I connect people that I know, that I feel, will work well together. For decades, that very human instinct has been a money-maker and an ally.
The McHardy Collective turned six on Feb 1st 2018. That’s six years of connecting agencies and brands, fusing personalities to produce spellbinding work. The McHardy Collective is a business built on my gut. Weird as that sounds.
Just like many creatives out there, I’m someone whose medium is intangible – so I figured I was safe from the great AI takeover. Robots, data and algorithms will never be able to thinkwith soul, spirit and empathy, right? Right?
To borrow from Blackadder, I think the phrase rhymes with clucking bell.
According to a 2015 survey, AI may, by 2060, be able to outperform humans at everything. Everything. Tangible or intangible, creative or process-driven. Everything.
Table tennis, fish-gutting, song-writing, instinct. Everything.
This survey wasn’t some moongazing editorial on Futurism or Wired but a study by Oxford and Yale universities via contributions from 350 of the world’s top AI scientists.
Machines, the study predicts, will usurp humans in creativity just as they have on the production line, writing high-level essays by 2026, and bestselling books and film scripts by 2049. In fact, AIs will conquer wordsmithery just before they master surgery in 2053. Machines already paint abstract art.
The scientists reckon that, on a long enough timeline, those who work on instinct are no safer than the signalman or the bank teller.
Guts and data
One industry that’s embracing data to the max is marketing. Creative campaigns were once launched on the strength of ideas, interpretation and judgement calls. Today they float on an ocean of data.
The speed of adoption has been eye-popping. Real-time sentiment analysis, psychometrics, retargeting, instant segmentation, ageonomics – these data devices are ready to auto inform campaigns, deliver ads, refine performance, and report.
Real-Time-Bidding for ad inventory only went mainstream in 2011, but within five years some 96% of advertisers were relying on it. Today, well over half the digital ad market is traded via automated, algorithm-based exchanges.
The theory is great: harvest customers’ wants, needs and desires and splice the data with demographics. Voila, a forensic, clinical understanding of people; their aspirations and ambitions. Now it’s time to sell them something in an optimal place and at an optimal time – as determined by the data, obviously.
Armed, sans bias and prejudice, with a stupendous level of insight, all advertisers have to do is point the nose of a campaign right into the data.
It sounds magical, but data’s performance is, in fact, hugely underwhelming. The average clickthrough rate of RTB display ads across all formats and placements was a titchy 0.06% in 2016, including accidentals and bounces.
In fact, the rise of programmatic parallels the rise of ad blockers. Two in three millennials now deploy blockers, whose overall popularity grew 41% in 2016.
The data tells us that data marketing underperforms. Unfortunately for the machines, it turns out that humans engage most with content when it’s laced with a more considered, human touch. Who’d have thought?
With automation’s poor performance in 2016, marketing hit back and 2017 was the year of curation and storytelling. When sensitive, compelling visual narratives melt into their surroundings, and are distributed via programmatic means, conversion rates spike. Users are 52% more likely to engage with native advertising, for example, and ad exchanges are implementing quality and relevance safeguards like never before.
Your automated ad might be based on the sharpest data, but conversion suffers if your assets lack context, care, humanity and a certain gut feel for your audience.
Humans and their faster horses
The point is that even with the best data engines in the world – packed with intelligence, trends and insights – we still need human pilots. Humans without strong data equals bias, error and delay. Data without human instinct equals dispassion and greyness.
Sometimes humans are the only ones who can parse the nonsense and dive straight to the rub. Often the hero data in Column A is weaker than the asides in Column Z. Scraping through myriad data to find a golden needle in the haystack? That’s human work that is.
Take Henry Ford’s faster horses. Or Steve Jobs’ people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. Analysing what is and what was will inspire more of the same. True innovation is finding an X-Factor in spaces between the data.
I love and I use data. We work well together. But I’m a human picking up a labour-saving tool. At last year’s Festival of Marketing, I heard esteemed marketer professor Mark Ritson and Mr Stephen Fry both vouch for the overriding, crucial role of gut feel, even in an AI world.
Gut feel 2.0
Data offers hard facts. Only humans have the power to soften and communicate those facts in a way that touches the sensibilities of the audience. Only humans have the power to turn solid information into viral, acclaimed, powerhouse campaigns.
Only humans have the capacity for surprise and improv; the nous to put raw ingredients together and cook up something new.
A huge portion of my job is doing just that: bringing ingredients together. In my case it’s people: I match agency specialists and suppliers on one side with brand leaders on the other. And I know in my gut when magic is imminent.
Fusing great minds and propelling big ideas is more instinct than info. And I can’t believe an algorithm will ever replicate inspiration.
Blending people on data alone will give me likes and dislikes, history and geography. I’ll get demographics and maybe psychometrics. But what about the intangibles and illogicals – the random, soulful, personal quirks that exist in all of us?
Personalities are the sum of experiences, ticks, humour, politics, morals, spirit – our world is beautifully, quizzically diverse. Sometimes opposites attract and likeminded people jar. There are infinite combinations of intellectual, attitudinal, physical, spiritual and creative simpatico.
Data has helped me in my work. I’m glad it’s here to deepen my knowledge and speed up my process. But personal connections are felt, they’re not calculable. Maybe one day gut feeling will be a matter of bits and bytes. Maybe one day dating app algorithms will be bulletproof.
But as far as big data can and will go, measuring human chemistry isn’t science. Instinct’s an inside job – and we’re still a long way from the robot with guts.