Fighting monopolies in the age of AI

 

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Agencies as platforms – setting up for failure

Publicis is trying to become a platform with ‘Marcel’.

PHD has ‘Source’ – another platform idea.

Ogilvy also has its OS – more or less a similar idea.

Every global agency wants to become an Operating system/ platform where it could efficiently put to use the thousands of creative minds, departments for its thousand clients across the globe. The idea theoretically is  pretty awesome. Now that the agencies have grown to global proportion, how do yo make sense of the scale? How do you break the silos? How do you partner global brand’s global operations? A digitally enabled global platform sounds about right.

But will it actually work? There are two things that make an idea work. One is clarity of purpose. Second is people – Who is supposed to make it work and does he/ she gain anything from it?

And I think the agencies have lost the game on both fronts.
I think Publicis has potential but they have underestimated the power of AI or are shy of actually using its potential. The examples shown in the video are pedestrian. The queries showcased do not require ambitious AI. They can pivot to a bigger opportunity with a bit more of imagination and conviction.

Secondly, the people.
The value of a platform or a network is really in its ‘network effect’. Facebook is valuable because all my friends are on facebook and so are their likes and their suggestions. It is worthless if my friends were not there. So a platform is as good as the number of active people on it.
And I doubt there is strong enough an incentive for agency workforce to go digital – use that digital add-on of a ‘platform’.
Let me elaborate. Starting with vision.

  1. The AI’s story

    Professional assistant sounds like an exciting idea. But the examples shown in the demo video for Marcel makes me think that they really haven’t thought it through yet. The potential of a professional assistant in my pocket is huge and I doubt they have the conviction, the drive and the ability to truly create a product that could help me with my work. The video showed examples of fairly simple queries (for reports, for teams, for projects… simple keyword searches) – something that a simple google search would yield an answer. If that is the ambition, then the product is worthless.
    I imagine a professional assistant for a strategist to know up-to-date information of my client’s business performance, brand matrices, social listening etc. I will need it to analyse that social, market data for me.
    For a creative professional, an AI enabled professional assistant could help fetch examples of a certain emotion being portrayed in movies, novels etc, or find the right cultural conversation to target, find right examples of older/ competitive ad that conveys something. From a coding perspective, it requires technology that can scan videos for emotions, scan novels for metaphors, suggest content that might be useful for my current project, scan global market indices, scan social conversations for expressions, not just sentiments.
    That is a sophisticated product that I can use. And also, a sophisticated product that is technically very difficult to create. There is a reason it doesn’t exist yet.

    It would be economically more viable for Publicis to sell these products in open marketplace with high margins, instead of restricting it to their employees and clients.

    Euromonitor and their ilk have not yet shown a willingness to improve their delivery with AI. Understandably so, because of the economics of it and the coding prowess it requires to create an intuitive and powerful AI that will actually be useful. If Publicis or Ogilvy, has that kind of coding prowess, they would be better placed to monetise it for strategy projects rather than as  value-adds, to advertising!

    Why would you give away something more valuable for free with something whose value is depreciating. Would you sell a bicycle by giving away gold bars free with it?

  2. Conviction: It is a platform if it is the primary interface for a defined purpose. Otherwise, it is simply an onerous add-on.

    The nature of advertising business demands close co-ordination, casual comfort in conversations, intellectual proximity… None of which will exist if digital becomes the primary interface for inter-agency/ or agency-client relationships. People like to meet, talk and see if they find others as being agreeable. Even within an agency, if a CD doesn’t like my (planner’s) attitude, he would simply not bother even reading my brief. In the ego chamber that is an agency, relationships determine  if people even attempt at listening to other people. I have a hard time getting creatives excited about most of my briefs. I am sure they won’t get excited over anonymous briefs gathering digital dust on the ‘platform’ – a brief that doesn’t get an appointment, doesn’t challenge them intellectually, doesn’t provide them a startling new insight, doesn’t smile encouragingly, doesn’t empathize with their issues, doesn’t complement on their excellent creativity… is a dead brief.

    Indeed, many business relationships are based solely on the merit of nothing more than strength of actual people to people relationships. What happens to those if digital platforms become the primary interfaces?
    And if that is not the case and real world remains the primary interface with digital being an add-on, why would anyone want to invest extra time and effort on a platform that has diminishing returns for the primary purpose of fruitful relationships.

  3. Relationships vs projects: Should our industry incentivize the philandering behavior of clients?

    There are two kinds of clients – those that build a trust based relationship with an agency and works closely enough to grow their brands. Increasingly, however, trust is giving way for power tactics – clients who get agencies to pitch for every little project.
    The ‘platform’ idea is more suitable for the latter kind of clients. It is in the nature of ‘open relationships’ to put out briefs that hide more than they reveal. The lack of transparency means that the planner has to work harder in ‘guessing’ the brand challenge and strategy, in absence of hard numbers and concrete objectives from clients. Which means, more possible ‘routes’ to work on. which means more work.
    Do we really need to do more work that might not see the light of day, or less of it?

  4. Best creative brains do not want briefs from elsewhere.

    Consider a over-worked Creative Director with 5-6 projects (with at least one ongoing pitch) on his plate with deadlines of yesterday? That practically is every other CD in increasingly poor agencies (Look at retainers going down and businesses asking to pitch for every little project). Would a busy CD from China want to work on that superbowl commercial for a US client? I doubt it. Maybe interns and junior copywriters would like that opportunity. But typically the best creative brains with enough experience wouldn’t be going out to search for extra projects. They might do so, if they already have an idea/ script and need now a client to sell it to.
    So perhaps, the platform will become a Craigslist for ‘idea in need of clients’.

  5. Every brief a pitch

    This system, in a manner of speaking, is further fragmenting the whole pitch business. In a sense, every Publicis brief then becomes a pitch. Which planner/ creative director wants that?
    Pitches essentially are blackholes for good ideas. ideas that titillate clients, but that have much smaller chance of seeing the light of day.

  6. The knowledge bank – why quora works but internal Q&A does not

    I have worked in multiple global agencies. All of them had strong internal ‘knowledge bank’ networks. I even oversaw making of one of those, long time back.
    None of them worked. No one ever contributed answers, knowledge to the supposed bank.
    Or rather, the same person who might spend hours writing a thorough answer to a question on Quora, would never write (or even read a question posed by someone else) in the internal network.
    The reason – While both public and company networks can give you validation – only company networks might be unforgiving for your faux pas/ ignorance. You don’t want to be seen as an ignorant buffoon to all your global colleagues, do you? But if it happens on facebook or quora, your post just might get buried and no one has to point fingers at you for more than a few days at worst.
    A stupid answer would brand you stupid among your peers. A career suicide.

    Secondly, I have seen differences in the nature of questions. A Quora question may be fairly open-ended, it might seek opinions, experiences, expertise. As against, most of the questions on internal networks of agencies are boring specific asks for a certain requirement. Nobody wants to do the homework for you.
    So while I maybe willing to answer your question, “What is positioning?”, I am absolutely not interested in answering your question, “How should I position xyz car brand in China which is dominated by abc?”
    Do your work, don’t ask me to work for you! I don’t have time for that.

  7. How then is a freelance networking company different from WPP/ Publicis?

    Lastly, I feel a freelance networking company has better incentive to create a platform like this. If it is going to be open, why not completely open? Anyways, senior creative rock stars are not going to search for briefs themselves. They want client and servicing team to come to them for briefs. So it is marketplace for junior talent. And if it is junior level talent we are talking about, might as well keep it open for junior level talent across the world.
    So essentially, it might make your existing junior-middle level creative talent insecure. I doubt you want that to happen.

A better way to go about this process is with a different perspective – one not about technology as a stop-gap solution, but technology that solves a real problem. And the real problem is not ‘access to best talent’, or ‘access to reports’ – the problem is decline in value of our creative ideas, the decline in our growth. The answer is open source. Read about it here.

Update: I have since written about a better way of creating an agency platform.

OpenAI is not enough: On why Elon Musk must also disrupt the education system and ignite utopian imagination

Elon Musk is one of the few powerful people in the world who actually cares for the world, has a vision and has the ability to steer the world in conscientious directions. And Elon Musk is worried. He is worried about our probable future overlords – Artificial Intelligence (AI) , and rightly so. (“Not all AI futures are benign.“) And his response to that threat is characteristically ambitious and well targeted. He has started two new ventures in that field – Neuralink and OpenAI. Neuralink hopes to create ‘neural lace’ that removes the middleman of hardware between our thoughts and computing power. OpenAI hopes to democratize research about AI so that the advances of the technology are evenly distributed.
I am interested in this promise of OpenAI. Access to technology gives one power. And the currently powerful people, can buy access for themselves and create false barriers of access for others to technologies that are powerful. And OpenAI hopes to subvert that dynamic. The wish to democratise access to knowledge is at the very source of the Open movement. But for the wish to be fulfilled, much more needs to be done than OpenAI.

As it stands now, the two companies, by design, will only contribute to acceleration of AI adoption among elite without actual democratisation. OpenAI stops short at making the advances public, without ensuring that the public has the capability or intent of using those technologies. The current educational infrastructure is tremendously inadequate to educate enough people who could take the research at OpenAI and do something with it. Also, there is the issue of convenience and intent. Look for example, the promise of ‘sixth sense‘. Its been 7 years since that technology went open, but we don’t see people leveraging it widely. Or take the case of 3D printing. It was supposed to revolutionise manufacturing – but it didn’t.

Secondly, look at the world – everyone is building walls. To an extent that is inevitable.What happens to technologies in a world full of walls and xenophobia? Technology gets weaponized and secretive, not open.  

Like I said, there are two key issues here – capability and intent.

First, we need people to have skills in applied sciences with capabilities to leverage AI tech. Second, we need to show people the positive future that they can be a part of. We need people with imagination to dream of positive futures, before we can make the positive futures true. This will help in making it convenient and desirable for people to be part of this open alternate system for AI knowledge.

In both the cases of sixth sense and 3D printing, there simply was not enough public will to disrupt their existing lifestyles in favour of a more empowering tech that is less convenient. They were not emotionally moved by these tech’s promises. In absence of emotional will, people always choose convenience over empowerment. That is the great threat that Aldous Huxley warned us against in his ‘Brave New World’.   People will choose Soma that is detrimental over inconvenient though beneficial changes, because that is in service of prevalent power structures. Status-quo must be maintained, until it becomes unsustainable – That is the rule of the game. People and the power centers are geared for this behavior.

Musk understands the power of convenience well. His wealth is built with his ideas that made transactions convenient (Paypal), alternative fuel convenient and desirable (Tesla). So he is well positioned and capable to do the things necessary to make OpenAI’s promise a reality.

So Elon Musk, please invest in world’s (not US alone, since the promise is that of equality) educational infrastructure.
And secondly, propagandists/ strategists like me can help in making OpenAI a part of our cultural fabric, so that its adoption becomes easy. We need utopian ideas that people get motivated with – ideas that people want to be part of, to participate in. And this is where the strategy would be very different from any of the Elon Musk companies before. You would actually need to do propaganda/ marketing for this to work. We need utopian ideas that ignite people with imagination, for this to work.

Future of work

In response to a quora question – Future- How will the future of businesses and management look like and what changes should we expect?

1. Jobs for the Hyper-specialised

2. Second economy = computers transacting, interacting with other computers. the economy that is completely run by computers and algorithms, with little human support. Read this excellent article from HBR. I have taken inputs from it liberally to answer this question. Second economy will be worth $7.6 Trillion by 2025.

2. Future of robots replacing the workers – 100 million workers to be replaced in US alone by 2025, where the total workforce today is 146 million.

What this means is, the world as we know it will have to change – culturally, economically, physically for a peaceful future. The second economy is inevitable to a certain extent. It will replace jobs and no new jobs will be created. The prosperity created would be accessible to fewer and fewer people. Most of us will lose out. For a peaceful future, perhaps the governments would have to consider a golden mean of expanded social security + lifestyle allowances for the vast majority of people, and high taxes for the controllers of the vast systems.

3. Very high rates of change – As it is, we find it difficult to keep up with the changes affecting our work – may it be managers or workers – newer systems, newer softwares, newer ways of doing things. The rate of change will only accelerate here after.

This poses problems not only for the employed (increasing pressure to keep up. besides how many would be ready to compete in such a scenario?), but more so for the unemployed. There simply would not be enough jobs for unskilled/ semi-skilled people.

CEOs and CXOs shouldn’t be too smug. Even managerial positions would very likely be occupied by algorithms and servers. There will be an app for everything.

4. An Alternative to central bank money – Globalisation and intelligent algorithms = consolidated control in the hands of a few people. Which means concentration of money in a few pockets. Which means, for the vast majority, for their lives to have a meaning, their lives need to divorce from the current currency of money. P2P, bitcoin money could actually be the spiritually and technologically relevant form of money for future.

5. Media and communications will become the most important industries – To control perceptions, mass trends, mass opinions.

In the immediate future..

1. Importance of Social media influencers – directors of curiosities. Makers of sense of ever burgeoning mass of choices and information.

2. Loss of ‘security’: high churn and abrasive growth of ‘Human resources’. Social security weakened.

3. Predatory giant corporations:

a. Amazon started it. Their policy of pricing for a loss to edge out the competition has become the mantra for most big corporations. Before internet, this would have affected a retailer in a city. Now, such policy affects business across industries across the world. Amazon is making retailer businesses insecure across the world. They hope for retailers across the world to shutter down in a few years so that they could enjoy monopoly later on. Same strategy is used by Flipkart, OLA and so on.

Look at OLA for a second. It under prices local taxi drivers. OLA Taxi drivers get subsidy over the fare earned. This unfair advantage is pushing out local taxi businesses. In the short term, it is good for the consumers – with low fares, good cabs, good service… but in the long term, who is stop the monopoly of OLA to charge consumer thrice the amount of a normal fair? The payout to drivers too is not consistent. In a short period of a year, the payout policies and amounts have varied tremendously. (according to a few drivers I spoke to.. apparently it was a healthy sum a year ago, 6 months ago they stopped paying subsidy.. ad hoc opportunistic policies).

Essentially, we are encouraging assholes to run 21st century businesses.

b. Qualities such as kindness, consideration of human life outside of their job role are already absent from much of the work places. The newer breed of startups such asapple, Uber, Zomato have a terrible moral compass. They see nothing wrong in hiring and firing indiscriminately. They see nothing wrong in finding loopholes in policies and laws to earn more money at the cost to the wider world. They see nothing wrong in being ridiculously selfish. This has spawned a new culture of impunity and apathy in the search of rapid growth of riches.

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Originally published here