I, for one, welcome our new robot advertising overlords…

Admap launched an Admap prize this year, calling for essays on ‘The Future of Planning’… and my brother Andrew and I decided we’d write something a bit provocative for it.

The shortlist has just been announced (all the best to those who’re on there, some really interesting sounding essays I can’t wait to read), and whilst unfortunately we’re not on that, it does mean that I can post it up here for you all.

Enjoy… and don’t have nightmares.  It’s just a story.  Isn’t it?


The Creation of Demand
John V Willshire, Smithery  &  Andrew J Willshire, Data2Decisions

We are masters of the exploitation of demand; making people want things.  Agencies today habitually paint fresh hieroglyphs upon the brand temples constructed by our forebears.  But what happens when people just stop turning up to worship?

We believe planning has a vital role to play in the creation of demand; making things people want.  It can only achieve this by doing two things; creating ways to deal with the highly intensive workload caused by data overload, and by rediscovering a core ambition set out for us in the past.

What was planning?

In “The Anatomy of Account Planning”, Stephen King of JWT recalled how that department came into being at JWT in London in 1968.  The agency had been running a ‘marketing department’ along the following lines:

What we did for each of our clients included analysing marketing data and published statistics, writing marketing plans, recommending more research, and planning new product/brand development.

Stephen King, 1989 (1)

As clients took marketing in-house, JWT set up their Account Planning team in response, concentrating on the territory closest to home; the advertising strategy or what we would call the communications strategy.

Nowadays that job is split between the many agencies crowding around the client’s table.  Yet whatever sort of planner you are today, you can probably spot yourself on the simple scale King describes.

I believe in fact that the most fundamental scale on which to judge account planners is one that runs from Grand Strategists to Advert Tweakers.  And that nowadays there are rather too many agencies whose planners’ skills are much too near the advert-tweaking end of the scale

Stephen King, 1989 (2)

In 1989, it was easy to be a tweaker.  There were five clear media options, where you could test one or two creative iterations within the three channels you chose (Broadbent, 2011 (3) ).  But today’s tweakers are different.  They are born of necessity, rather than the desire for a quick buck, a good lunch and a simple life.

There is now too much planning to be done at the tweaker end of the scale, exploiting demand that exists already.  It is important work, but the sheer volume of it means planners, agencies and clients are unable to do enough to create new demand.

Data suffocates companies and brands, and the continued and accelerating fragmentation of media is making it worse…

Planning in the future

Picture this scene; one warm autumn evening in 2020, two brothers settle down to watch the same television programme.

One brother is completely immersed in the show at 7:30pm in his Surround-Vision room (Brooker, 2011 (4) ), whilst the other rolls in from the pub at 10:30, roughly sketches the shape of a screen across the kitchen window with his finger (Samsung, 2012 (5) ), and watches it while devouring a bacon sandwich.

The same story unfolds; the same characters live or die.  The brothers are still watching the same program.  Aren’t they?  Nothing they say about it later would alert the other to the fact that about 80% of the programme was different.

If they watched the other’s version, they would only be vaguely aware that something was different from the one they saw previously.

Yet as a result of watching the same show, their perceptions of the featured brands and products would be strikingly different.  On a frame-by-frame basis, they watched a different show.  Every scene is methodically screened for commercial opportunities – advertising and product placement are now utterly synonymous.

The 30-second spot has become largely irrelevant; ‘Addressable TV’, which let advertisers target specific households with TV ads (Johnston, 2011 (6) ), was nothing more than Henry Ford’s ‘faster horse’, the solution advertisers thought they wanted.  As the skipping and blipping of ads became increasingly commonplace it was proven in 2018 that a campaign of 800 TVRs wasn’t actually seen by anybody…

Instead, the commercial support of advertisers is woven into the very fabric of the shows themselves.  Whilst in one programme, the heroine wears Adidas, drinks Pepsi and cracks the Pentagon’s network with her Apple iWatch.  In the other programme she’s clad in Nike, sated with Coca-Cola and performs her death-defying feats of silicon daredevilry with the ‘Intel Inside’ chip in her wrist.

The version of the show you see is tweaked, scene-by-scene, just for you.  It pulls together the data on who you are, who you know, where you’ve been, what you’ve bought and what you’ve yet to buy, and creates the show for you in real time.

This happens across every show, every surface, every channel and every interface.  Ads still exist of course, but they’re put together from a million possible options, each based on a different part of your data.

The tweakers make a million decisions about what you’re going to see today before you’re even out of bed, and they do that for everyone.

For today’s agencies, this would be an impossible task. Billions of consumers with every conceivable piece of media tailored to them and their unique data pattern.

Planning as we do today in that future isn’t humanly possible. However, nobody said that the tweakers of 2020 would be human.

The rise of the machines

The word “robot” was coined in 1920 – a century before the time we are considering – and derives from the Czech word “robota” meaning “drudgery” (7).

In their various forms they are staples of science fiction, an essential part of modern manufacturing, the foundation of Internet search engines, and they are becoming increasingly common in decision support systems using sophisticated reasoning to assist humans.

One way to think of the key difference between robots and software is that robots make decisions about things.  Twenty-two of the top thirty Wikipedia editors are robots (Geiger, 2011 (8) ).  Algorithms increasingly control everything from the microsecond movements of the markets (Slavin, 2011 (9) ) to the news sites writing about the markets, including Forbes (Boog, 2012 (10) ), which means robots are trading stock based on things that other robots write…

It’s not that ‘the robots are coming’.  To paraphrase William Gibson, ‘the robots are already here. They just aren’t evenly distributed’ (Gibson, 2003 (11) ).

By 2020 robots will be a major part of planning within agencies, particularly where there are planners and clients found to be umming and ahhing when confronted with too much data.

Where once agency floors would thrum with activity, the only noise will be the low hum of the air-conditioning units required to keep the processors cool.

Testing a hundred versions of an advertising unit will be carried out swiftly, silently, globally, with results returned in minutes not months.

In the corner of every agency research facilities are depopulated, as machines eavesdrop on the rustling discontentment around a client’s brand, and rapidly devise new deployments of advertising to address the problems.

Every agency has a virtual universe in an offshore server farm, a representation of the entire audience by individual, not by blunt socio-economic groups.

Every person is analysed and classified in an instant, and the advertising opportunities they represent are bought and sold many times before the programme transmission versions are finalised.

These robots, these algorithmic ghosts in system we’ll never see, are relentless in their pursuit of exploiting demand.

“It can’t be bargained with.  It can’t be reasoned with.  It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear.  And it absolutely will not stop, ever…”

The Terminator, 1984 (12)

Is resistance really futile?

It sounds a little terrifying, but fear not.  It presents us with the greatest opportunity planning we’ll ever have to unite the two ends of the scale Stephen King described;

At one extreme, there are the “grand strategists”, who are intellectual, aim to see the big picture, are a little bit above the fray, and almost economists.  At the other are the advert- tweakers, who peer myopically at advertisements, conduct groups discussions, justify creative work to sceptical clients, and are almost qualitative researchers

Stephen King, 1988 (13)

By “creating a body of allies, human and non-human” (Jones, 2011 (14) ), we can get the tweaking done for us, and fulfil the promise of Stephen King’s ‘grand strategists’, creating new types of demand at a time when clients need it most.

Agency robots, with real ‘agency’…

How might it work in practice?  What do the robots do, and what do we do?

Firstly, what could and should planners give up of their current remit?  In a linguistic turn of fate, ‘agency’ has another pertinent meaning; by giving something ‘agency’, it’s allowed to do things of its own volition.  The planners must design the robots that replace some of the decisions they make, just as autopilots are designed in conjunction with real pilots.

And we’re not talking just about automation, which has become familiar to us all over the last few years.  Automation is here for some channels, and will undoubtedly spread to most.  But it still leaves responsibility in the hands of the planning team.  It is simple to integrate with current practices because fundamentally the planning process has not changed – it has just been accelerated.

The introduction of robots is different.  Where automation supplies faster, more rounded questions to planners, robots can speed answers more efficiently and effectively to whoever needs them.

For instance, we must have the ambition to replace the need to send planners on a six hour round trip to Derby to discuss and debate the minutiae of research, click-through rates, which TV spots to buy, the results of creative A/B testing, pen portraits, or which logo the client should use as their twitter avatar.

So the future can firstly be about making the simple decisions based on accumulated data with clinical speed.

But it can also be about how complex and abstract robots can inform and stimulate the creative process within agencies.

I’ll write a program, and just ask this program to mix up the assets… I want to be surprised, I like this randomness and chance, I want that beautiful accident to happen

Joshua Davis, Designer & Technologist (15)

Think about the way humans and machines may interact in an agency in 2020.

Robots could curate a collection of contextual pointers around briefs; something like Philter Phactory’s Weavrs (16), “your alter-egos crafted from the threads of the social web”, which are automated robots that roam the virtual world which underpins our material one, blogging about where they go and what they find there.

Or perhaps robots could use all that data that’s never used to create changing visualisations and mood boards around the task at hand, creating thousands of iterations, and tracking the forms that lead to more successful work.

And we may well get ambitious, and just reorder the entire Internet; imagine an in-house search engine that isn’t based on ‘most popular links’, but restructured by marauding algorithmic ghosts that order search results by…

…well, nobody’s really sure anymore, but as a result, there are many more moments of serendipity that inspire genuinely new ideas every time you type in a client’s brand.

All throughout the agency process, the exploitation of current demand can be honed, toned and improved by robots.  So what do we free the planners up for?

The creation of demand

What unites the robots we’ve described is their reliance on the past. They need to be fed with the data of the past days, weeks and months. Their frame of reference is retrospective.

They are the new tweakers, focussed on exploiting demand; understand what people wanted before, and make them want a bit more. They can continually shave and save crucial pounds every month. But simply exploiting demand is no way to build a robust business for the future.

“To survive, marketers themselves will have to plot the obsolescence of what now produces their livelihood”

Theodore Levitt, 1975

Our ambition must be nothing short of the creation of a new kind of demand that will cause the obsolescence of the existing demand we serve for a client.

It is only by helping clients identify, create and exploit these new opportunities that we can help them grow their business, and in turn continue our own success.

Of course, we must ask some tough questions of ourselves to do so. Are we fit for purpose? What must we become to meet this challenge? When King talks of his ‘grand strategists’, his phrase ‘almost economists’ gives us a good starting point.

“The logical outcome of the new radical economics is a need, in all types of company, for strategic imagination on the grandest scale, building up the long-lasting range of added values that makes up any brand.”

Stephen King, 198817

Over the last few years, planners have been reaching out further and wider than ever before into the fields of human understanding; economics, econometrics, psychology, anthropology, physiology, neurology and more.

We have a strong, if small, talent base within the industry, who specialise in generalism; the ability to learn a little about a lot, to wander through new disciplines finding new possibilities to reframe and help solve existing problems (Hardy, 2008)18.

If we are “almost economists”, the emphasis is firmly on the almost.
Without doubt, planners will need to be significantly more accomplished in commercial and

business planning in the future than they are now.

It’s the skills and intuitions that lie beneath some of the great, business changing ideas you’ll find in the IPA Effectiveness Grand Prix winners; VCCP’s transformation of BT Cellnet into O2, BBH’s work to give Barnardos a future, or MEC’s work on the “Let’s Grow” campaign for Morrisons, to name but a few.

Yet even that won’t be enough. We must go further in our own explorations.

In 1975, the Kodak engineer Steve Sasson was showing his latest invention around the company. It was rudimentary at best, only taking blurry, pixelated, images. The company showed no interest in advancing the camera, and into the cupboard it went (19).

Nearly thirty years later, Eastman Kodak filed for bankruptcy on the 19th January 2012, whilst sales of standalone digital cameras has surpassed 120 million units (not counting camera phones).

We must help our clients avoid their own ‘Kodak Moment’, for it appears that it is increasingly hard for them to help themselves. We must take the best, most unique elements of a business, and make those the focus to create new types of demand amongst customers.

It is the best planners, these ‘grand strategists’, who are uniquely placed to marry up the product and service development and experimentation inside clients with the complex, changing world emerging outside.

If freed from incessant tweaking, planning could and should become the vital strategic link for companies between the CEO, the marketing department, and product development, and build platforms upon which creativity can prosper.

Existing clients will value us more, we will be more able to win new ones in new sectors of work, and we ensure that we continue to be an industry that inspires the best young talent to seek opportunities with us.

“There’s a groundswell of people in agencies who are equally passionate about creativity and business. Rather than saying ‘I’ve got an idea for a car ad’, they’ll say ‘I’ve got an idea for a car’.”

Chloe Grindle, Creative, McCann London 2011 (20)

Helping clients Make People Want Things is what we learned in the last century. The future lies in helping them Make Things People Want.

1 – King, S. (1989) “The Anatomy of Account Planning”, Admap, November
2 – King, S. (1989) “The Anatomy of Account Planning”, Admap, November
3 – Broadbent, T. (2011) “Channel Planning: Effectiveness lies in channel integration”, Admap, Jan.
4 – Brooker, C. & Huq, K. (2011) “Fifteen Million Merits” Black Mirror, Channel 4 – depicts a future where we “spend our evenings in a cell of gigantic HD monitors”
5 – Samsung’s Smart Window
6 – Johnston, N. (2011) “Addressable TV”, Admap, March
7 – Etymology of the word Robot
8 – Geiger, S. (2011) –  “Bot Politics” (via Bridle, J.)
9 – Slavin, K (2011) “How Algorithms Shape Our World”, TED
10 – Boog, J (2012) “Forbes Among 30 Clients Using Computer-Generated Stories Instead of Writers
11 – Gibson, W. (2003) The Economist, December 4th
12 – The Terminator (1984), Orion Pictures
13 – King, S. (1988) “Strategic Development of Brands”, Speech at the 20th Anniversary of the founding of Account Planning, APG One Day Event, July 1988
14 – Jones, M. (2012) “Artificial Empathy”, BERG
15 – Davis, J – talking about the combination of computers, programming and generative versions to inspire
16 – Philter Phactory (2011), “Weavrs”
17 – King, S. (1988) “Strategic Development of Brands”, Speech at the 20th Anniversary of the founding of Account Planning, APG One Day Event, July 1988
18 – Hardy, S. (2008) “What Specifically do Generalists Do?”
19 – Pachal, P (2012) “How Kodak Squandered Every Single Digital Opportunity It Had” Mashable
20 – Grindle, C (2011) “How can Creativity Make Advertising More Popular”, Campaign – ‘War Of The Words’ event