Humans are winning the battle for control of the advertising ecosystem, even as artificial intelligence and automation assume a much larger role, according to the experts presenting at a marketing automation conference this week.
Publishers and agencies are trying to assert control over the advertising environment, while consumers are expected to accelerate their use of new technologies to guard their data and assume control over their own personas in digital media, said speakers at the annual Ad:Tech New York conference.
“We’re at this historic inflection point,” said Joanna Peña-Bickley, global chief experience officer at ThinxMachine. Artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and the explosion of data are giving rise to a new industrial revolution, and it requires marketers to focus more closely on experience design, said Peña-Bickley, who is about to join Amazon as head of design.
“I think we hold up technology as the savior and that’s the problem. We think technology-first and not human-first,” said Cameron Friedlander, global marketing technology & integrated media lead at Kimberly-Clark.
Consumer-facing technology is developing fast—with VR, AR, AI and many other initials coming within reach of the average person—but what’s available is still functionally behind consumer expectations, said Stefan Tornquist, VP of research at eConsultancy. The consulting firm has been studying the state of machine learning and AI over the last 18 months and concluded that the expectations gap has been closing, and technology is quickly reaching “that pivotal moment when our expectations will come to pass.”
Several speakers noted the rise of blockchain technology—a secure ledger whose values can’t be changed at will—would allow consumers to have one single persona online across all of their devices, something marketers covet as a way to truly personalize communications. Blockchain offers a way to encrypt secure transactions because the parties have to agree to change the values in the ledger, but the change is instant, which speeds up transactions.
Blockchain “is a distribution of trust” that can shift the distribution of power when it comes to data, said Emily Becher, SVP and head of Samsung NEXT International, the electronics company’s technology incubator. She acknowledged Samsung has “some early ideas we’re developing ourselves,” in the blockchain arena.
Blockchain may allow people to own their identities, said Chick Foxgrover, chief digital officer of the 4A’s. “That could drive a truly new age after the aggregation economy that Facebook and Google have created,” said Foxgrover.
“It’s not far off when your identity is a data packet, so you navigate the world as your own data,” said Becher.
Several companies noted that one application of blockchain could be as a secure channel for publishers and marketers to share first-party data about media buys without exposing proprietary information. Comcast has created some partnerships with blockchain so the broadcaster’s partners can query data without exposing it, creating larger pools of data to make informed media buys, noted Marcien Jenckes, president of Comcast Cable Advertising. “It’s about being bigger than us,” he said.
IBM is currently working on a pilot to test programmatic buying using blockchain, said Babs Rangaiah, executive partner of global marketing. The program will show all players, how much each get paid, and will provide a “blind trust” to use totally encrypted first-party data so it can be leveraged by the platform without sharing it with all players. IBM expects to see the results in a few months, said Rangaiah.
Blockchain could spell the end of the “walled gardens” of data that are seen as a barrier to transparency. It would also add a level of transparency to programmatic advertising and help root out fraud and inefficiency. “We need to break down the concept of gatekeepers … the Blockchain work is addressing that,” said Adam Gerber, senior VP at ad agency Essence.
“Whether it’s through blockchain or a data wallet, consumers are going to own their data,” said Bob Rupczynski, global VP of media & CRM McDonald’s. Over the next couple of years, consumers will start owning their data, so marketers have to stop depending on data mining to find a competitive message and instead start focusing on creating value for consumers, so they agree to share their information in exchange, he said.
“Instead of the old way of doing things, we need to take the power back” said Rupczynski. “Stop worrying about walls, start planting gardens.”
Publishers get on board
Even as the rise of the Internet has devastated traditional publishing channels such as newspapers and magazines, publishers have leveraged digital and mobile channels to expand their reach and assume new roles in content marketing and native advertising.
Legacy publishers have an advantage in the world of trolls and fake news, said media insiders. Content is important to consumers no matter where they read it, but the source of that content is more important now than ever, Jarrod Dicker, VP commercial product & innovation of The Washington Post. “People feel connected,” and see their subscriptions as a contribution to being “shareholders of the truth,” he said.
But to monetize that advantage, publishers are increasingly experimenting with technology and wandering into new fields. The Huffington Post is restructuring its offering as part of AOL and Yahoo’s merger into a Verizon subsidiary called Oath, while the New York Times has acquired two ad agencies last year, Fake Love and Hello Society, to add to its T Brand Studio content marketing unit.
“It really feels like every single part of our business is in some form of transformation,” said Sebastian Tomich, senior VP, advertising and innovation of The New York Times. “There’s so many different opportunities right now and we’re all trying to make it add up to a whole.”
Relationships between marketers, agencies and publishers are all up for grabs at the moment and agencies are facing their own “identity crisis,” said Tomich.
“We’re taking back the rudders of our business,” said Julia Beizer, head of product at Huffpost. “We’re trying to figure out how we navigate these choppy waters.”
The coming year will bring a lot of experimentation, as all parties test new strategies to adapt, but all the technology applied will circle back to the people affected by it, the consumers. All the speakers at Ad:Tech circled back to the need to tell stories and make the user experience worth the consumers’ time.
“There are incredible changes happening in this business, but it’s a great time to be in the business,” said IBM’s Rangaiah. “We are in the position to rewrite the rules in a way that can revolutionize the business.”