Artificial intelligence (AI) is reinventing the creative landscape for marketers. One big leap: Brands are no longer merely seen as objects, but entities with personalities that can interact dynamically with people, according to Winston Binch, chief digital officer for Deutsch North America, the ad agency behind Taco Bell’s award-winning taco-ordering chatbot, the Tacobot. Binch spoke to Catharine Hays, executive director of the Wharton Future of Advertising Program, on the Marketing Matters show, which airs on Wharton Business Radio, SiriusXM channel 111.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Catherine Hays: You are one of the true leaders in this space between AI and creativity. You’ve done some iconic campaigns for Taco Bell and earned 41 Cannes Lions Awards. In 2016, you were named among the “Most Indispensable Executives in Marketing, Media and Tech” by Adweek. Tell us about Great Machine, the AI division you’ve created.
Winston Binch: The first thing I’ll say is that I’m not an expert. I consider myself an explorer of sorts. AI is one of the most exciting things to come around in a long time. It’s just an incredible canvas for creativity and brand storytelling.
Hays: You were the chief creative officer before becoming chief digital officer, correct?
Binch: No, I’ve actually had this title for quite a long time. It’s funny because it’s 2017 and we still use “digital” when everything is digital. But what it means is that I generally focus on everything that doesn’t look like a TV ad. My role is focused on driving innovation and invention on behalf of the agency and our brands, our clients.
AI is still in the very early days for brands. The field of research was started in 1956. If you look at the investments that Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft have been making for years now, it’s not new. But we’re just at the cusp of really interesting things starting to happen for brands. As we looked around, we saw a lot of people in the agency space talking about the power of AI in terms of predictive analytics or creating smarter media. Those things are going to be really huge.
“AI is one of the most exciting things to come around in a long time. It’s just an incredible canvas for creativity and brand storytelling.”
In fact, I think we’ll see AI impact media more than anything. I think you are really seeing us now with voice from a brand perspective. There’s over 10 million Alexas (digital assistants) out there. From a brand perspective, we have to start thinking about brands not as these objects but more as humans and entities that you interact with and have conversations with. To me and to our team, that felt amazing in the sense that we can now create content that really, truly interacts dynamically with customers.
Hays: Doesn’t that scare people? It’s not human, it’s a machine. I think that people are a little bit freaked out about that. Do you see that changing quickly, or do you still see that as an issue?
Binch: It’s a great question. I am in the [Tesla CEO] Elon Musk camp that we need ethics and rules applied to technology and AI. We out-innovate policy, so I am concerned about those things longer term. But in the short term, let’s be honest, people want things done immediately. If it’s easy, if it makes their life markedly better, they seem to be OK with these technology advances.
I believe that if you’re a great writer, there’s lots of opportunity for you in the near future. The reality is that AI is just numbers in code. We still need humanity applied to it to make it truly engaging. So, the robots are coming. Maybe the future is a comedian and a robot together.
Hays: Can you give us an example of that?
Binch: We’re trying to push it. We’ve done work with Taco Bell. We created Tacobot that lets you order tacos, and it was done through natural language. It was a beta release. It really had a ton of personality to it. I think that was a good early first example. But there are others. There’s Poncho, which is a weather bot.
One of my favorite cases of the last couple years has been ING’s Next Rembrandt, which is an application to create an entirely new Rembrandt painting using AI. ING is trying to prove that they’re innovative. It was an experiment done with Microsoft. They scanned over 360 Rembrandts and were able to create an entirely new one using machine learning.
It’s one of those things where it does unnerve you a little bit. You start to realize the power of computing. It is what Elon Musk talks about (that future AI robots might be capable of destroying society). In the way distant future, we could be reduced to cats. When I think about the power of these technologies, they can function like the best advertising, which is to emotionally connect. But it’s not disposable. You can have long-term conversations with your customers. You can learn more about them. This technology gets smarter. Beyond just the engagement opportunity, you can also drive the bottom line-sales. I think Tacobot is an example of that, where it is engagement but also a commerce tool.
Hays: From a designer perspective, we’ve talked for many years about how to make your interface between people and brands seamless in whatever way they connect. It seems like bots have the possibility of being the best customer service agents one could hope for.
“A lot of these big tech companies are going to need to bring in people who truly understand ethics and policy and humanity.”
Binch: It’s really interesting because we think about AI and robots replacing the workforce, but if you’re a writer, it’s a great time. If you’re a user-experience designer, this is like a renaissance because UX people have been stuck designing mobile apps and websites since the beginning. But now, we move into this voice and conversational space, which is completely a new frontier.
For people who are studying philosophy and ethics, there’s a whole other new kind of movement called ethical engineering. A lot of these big tech companies are going to need to bring in people who truly understand ethics and policy and humanity. I think there are going to be some new jobs that emerge.
For creative agencies, it’s an awesome time to innovate your creative product.… We did what I called crude versions of AI back with Burger King. There was an advertising program called Subservient Chicken where you could type in commands [to be carried out by a person dressed as a chicken], but it took a long time to build. Now, you can get a bot up in a couple of weeks. You can really innovate quickly.
Hays: Can you tell us the different ways that AI is coming to life? It seems you have a good ecosystem for thinking about this within Great Machine.
Binch: Most people are working on bots right now. Bots are conversational interfaces, but the Internet of Things area around voice is where we’re seeing an explosion of new ideas. What I recommend is look up the “best of Alexa skills” online and you’ll see that there’s a ton. There is “This Day in History” from the History Channel; there’s “Bedtime Stories You Have Read.”
With the launch of Amazon’s Echo Show (an audio and video device controlled by Alexa) where it’s going to be voice with a visual interface, it’s a really amazing time. I feel like voice is the new frontier. We are going to be much less reliant on laptops and keyboards for search. Now is the time for brands to really start experimenting because this is going to move fast.
Hays: There’s a lot that we can learn through voice. For brands that really want to tailor what they’re doing and contextualize it to the individual, voice tells us a lot. Can you expand on that?
“Bots are conversational interfaces, but the Internet of Things area around voice is where we’re seeing an explosion of new ideas.”
Binch: Well, it definitely does. I was at the ANA Digital and Social Media Conference, and Lucas Watson, a colleague of mine who is the CMO at Intuit, did an amazing talk on AI and how it’s going to impact their business. What I was really taken by was that he was talking about brand strategy and introduced this new concept of brand humanity. He brought up the Myers-Briggs [personality] test and that we have to start applying that logic to the brands themselves.
If you put your own brand through the test, what kind of personality would it have? [For] most of the bots that exist out there and in AI, it’s very command based. They don’t engage in true conversations. To generate real, collaborative discussions and conversations with customers, we have to have a personality. We have to stand for something. You have to be a cool, interesting and useful friend, basically.… The old rules of storytelling in creativity still apply: Do something that gets my attention. Be super-useful or entertaining or both. Those are the same lessons and principles we need to apply in this new AI economy.
Hays: How does purpose come into play … when humanizing AI and brands?
Binch: I am a huge believer in strategy. You’ve got to start with purpose. Why your brand? Why this product? I think that what we are starting to do with some of our clients is really ask these questions. How do we translate purpose to a brand personality that is going to manifest itself through an experience? We’re working on a couple of projects now with brands, and I don’t have the answer yet, to be honest. This is all a work-in-progress.
What we learned through Tacobot was really interesting. Tacobot is such a defined personality already. [Taco Bell is] about igniting the unexpected. They’re surprising, fun, really social. So, it was somewhat easy for us in Taco Bell to write that character. The bigger challenge is when we work with brands that still maybe don’t know who they are. It goes back to the fundamentals. You’re not going to get to personality without the purpose.
Hays: What advice do you have for marketers in terms of considering AI and working with agencies in this space?
Binch: [With our clients,] we start with a workshop. We start with the fundamentals. AI is so vast. Machine learning is looking at the landscape and getting a sense of that, then it’s unpacking the business problems and working with the brand of a client to understand whether there is a problem that potentially AI can solve. The good thing … is you can learn fast. Throw a business problem out there, get to a stack of ideas really quickly … and start experimenting. It’s really that simple.