Coming up with new ways to be creative with AI – WPP’s Stephan Pretorious on marketing’s biggest problem

WPP’s CTO says that creative people are excited about the possibilities of generation AI. But can the technology help Marketing with some of its problems?

How to handle situations where AI changes the whole industry? That’s the real problem.

Indeed, Stephan Pretorious, Chief Technology Officer at the world’s largest advertising firm WPP, says:

AI will be added to all of the business tools we use in our field and everyone else’s as well, whether it’s for coding, legal work, or financial work. How productive your company is will depend on how well it can adopt these tools.

When people talk about the effects of generative AI, marketing is one of the jobs or functions that comes up most often. WPP and NVIDIA made a deal last year to build a smart content engine for digital ads that uses AI. It was sold at the time as a way for WPP to build on its positions as a leader in new technologies and creative AI.

After ten months, Pretorious says that the way people think about the use cases is changing:

All of us understand that AI is in general terms a transformative technology, but it’s only when you get into the real vertical uses in particular industries, that you really get to understand what is possible, and how things are going to change in the future…I believe that the main discussions or debates about AI tend to lean in two different ways. One is here’s my new model, look how great it is. So model model race. And the other one is, ‘Oh my god it’s gonna take my job away’. So you have this dichotomy of doomsday and very happy news the whole time. And it’s really interesting to see every time that something important drops, how the entire industry focuses on that for a couple of days until the next big thing arrives.

The ‘big thing’ of note around generative AI happened 18 months ago, he says, when AI got a UI:

What happened when AI got a UI is that it became democratized for the first time ever. I mean, open AI was merely going along making models releasing GPT-1, GPT-2 and no-one really cared. I think there was one New Yorker piece but when they when they opened up ChatGPT for the world to understand and to experience, people’s understanding of what this technology means in terms of the ability of machines to make content, to think, to write, to reason properly set in.

Selling gen AI

From WPP’s view, interest in AI dates back before ChatGPT began to rocket up the hype cycle, he states:

We’ve been working very hard for the last four or five years, but especially in the last 18 months, to really help our people to understand what the effect of generative AI is going to be, but also how to work with it and how to adopt these technologies in everyday life. We started a massive program of evangelization across the business. We have 110,000 people around the world [and] probably about five times as many clients in terms of individual people. We set out to really help people to understand that we see generative AI as augmenting human creativity, not being a threat to your job, but actually being a new set of skills through which we can express ourselves and be creative.

So how does AI augment human creativity? It’s a topic that has drawn a lot of controversy in recent months. Pretorious is very upbeat on the subject:

It was very exciting when I started going around our creative companies in the middle of 2022 and I asked them about what they were doing, what tools they’re using, what are you experimenting with? How do you feel about it? It was one creative director in Toronto, who said to me, ‘I’m really excited because prompt is just the new art direction’.

What it meant was that in order to use AI, especially in the visual areas well, you need to have studied design, photography, art, aesthetics, etc. in order to know not only what you want to achieve, but also to judge whether what’s delivered or generated is good. This idea of AI rewarding standard humanities training and softer skills is something which I think is very exciting and our people have been very optimistic about. In fact, the creative group have been the ones that have been the most enthusiastic and the least threatened.

He gives examples from WPP’s work with clients, such as NIKE’s campaign to celebrate its relationship with tennis champion Serena Williams, in which avatars of her at 18 and her today played a match to see which one would win. Or Virgin Cruises use of a deep fake of Jennifer Lopez to provide a personalized content experience for guests. This is stuff that:

You could have theorized about in the past, but you couldn’t have actually made it without AI.

Marketing problems

On the other hand, he suggests that Marketing as a role has a problem:

Since the 1960s, and 70s, basically brands went to an agency and the agency did everything for them. They made brands, they even created products, they named them. Marketing and advertising has become totally fragmented and siloed over the last 30-40 years. You have specialist companies for media, for PR, for digital, for SEO. Most large CMOs today feel like simply glorified general contractors.

This is multiplied when you have these kind of complex global organizations where many of our clients have thousands of products in more than 100 countries around the world. How do you standardize your marketing approach, your processes? How do you make sure everyone works in the same way? How do you make sure that people use the same tools and data? And how do you handle all your third party relationships?

The answer to all of those questions comes back to “this wonderful AI thing” that “everyone in Marketing wants to use”. But there’s another problem, says Pretorious:

No-one has a way to scale it. No-one has a way to apply AI in a structured way across the Marketing process. This is really the core of what we’ve been building at WPP. For the last few years we’ve been building this operating system for Marketing, driven by AI, to solve for this problem. We call it WPP Open. It is an incredibly flexible agile marketing orchestration system, driven by AI, that allows us to perform any form and combination of marketing function for our clients in a consistent way across all their markets. We have applied AI not only to the vertical functions of creative creation, media, commerce, we’ve also applied AI across the horizontal of the Marketing process.

In part two of this article, L’Oréal Chief Digital and Marketing Officer Asmita Dubey picks up the idea of how gen AI can revolutionize marketing.

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