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Sir Martin Sorrell judges the risks and rewards of AI in advertising

By Mark Challinor


London, United Kingdom


The human creative side will become increasingly important” — advertising guru Sir Martin Sorrell on AI’s impact on advertising. 

Late at night recently, I came home from a lovely but very tiring advertising industry dinner here in London. Before climbing into bed, I felt I needed to “climb down” and chill out for short while, taking stock of the evening that just was. To do so, I tuned into the BBC TV News channel as a background to my ponderings.

To my surprise, in those early hours I stumbled across the BBC’s business presenter Aaron Hazlehurst, who was about to interview a personal hero of mine, Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO at S4Capital but perhaps most famous for creating the world’s largest advertising and PR group, WPP plc. Sorrel is a true advertising industry global legend whom I had the pleasure of interviewing myself for a previous INMA Webinar.  

On this late-night discovery, the subject matter was, of all things, AI — the risks and rewards for advertising in the future. I was immediately hooked and quite surprised at the timing of the show, when I am sure many people would not be tuned in. Yes, I know the world has many time zones but still, it seemed to have appeared without any prior promotion and buried somewhat in the night’s programming.

So, I recorded the interview and have made a transcript of it for subscribers of this INMA newsletter, as I thought you’d be more than interested.

Here it is:

Aaron Hazlehurst: Today is all about balancing the positives and the negatives. What are the pros and cons of AI in your world, advertising? 

Sir Martin Sorrell: I think there are five big positives:

  1. The first is we will see an improvement in productivity in creatives, copywriting, and visualisation. Basically, we will be able to produce ads far faster. Two weeks down to two days.
  2. We will be able to personalise more effectively. We are doing this to some extent already. But in the future, instead of producing one-and-a-half million assets for a campaign, eventually we will be able to produce multi-million assets for a campaign.
  3. Media planning and buying will be revolutionised. You will no longer need 10,000 people around the world in the media planning and buying network. You can do it algorithmically, and people will have very sophisticated data to make their planning and buying decisions on.
  4. We can use AI to “better” our daily processes and be more productive.
  5. And finally, and what I think is the most important, we will be able to democratise information inside companies. Companies will become more flat and more effective, more efficient because knowledge will be disseminated around the company with accessing information easier. 

On the negative side, there are legal issues around IP, copywriting, and infringement. That issue is being worked out in the likes of the music industry and others. There will always be the “bad actors” using this technology in evil ways. That is something self-regulation can put pressure on, as the regulator won’t be able to keep up. 

Finally, then there is the issue around jobs. Will there be a net increase or a diminishing of jobs? My own view is that it will probably be negative in terms of net jobs.

Hazlehurst: So, AI can be used to deliver complete advertising campaigns, but will consumers be able to see the difference between one crafted by agencies and one put together by an algorithm?

Sorrell: If I showed you an ad generated by AI a year ago, you would see the joins. You would see, to some extent, that it was manufactured. If I showed you the same process today, you might not be able to. Going forward, I think you definitely won’t be able to see it.

Hazlehurst: Does that mean that advertising companies need to be clear with their clients when they use AI in their work?

Sorrell: We (S4Capital) have already taken a position. For example, we won’t alter pictures. If we, say, used a white actor, we wouldn’t convert that person into a black actor or vice versa. So, we have already put into place ethical protocols which we think are important. This comes back to the self-regulation point. It is hopeless for the regulator, in my view, to believe that he or she can keep up with this thing.

What the government regulars have to do is put pressure on the tech companies to behave in a totally responsible way. Having said that, there will always be those “bad actors.” Do I think that in next year’s presidential election, some nefarious people will be using AI to generate fake images or fake ads or fake interventions? Yes, I think that will happen.

Hazlehurst: So, are you saying you don’t believe that the world will be able to get together and globally regulate this technology?

Sorrell: We have already seen the U.S. regulator trying to unravel a deal that Google did with DoubleClick 10 years ago, so the regulator tends to be always reactive. They lack resources. If the government was prepared to pile infinite resources into this, in terms of people, knowledge, and data, then maybe they might be [proactive[. But what the government needs to do is work with the [ad] industry. 

Hazlehurst: So, who will be the winners and the losers in this AI battle? 

Sorrell: Agility will be key. And from the platforms point of view, Alphabet, Meta, Amazon, Alibaba, TikTok, Apple, Microsoft, Salesforce, Adobe, Oracle, and those that make the chips for all the computing power [will win]. 

And I think only these larger companies will be able to do it at the required scale and cost. Inevitably, as they are forced to grow organically because of regulation, I think you will see them expand further into it. These companies will be the really interesting ones to watch.

Hazlehurst: Let me finish on this: In five years’ time, what’s the impact of AI on advertising and marketing?

Sorrell: I wish I knew. It’s very difficult to say [what will happen] in the next five minutes or five days. But having said that, it’s going to be much more efficient and a much more effective model. 

It will be algorithmically driven, but the human creative side will become increasingly important but at a different level. It will be about those decisions, views, and judgments that will be made with more effective data than we’ve ever had before. 

And it will be a more interesting environment because of more data available, companies will be leaner, more efficient, flatter, and [an environment] where people across the company are much more involved in decision-making with better access to information.

If information is power, this is going to democratise knowledge inside companies and going to make people more productive.

Hazlehurst: Martin Sorrell, thank you. 

So, there we have it. The man has spoken. Very much in line with what we are thinking in media circles, I would say. 

Expect AI to stimulate the way advertising is “made” and for it to be faster and allow for (human) creativity to blossom. More data will open up a more personalised end user experience and a more collaborative approach across disciplines internally and externally with clients.

But, we need to beware of the dangers of things like fake ads, bad sources of information, etc., which if left unwatched and unregulated, can lead to bad reputational damage for both ourselves and our advertising clients. 

I hope this all can lead to the start of some most interesting and fruitful conversations between you, your sales teams, and advertising clients alike.

If you’d like to subscribe to my bi-weekly newsletter, INMA members can do so here.

About Mark Challinor

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