The Rise of AI and Data Usage Are Blurring the Lines Between Personalization and Creativity

Largely because advertising is a science and an art

A yellow machine; in the middle there is a test tube; the test tube houses a human brain
It would be a mistake for marketers to confuse personalization with creativity. Mustafa Hacalaki/Getty Images
Headshot of Brian Sheehan

Advertising today is fundamentally different than it was even five years ago. The industry has made tremendous strides by manipulating big online behavior-driven data sets and computing automation to get closer to the holy grail of one-to-one marketing. While one-to-one marketing is not entirely realistic or even efficient today, every major marketer is in the process of making their offers micro-targeted and more personalized.

Advances in programmatic media buying, and especially artificial intelligence, to help get more personalized messages to the right consumer at the right time will be the game-changer for marketers.

In essence, today’s transformation of advertising via data and AI is primarily about personalization.

One of the core trends that has coincided with this new micro-targeted reality and the one-to-one vision for the near future has been a vast increase in marketers taking significant parts of their advertising in-house. In an advertising process where the most valuable pieces are driven by computing, data, programs, algorithms, etc., it makes sense that most brands would see this as something they could do well—and perhaps even better than their agencies.

Marketers today are starting to prefer subjective decisions made by limited artificial intelligence over subjective decisions made by unlimited human intelligence.

Marketers tend to be great at dealing with information and process. What they used to need from agencies was impartiality, knowledge of consumer wants, needs and trends and, most importantly, creativity to craft attractive and memorable messages. But that was when marketers saw creativity as the core driver of advertising, when the goal was to craft messages for the masses.

There is, however, a very dangerous assumption at the core of this in-housing movement. That assumption is that personalization accomplishes the same thing as creativity. Red danger lights should be flashing for most marketers, but they are not. Not yet, anyway. Clearly, data-driven advertising is important. Personalization is important. These are important advances. Those who don’t master them will be left behind. But in a market where all the competitors in every category are leveraging data to create highly personalized messages, there is one very important question that needs to be asked. Unfortunately, few are asking it.

That question is: In a world of perfect personalization, what defines competitive advantage? The answer was, is and will always be applied creativity.

Many marketers are making decisions based on the premise that personalization and creativity are the same thing. They are not. One is more powerful than the other, and unfortunately it is the one that many marketers are actively walking away from.

Personalization gets a message based on past behavior to the right consumer at the right time. That’s important. In fact, it is probably 80 percent of what marketers need to do. The other 20 percent of developing creative messages that lead consumers toward brands based not on past behavior, but on unique messages or images that create new wants and needs for the future is more important.

The future of personalization runs in lock-step with advances in AI. Yet a related problem that most marketers are blind to is the subjective nature of AI. AI at its core is nothing more than a very sophisticated algorithm. Every decision made by AI is a calculation based on the decision trees programmed into it. Two different AI programs will often come to different conclusions based on their programming. Can AI learn from its mistakes? Sure, it can. That’s what machine learning is all about. But it does make mistakes, just like the humans who programmed it, and all of its learning is backward focused.

Unfortunately, true infallibility does not exist. In a world where all marketers are using AI, some strategies and brands will succeed and others will fail, just like they do today, no matter how well they are optimized. That’s the nature of competition.

Perhaps a greater concern is that many of the algorithms and emerging AI decision trees exist in black boxes at places like Google, Facebook, Amazon and IBM. Ironically, marketers today are starting to prefer subjective decisions made by limited artificial intelligence over subjective decisions made by unlimited human intelligence.

In terms of winning at Jeopardy, AI is far superior. In terms of developing ad campaigns that inspire consumers to admire and prefer your product, not so much. Creativity at its best is about creative leaps that are surprising, fresh and imaginative. Humans can make creative leaps into the future. AI attempts leaps into the future by analyzing the past. A case in point is the new Lexus Europe commercial, which was written by AI. There’s a reason it is simply terrible. It has analyzed the tropes of car ads and what people seem to want emotionally from a commercial. It is looking for the future by being stuck in the past.

In the end, advertising has always been a science and an art. Marketers need to take advantage of breakthroughs in data science and computing advances, but they walk away from the art of advertising, the creativity of advertising, at their own risk.

As Paul Kemp-Robertson and Chris Barth state in their wonderful, newly-published book, The Contagious Commandments: 10 Steps to Brand Bravery, “Creativity is the last legal means to gain an unfair advantage over the competition.” I could not agree more.

Brian Sheehan is a professor of advertising at Syracuse University and is a member of our Adweek Academic Council.