,” Hood said. “There are still people involved in the process, but we’ve moved from just using the data and the machine learning to create testing and incredible targeting and actually brought it into the narrative and storytelling.”

JWT Canada

The shop is working with programmatic-creative platform Thunder to change digital ad creative on the fly, particularly regional and pricing information.

JWT Canada plans to use AI for its airline and bank clients to dynamically change parts of ads—like someone’s location or the price of a flight—while still using one idea across video, display and audio ads.

"Ultimately it leads to leaner, tighter briefs and work that can really move the needle but also be brand-building if you pull the right pieces together."
Andrew Rusk, business director of demand creation at JWT Canada

“[Targeting] specific markets is something that we’ve been able to do for decades,” said Andrew Rusk, business director of demand creation at JWT Canada. “What’s different is using data signals in order to figure out if you’re talking to a traveler who is trying to go to Europe as opposed to someone who is traveling to Asia versus someone who has a family or is a single traveler.”

The partnership shows how creative agencies are increasingly taking on media agency-like work such as targeting, noted Thunder CEO Victor Wong. “We see creative agencies becoming more like consumer-experience agencies where they’re responsible for designing all the touch points for a brand, which oftentimes is paid media,” Wong said. “There’s still a person setting the strategy and vision, but the execution in the long term can be 100 percent robot.”

@laurenjohnson Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.