Marcel and more: Agencies test the power of AI

Experts see incredible potential for AI as a collaboration tool at agencies. But don't expect every firm to build its own version of Publicis' Marcel.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Just about every major PR firm has been working to position itself as a thought leader on AI, publishing white papers and holding internal staff training on the topic. Some have even been building AI-powered bots for their clients.

Yet following the Cannes International Festival of Creativity last month, it’s more apparent than ever that PR firms and the holding companies above them are also investing in and experimenting with AI to change and strengthen their business models.

Turning heads alongside its announcement that it will forego awards shows for the next year, Publicis Groupe announced it had begun development on a platform called Marcel that will be powered by sophisticated AI.

"Our platform will be the first ever professional assistant that uses AI and machine-learning technology across our 80,000 people in 130 countries to connect, co-create, and share in new and different ways," says Carla Serrano, chief strategy officer at Publicis Groupe, in a video with the holding company’s other top brass.

Using technology from Sapient, Publicis’ goal is to match the right people, wherever they are in the world, with the appropriate skills and experience for pitches and projects. For instance, Publicis said it could use a copywriter in the Philippines to work on an assignment for Tide in New York.

A Publicis representative referred questions to the video and other company statements.

Publicis is hardly the only marketing company making investments in AI. Albeit with less fanfare, Omnicom also used Cannes as a launchpad for its chatbot AUBI, short for Annalect Utility Bot Interface, which it plans to roll out across all its agencies, including PR shops FleishmanHillard, Ketchum, and Porter Novelli. It claims users can ask AUBI questions about a data set-where do people go when they’re in the market to purchase a car?-using everyday human language, rather than code, and get the info in seconds, including instructions on how to read the data. The holding company says this will eliminate the time-consuming back and forth between communications experts and data scientists and that the "intelligent" bot can react to the "conversation" with other recommendations for queries.

Dan Palan, AUBI’s ‎global marketing director, explains that "people who were closest to the individual brands didn’t necessarily understand how to code or query databases; they didn’t understand the language of data scientists. Data scientists, of course, understood how to do all those things, but weren’t necessarily as close to the brand."

He adds that AUBI is one example of how Omnicom wants its agencies to use artificial intelligence. "It is about purposeful solutions, to look at the end result we’re trying to get to, as opposed to infusing AI for the sake of AI," Palan notes.

Individual PR firms are also making their own investments in AI. Ephraim Cohen, SVP, senior partner, and GM of FleishmanHillard in New York, says the firm has set up labs to experiment with new AI technology. Out of those tests, the agency has been able to build bots for some clients, allowing one to serve up grilling recipes most relevant to consumers based on data points. FleishmanHillard has also created a bot for its internal intelligence system that allows anyone in its network to find pieces of information the firm has published. It is examining how AI can create channel articles and test messaging and content, as well.

Cohen explains that while future-proofing an agency’s communications is critical, the industry is nowhere near reaching the potential of the technology.

"AI has the potential to cause another seismic shift, similar if not more powerful than the impact of the web, search, and social," says Cohen. "Until now, people were always required to develop the strategy, the creative content, test what works, and make strategic decisions on how to distribute. AI has the potential to do a lot of the lifting in the messaging and content creation, testing, and distribution strategy that is best done manually."

Most PR firms will look to third-party service providers for AI solutions, or at least to help them apply in-house applications, says Adam Hirsch, global EVP at Edelman Digital. For instance, he notes there are several platforms that analyze tools against audiences and spit out recommendations using AI. (Hirsch declined to specify any due to non-disclosure agreements).

Yet he cautions that PR firms are not likely to develop AI technologies as quickly as other agencies under a holding company’s umbrella.

"The reality of building any kind of machine learning is complex and a beast, and I don’t think any major PR or comms agencies will be able to make that investment like a media buying agency, which has so much data flowing through it every single day," says Hirsch. "But companies have already spent millions of dollars on research, so there is tons of brainwork out there for us to leverage."

Whether building in-house or collaborating with outside providers, Pivotal Research Group advertising, media, and internet analyst Brian Wieser says agencies can benefit most from an AI-powered solution for HR or fostering employee collaboration.

He notes Marcel "sounds like LinkedIn on steroids, but with the ability to input their own variables that matter. And I think that is where the magic could be."

"If you were looking for someone with five years of certain experience using the tool, and you don’t care where they are located in the world, you could use it to optimize for cost," Wieser explains. "It would be a great way to make sure that you’re delivering a project at the same high quality but at a lower cost. It is hard to imagine that this wouldn’t be one of the cases for this, if not the primary case."

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