Re-inventing creativity with gen AI - WPP's Stephan Pretorius on Marketing's big problem

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan March 22, 2024
Summary:
Creative people are enthused by gen AI's potential, argues WPP's CTO, but can the tech solve some of Marketing's issues.

marketing
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The really big challenge is what happens when the entire industry is re-invented as a result of AI.

So says, Stephan Pretorius, Chief Technology Officer at global advertising giant WPP, adding: 

Every single one of the business tools we use in our industry, but also everyone else's industries, whether it's coding or legal work or financial work, is going to be augmented by AI in the future and your organization's ability to adopt those tools is going to determine how productive you are.

When the impact of generative AI are considered, marketing is one of the roles/functions most readily cited. Last year WPP signed a deal with NVIDIA to build a gen AI-enabled content engine for digital advertising. It was pitched at the time as building on WPP’s leadership in emerging tech and generative AI

Ten months on thinking around the use cases is evolving, says Pretorius: 

All of us understand that AI is in general terms a transformative technology, but it's only when you get into the real vertical applications in particular industries, that you really get to understand what is possible, and how things are going to change in the future…I think in broad terms, the debate or the topics [around AI] go in two directions. One is here's my new model, look how fantastic it is. So model model competition. And the other one is, 'Oh my god it's gonna take my job away'. So you have this dichotomy of doomsday and very exciting news the whole time. And it's really interesting to see every time that something significant 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 argues, 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 building models releasing GPT-1, GPT-2 and  no-one really cared. I think there was one New Yorker article 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 perspective, 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 impact of generative AI is going to be, but also how to work with it and how to adopt these technologies in everyday life. We launched 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 capabilities through which we can express ourselves and be creative.

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

It was very exciting when I started going around our creative agencies 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, particularly 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 traditional 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 community have been the ones that have been the most enthusiastic and the least threatened.

He cites 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 passengers. This is stuff that: 

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

Marketing issues

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

Since the 1960s, and 70s, essentially brands went to an agency and the agency did everything for them. They created brands, they even created products, they named them. Marketing and advertising has become completely fragmented and siloed over the last 30-40 years. You have specialist agencies for media, for PR, for digital, for SEO. Most large CMOs today feel like basically 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 markets around the world. How do you standardize your marketing methodology, 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 manage 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 issue, says Pretorius: 

No-one has a way to scale it. No-one has a way to apply AI in a systematic 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 a incredibly flexible agile marketing orchestration system, driven by AI, that allows us to execute 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 production, 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 theme of how gen AI can revolutionize marketing. 

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