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It seems like only yesterday that artificial intelligence (AI) was the stuff of science fiction - a concept, rather than grounded in reality. Marketers in particular have waxed lyrical about the potential of AI for perhaps five years or so, but during that time much of the conversation around AI has been the manifestation of a sort of ‘shiny new tech syndrome’. To suggest – as many do – that AI is still a buzzword, is to vastly underestimate how it, when paired with the right data and the increase in demand for intelligent virtual assistants, is already radically altering aspects of marketing. 

At The Drum Arms at Advertising Week New York, last week, The Drum co-founder and editor-in-chief, Gordon Young, took the stage with Microsoft Advertising, the American basketball league NBA and digital agency Digitas, to discuss how this combination of data and AI will define – and in some cases is already defining – the future of marketing. And making it more efficient, productive, and cost-effective.

Data and AI

Jorge Urrutia del Pozo, head of fan audience strategy and engagement at the NBA, discussed how he and his team utilize the huge and various amounts of data that the NBA creates. During games, using AI, they can gain a granular, almost a minute-by-minute understanding of how its global fanbase is engaging with NBA products, while enriching their experience, and converting new users to its paid products.

Reflecting on a buzzer-beating, edge-of-the-seat moment during last season’s playoffs, Urrutia del Pozo says, “Suddenly, you have the most incredible opportunity to engage a large number of people in an iconic moment, when they are really emotionally attached to what's happening. As a marketer, you're always looking for moments like that. So, we took that example. And we started thinking: how can we capitalize on those moments? How can we predict that these things are going to happen?”

Algorithmically predicting the future is one thing, but Geoff Colon, head of Microsoft’s Advertising Brand Studio, thinks that marketers should be using AI to look back to the past. He calls this “long data” – using AI to glean information from longer periods of data collection, something he claims social scientists are far better than their computer counterparts.

You have to ask “what was the data that we had from, let's say, 20 years ago? How does that mount to areas so we can get a better understanding today? There's a tendency to look at things in the here and now. And then we forget about it. We need to almost look at things in a remixed fashion.”

A new customer experience

“This session,” he continues “is on the future of marketing based on customer experience. A lot of that, when we get into the conversation, is really based on things that happened 200 years ago. It's just we didn't have all the data points that we have now.”

‘Big data’ is already a reality for most businesses –the panelists agreed – but arguably, many firms have far too much. But the ways in which businesses combine these large amounts of data with fast, iterative processing and intelligent algorithms which learn automatically, is changing fast. For many companies, it means getting your data affairs in order to cope with this new reality.

“Get your data together, right?” says Melissa Berger, VP group director of connections strategy at Digitas. “If you can’t derive insight from it, your data is pointless. So, let's get your data in order, even if it's just the basics, and use that, even if it’s just for testing. Through data and through AI and machine learning, and even deep learning, there's so much we can do to make our lives easier, as well as giving the customers a better experience.”

What is achievable hasn’t necessarily changed – there are no new ideas in marketing after all, only new tools, according to Berger. But the speed in which AI can process data would take humans weeks to process. That is not to say humans are going to be replaced, rather, that organizational structures are changing due to AI, she added.

“Most corporations today,” according to Urrutia del Pozo, “still have a very traditional model – there's a manufacturing team that creates a thing.” But referring to the logistics of understanding NBA fans minute-by-minute, he adds, that is such a departure from the status quo that the business structure had to change. “It leads to this massive organizational transformation in terms of behaviors, and how we work together.”

The panel concluded: AI is here, and you’d better get your house in order.