AI And The Agency: How Publicis.Sapient Helps Marketers Navigate AI

This is the second of three stories in a mini-series on how artificial intelligence is affecting the work that agencies do. The next installment will publish on Friday. Read the first story about Xaxis. 

As marketer interest in artificial Intelligence (AI) grows, Publicis.Sapient sees opportunity to provide guidance.

It has a dedicated unit that provides AI-related advice for 30 clients, including Patrón and Dove soap. The AI practice informally launched about four years ago and has seen an uptick in spend over the past year and a half, said Josh Sutton, global head of AI at Publicis.Sapient.

“A year and a half ago, there was very minimal spend [in AI],” he said. “In 2017, companies are acknowledging that AI and its intersection with big data is going to enable business transformation in a fundamental way.”

Sutton works with a team of about 50 AI specialists who help marketers select and deploy AI tools. That work involves setting initial expectations.

“There’s a fairly wide gap in most people’s knowledge based on what they’ve seen and read from academic journals to Hollywood movies,” he said. “Setting expectations around what’s real is one of the most time-consuming and critical tasks.”

For example, marketers worry that AI’s ability to automate certain tasks will leave them jobless. In reality, AI’s ability to automate more mundane, machine-like functions makes marketers more effective and efficient at their jobs and able to focus on more high-level work like strategy in order to achieve better results, Sutton said.

Marketers can use AI to create conversational tools like voice assistants and chatbots and accelerate automated tasks within their own organizations. In programmatic, marketers can tap machine learning and natural language processing to crunch massive data sets at the individual level for more targeted media buys.

“It’s a tremendously large data set that, prior to AI, you wouldn't have been able to do a ton with because it would’ve taken an army of data scientists to get the information out,” Sutton said.

At that level of granularity, marketers can funnel their media spend toward channels where they know an individual will be to eliminate waste. Machine learning helped a major airline client recognize waste was coming from its out-of-home advertising and reduced that spend by 15% by targeting with more accuracy.

“We could create a real persona of that individual and look at where they travel, what routes they take to drive to the airport and where they live,” Sutton said. “We knew exactly who we were going after.”

Publicis.Sapient’s AI team also helps clients rethink their marketing strategies and shift media spend out of product and P&L silos and toward audience-based insights. The process can be bumpy and painful, Sutton said.

“It’s still an early-days transformation,” he said. “The majority are still centered around P&L lines.”

Retail and finance have shown the most initiative embracing AI and audience-based buys, while CPGs and the heavily regulated health care vertical trail behind, Sutton said.

Often, Publicis.Sapient’s AI practice is pitted against consultancies rather than agencies in pitches, given the systems integration and technology expertise required to deploy AI tech.

The AI Players

While the group is AI-agnostic, Publicis.Sapient works most often with the biggest players, including Google, Microsoft and IBM.

IBM has set the vision for what’s possible with AI, but its advertising is a bit more aspirational than its product as an enterprise solution, Sutton said. Google, on the other hand, has great technology but isn’t communicating how it can be deployed at the enterprise level. And Microsoft has quietly become to go-to solution for specific verticals.

“If I was going to put my chips down on a few companies today, [IBM, Google and Microsoft are] where they’d be,” he said.

Salesforce and Amazon are up-and-comers. Sutton sees the former becoming more of a niche play rather than an enterprise solution and the latter expanding on its great work in experience design with Echo.

But a client’s AI stack often involves bits and pieces of integrated technologies. Publicis.Sapient keeps an ear to the ground for smaller players with better point solutions than the big guys.

“Locking yourself into one partner is very dangerous,” he said. “I have concern with companies that are unwilling to be part of a broader enterprise infrastructure because I have yet to see anyone who can put all the pieces together. If the Googles, IBMs and Microsofts aren’t there yet, I struggle to think anyone else will be.”

Even with the bigger players, Sutton and his team do their due diligence to make sure the technologies they select are easy to use, scalable and have worked in the past for brands.

“This is an industry where unfortunately the gap between the hype and reality of what a product can deliver is fairly wide,” he said. “Even in the forgiving realm of technology overstatement, the AI space has taken it to a new level.”

While Sutton declined to share exact numbers, he said Publicis Groupe will likely invest millions in AI this year – both in its client-facing AI practice and to optimize the core functions within its own business, including media planning and buying.

And as with most centralized functions in agency holding groups, AI is beginning to trickle down into Publicis.Sapient’s agency brands to become core to their individual capabilities.

“It gets very fuzzy as to who are or aren’t pure AI team members as we start to scale out,” Sutton said.

 

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