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Advertising Week Europe 2019: The highlights

The seventh annual Advertising Week Europe event drew in thousands of media and marketing professionals to Piccadilly Circus last week, covering over 230 events focusing on the future of the industry. Buzzing with conversations among creatives, media members and industry leaders, it played host to a variety of interviews, keynotes, panels and workshops with the aim of exploring the future of advertising and how technology impacts every sector of the business. From artificial intelligence and podcasts, to diversity and inclusion, London was at the centre of dissection and discussion of the hottest and most important topics currently affecting our industry.

AI is here… Now what?

And what better way to kick off Ad Week on an early Monday morning than with a pop quiz bearing a cautionary title? ‘AI isn’t coming, it’s well and truly here’ exposed how much knowledge we really have of the role artificial intelligence plays in our everyday lives and society at large. “AI-captained ships are already operating on open waters — true or false?” asked panel host Rich Edwards to an audience and speakers equally surprised to learn the answer was true. But while acknowledging that AI is now very much alive and kicking across a growing number of industries, speakers such as Mindshare’s Ruth Zohrer reiterated the importance of remembering humanity’s primary role. “I understand Elon Musk’s concern,” she said. “We’re training our machines to think as humans and training humans not to think as humans. Application systems today seem to be moving away from critical thinking and ethics. The machines will probably end up doing things better and quicker than us, so the elements that we can bring to the table should be our ability to understand more nuanced questions. People informing the systems bring with them their own biases and we’re at risk of perpetuating and amplifying those.”

Participants on stage in The Intersection of Creativity and Artificial Intelligence panel.
Participants in ‘The Intersection of Creativity and Artificial Intelligence’ panel.

It was a concern similarly echoed at ‘The Intersection of Creativity and Artificial Intelligence’ panel later in the day, though focusing more on AI’s ability to give humans a better understanding of creativity. As long as the definition of ‘creativity’ meant having a completely unique and original thought or idea, then the answer would always be a resounding “No,” according to Daniel Bonner of Wunderman. “I don’t think we need more of an understanding of creativity as humans, but there are ways AI can help us get to that creativity more efficiently and effectively.” Fellow panellist and self-proclaimed ‘Digital Prophet’ David Shing of Verizon proposed that artificial intelligence should be used to shake things up rather than drive more of the same. “The internet needs to be punked and creativity has to be punked. I hope AI will filter all the crap that is homogenised right now. We need to continue to invent punk because we can’t just listen to rock ’n’ roll the whole time. 250 fonts don’t make you a better designer, you still need taste and creativity which is a human thing.”

Humanity is still key — now let’s make it diverse

At the end of the day, it isn’t artificial intelligence and machine learning alone that’s going to future-proof the advertising and media industries – it’s human talent in all its shapes and forms. With women still being represented in stereotypical roles and the LGBT community struggling with prejudice while a billion people with disabilities remain invisible, ‘The world is diverse, so why isn’t your advertising’ looked to solutions from a group of experts to tackle the issue. “You need to have a representation of the entire human experience, not just bits and pieces of it,” stated Caroline Casey from Valuable. “And it’s up to the leadership of an organisation at the top to take accountability for creating that kind of environment.” Senior Director of LinkedIn, Joshua Graff, wholeheartedly agreed with Casey, citing his company as an example of a business doing just that. “The idea of belonging is ingrained in the culture and values of our organisation. We screen for it during the interview process and we ask questions around culture and values. We recognise and reward around those cultural pillars, as well as results. By doing this, we ensure that our products are inclusive by design.”

Participants on stage in the Inclusive Marketing panel.
Participants in the Inclusive Marketing panel. 

With the uncertainty and confusion of Brexit currently looming, it’s never been a better time to look in our own backyard when searching for the best creative talent and entrepreneurial spirit. Introducing a panel on diversity at a joint Microsoft and Advertising Association Luncheon, AA Chief Executive Stephen Woodford emphasised the importance of collaboration if the UK is to continue to attract the best talent from around the world. “That’s a thing that will potentially change. We’re going to have a much more restrictive immigration policy, so the flipside of that is, what do we need to do to develop UK talent?” It’s a humanitarian crises but also an industry one, according to Alex Goat, Chief Executive of Livity, “It can only be good for your business if you have a workforce that is representative of your consumers. Only four percent of businesses offer goods and services designed to be inclusive for people with disabilities. Let’s just step back and think about the power and input of this sector — it has the power to shape societal actions. It is so important that this sector is representative of broader society.”

A positive message is of essence

It was a sentiment shared by London Mayor Sadiq Khan during a conversation with HuffPost Editor in Chief, Lydia Polgreen. “This industry — advertising and marketing — you set the tone,” he said. “Unlike other industries, what you say matters.” To illustrate the vital role of advertising and marketing, Khan referenced the 2016 Remain campaign, dubbed as ‘Project Fear’, which he claimed was a great example of a powerful message, though not necessarily a positive one. “It was scaring people to vote in a certain way. I like campaigns to be hopeful and the creative industries could have helped in relation to the storytelling because I’m a firm believer in the substance being important. If there is another referendum, then those of us with wiser heads in the campaign will be looking to use all the abilities of the advertising and creative industries to make sure we get the message across…The creative industries are one of the fastest growing sectors in London. Your growth is twice that of the wider economy. You're not just important because of benefits you bring financially to us, but also because of the stories you tell and the diversity you can portray.”

Never say die

As an industry veteran, Sir Martin Sorrell had a very different yet just as potent message to fellow advertisers and businesses of all sizes — never be afraid to start over. After resigning from the world’s largest advertising company WPP in April 2018, he immediately set his sights on the next venture which he called at the time, “Back to the future”. In a mere matter of months, Sorrell’s business mantra of ‘Faster, better, cheaper’ has seen his company S4 Capital acquire MediaMonks and MightyHive as he continues his search for ‘whoppers and whales’. “Starting a company is the nearest a man can come to having a baby without the physical experience. This is my third iteration. I have seen people who retire and they tend to vegetate. It’s important to keep mentally engaged but I don’t like to dabble in three or four things — I want something I can focus on rightly or wrongly. On May 14, I was sitting there with an idea that was just in my mind. Now we’re in over 16 countries with 1200 people. I want the ‘whoppers and whales’, the 20 to 50 billion dollars instead of the 10 million. I think anybody who runs an agency should also look to recruit their version of ‘whoppers and whales’. Have a running list of the top six people for this position that you’d like to get, know who these people are and get them.”

What they said: The best #AWEurope quotes

"Advertising often suffers from too much analysis. Too many people saying 'they won't get that.'" Jimmy Carr on comedy in ads at #AWEurope, introducing his Quality Street Gameshow.

 "Too many brands are suckling on the corporate teat of resource. Learn to kill some off, focus on the strong ones — less is more. Having less brands leads to more profitability. The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do." — Mark Ritson during the Marketing Academy Bootcamp Session.

“You said you’d only leave WPP if they shot you…” — “Which they did.” — Martin Sorrell reflecting on his former company during The Lighthouse Interview: Back to the Future.
“Im gonna counter my own argument! If we stay in a world where recommendations come through AI we end up being homogenised. The internet’s got to be punked.” — Digital Prophet David Shing at The Intersection Between Creativity and Artificial Intelligence.
“I think it’s total sh*t that we don’t have equal pay in this day and age.” Anita Rani in an interview with Joe Elvin of You Magazine.
“Six degrees of separation is now 3.5 degrees.” — Phillipa Snare from Facebook on the mindset of the modern marketer.