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January 10, 2013
Automated Creativity is Coming But Its Success Won’t Be Automatic
There’s ad space to be filled and humans can’t fill it all
Like a lot of folks, I participate in the great time-suck that is Fantasy Football. This year, I noticed a new wrinkle: After each head-to-head matchup, I saw a game recap written about me and my opponent.
Although it helped that the recaps were heavily based on game statistics, the writing was error-free and smooth, like an actual sports reporter could’ve written them. Think about it: there were millions of these game recaps written — mostly for an audience of one or two people. So who wrote them? Well, nobody. I discovered that these recaps were computer-generated by a company called Automated Insights.
So is automated writing the last frontier? Will marketers use automation to throw all of us writers, art directors, etc., out of business?
Not so fast. But the technology is getting pretty damned sophisticated. And it’ll only become more prevalent as marketers discover it.
For marketers, the promise of automation is that we can get infinitely better at personalized communication with customers. Which is kind of ironic when you think about it. Until now, much of the focus on automation has been on the media side, where data can be crunched to find seemingly relevant ad placements and articles for microtargeted audiences. We see it all the time. Targeted Facebook ads, Amazon recommendations, location-based banners, personalized “daily” newspaper-type sites people push on Twitter, and so on.
And that leads to ersatz customization: Slap a “personalized” headline along with a “personalized” visual into a display ad and hope it works because the statistics suggest it’ll be more effective. Of course, it’s not perfect. We’ve seen silly and ill-timed juxtapositions that can occur when display ads are automatically put next to an article with similar subject matter.
Still, the illusion of customization is a powerful lure for many clients in search of an economical answer. And in the case of my Fantasy Football recaps, the result can feel less automated and more human. Just imagine a friendly-sounding paragraph or letter that skillfully weaves your recent purchases, check-ins or searches into a product or service recommendation. The result could be frighteningly charming and effective.
The reality is that brands of all sizes are trying to establish some sort of one-to-one dialogue with customers. And there are so many media outlets to attempt it in. So with such a wide trough to be filled, it’s simply not worth paying someone to write or design any of this when the audience is one person.
We look for any way to make our jobs easier, and the idea of automation is a good one in theory — it speeds things up. But on the other hand, it also abdicates marketers and content creators of responsibility. Mistakes inevitably get made. Yet it will matter less and less — as we see with errors on the web, the mistakes will be little seen and short-lived simply because the audience won’t be that large.
Regardless, we’re going to see more automation in advertising. We’ll see more “writing” concocted by machines, and more weaving of audio, video and photography in creative work where the end result hasn’t passed through a human’s hands or eyes.
So where does that leave the humans who like to do this for a living?
Anyone who is a fan of the real art of marketing — emotional, provocative writing, simple design, and elegant art direction — needs to step up. Well-crafted work has to be recognized and rewarded. Awards shows aren’t as influential anymore, and much of the press runs to triumph the latest shiny objects. And marketers have to believe that our labor results in work that works and is worth paying for.
Otherwise, clients will be perfectly content to automate more of the creative work. Not because it’s easier or cheaper, but because after a certain point, no one will know the difference.
And that makes me automatically depressed just thinking about it.
(By the way, I won my Fantasy Football league this year. Want proof? Read the Championship Recap here.)

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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