As part of the CES 2021 conference, IBM’s Bob Lord participated in a panel with leaders from CVS and Delta to discuss the importance of marketers using advanced technology like AI for social good and to transform the ad industry. We sat down with him for a deeper dive.
Over the last year there has been an almost singular focus for most businesses and organizations: surviving the COVID-19 pandemic. What are some of the ways advanced technologies like AI have helped meet this moment?
Bob: We’ve seen the tremendous power AI can have on transforming the way industries operate — everything from banking to healthcare. And as the pandemic dramatically changes the way we work, shop and interact, AI has played a significant role in helping organizations adapt to unprecedented challenges. For example, retailers have needed to find a way to sell things without being able to open their stores. Restaurants needed to find ways to feed people without their dining rooms. Large companies like IBM needed to find ways to move tens of thousands of employees out of the office and set them up to begin working remote.
None of these transitions would have been achievable in the given time frame without advanced technologies like AI. From chatbots and natural language processing that helped companies meet overwhelming demand, to AI-based insights that help employers make informed decisions on workplace re-entry and facilities management, advanced technologies like AI have been crucial to confronting the most pressing problems that arose during the pandemic. As we look ahead post-pandemic, we believe these technologies will also play a role in helping companies reimagine their organizations and break the cycle of archaic technology that doesn’t suit today’s needs.
Are there areas where AI has the potential to play an even greater role?
Bob: We believe the advertising and media industry will have an increasingly important role to play as far as harnessing AI and applying it to urgent social problems. From the challenges presented by misinformation to the need to promote and strengthen public health, education driven through advertising will be essential in bringing about the end of the pandemic. And with advertising being upended by ongoing changes to traditional identifiers and increased privacy regulations, AI holds the key to completely transform the media and marketing industry. Imagine being able to rapidly and continuously makes sense of all types of data, recognize patterns, and make predictions — all while putting privacy first? That’s the potential of AI.
You mention “break the cycle” in the advertising industry. What does that mean?
Bob: The advertising industry has been caught in a vicious cycle for nearly a decade, with a dependency on the same traditional identifiers and cookies. When we say “break the cycle,” we mean making significant changes to better connect a marketer with their consumer, in a way that is open, prioritizes privacy and addresses four key areas:
Dependency on the walled gardens
Reliance on cookies
Over-targeting of consumers
Tech fees for unnecessary services
AI holds the key to breaking the cycle and propelling the industry forward. For instance, with AI in advertising, brands can take the trove of anonymized public or opted-in data to which marketers and publishers have access, and produce insights that can provide a mutually beneficial value exchange with consumers. Performed at scale, those are the practices that will revitalize and restore trust in the advertising industry.
How should brands be using AI in their advertising? Can AI-based ads still be creative?
Bob: AI is one of the most powerful tools in the world for augmenting human creativity. I’ll give you an example. In June last year as racial injustice protests spread rapidly across the country, the Ad Council used IBM Watson Advertising’s “Accelerator” to educate and build awareness of their “Love Has No Labels” campaign to promote diversity, equity and the inclusion of all people.
“Accelerator” uses AI to better understand a multitude of different data sets which it uses to then deliver a unique ad unit loaded with the most inviting creative. So in the case of “Love Has No Labels,” “Accelerator” was assembling, in near real time, more than 81 unique ad variations urging viewers to resist bias and promoting inclusion. By ensuring messages were better tailored to the recipient, the campaign generated a 113% increase in performance from beginning to end, ultimately driving a 69% increase in conversations to the resources on the “Love Has No Labels” site.
In a climate where misinformation spreads more quickly than true information and where trust is badly needed, the industry has an incredible opportunity to use technology in a powerful, socially positive way. AI in particular can facilitate that and disrupt the status quo.
What has you the most hopeful about 2021?
Bob: I am hopeful that we use this moment in time to reflect on what hasn’t served our industry. Rather than cling to existing practices, now is our time to break the cycle of continuing to do the same things, use the same technologies, operate in the same old ways while expecting different results. Whether we’re talking about ending the pandemic or tackling the problems of the future from climate change to food scarcity, AI can help us get there.