Tech Talk with Qnary founder and chairman Bant Breen

“Over the last couple of months, as coronavirus has become top-of-mind for all of us, it’s very important for executives to have an online presence and a voice.”

You founded Qnary in 2012. What need in the market had you identified?
When I started the company, one premise in communications and marketing was that all of the focus should be on the brand, so there were a ton of tools designed to help brands make the most of social media and search optimization.

What has been a sea change over the last eight years has been more executives in companies actually becoming communications channels for the business. Executives are more online, more on social media and more available to consumers, stakeholders, partners, vendors and peers. Over the last couple of months, as coronavirus has become top-of-mind for all of us, it’s very important for executives to have an online presence and a voice.

Every executive’s presence matters, and we’ve been able to build a technology that makes the process seamless, easy and very manageable.

In addition to your work with Qnary, you recently completed some original research. Let’s talk about that.
In my free time, I’ve been doing a PhD at Blanquerna, which is the leading communications school in Barcelona. The thesis is on a very important topic: the impact of AI on marketing and communications practitioners. It’s the largest study to date, focused on North America.

How did you become interested in the topic?
My thought process began with a campaign launched by McCann in 2016, in which they had an AI “creative director” put together a brief for an ad for Clorets, the breath mint. It really got me thinking about the space and about creative industries in general. How creative can these machines actually be?

There are many different definitions of AI. Which do you prefer?
I’d say that it’s a flexible, rational machine agent that perceives its environment and takes action that maximizes the chances of success at an arbitrary goal. There’s a lot of excitement about this. Andrew Ng, who drove a lot of the efforts at Google Brain, said, ‘AI is the new electricity.’ 

There’s also a lot of fear, which will only be magnified in the context of coronavirus, especially concerns about economic displacement. One study from Oxford University said that 47% of total U.S. employment is at risk, a figure lowered somewhat by subsequent studies. But there’s also hope: If we do this right, it should give us time to focus on the areas we think are valuable.

Can you explain the methodology behind the research?
We developed a survey with 21 questions that people could complete in about 10 minutes. We ran it in two waves. In the first, there was a slight skew to male and over the age of 40, so in the second wave, I tried to get a little bit more of a balance.

The age distribution came out as about 40 years old, which is the industry average. The gender of the marketing and communications industry does skew a little more female, but I wanted to get a balanced ratio for that and also for tenure in the industry.

Let’s talk about some of the findings.
One of the top things you’ll see is that there’s exuberance and interest and sometimes a dose for fear but not a ton of deep knowledge. There’s clearly a lot of testing happening, but almost no organizational planning. If you go to just about any agency or creative department and ask if they are restructuring based on AI capabilities, you’ll be met with crickets. 

In terms of specific applications for AI that people are familiar with, there are chatbots, because that’s an area people have tackled quickly. But a lot of people couldn’t even name an application.

Given that there are marketing professionals in your audience, that surprises me.
It’s not that they don’t have a willingness to explore AI, but what they’re finding is that the way they’ve packaged data makes it quite tricky to utilize it in an AI context. If it’s not well-structured data, if it’s not well organized, it cannot be used for effective machine learning.

What opportunities are you seeing for AI in the PR and communications industry?
You’ll see several applications of AI, most noticeably in the areas of PR research: pulling, sorting and parsing of information. We do a lot of that in Qnary to support thought leadership creation for executives. We cover 34 different business verticals, so we’re pulling together thought leadership trends from the digital world on a magnitude you can hardly fathom. 

Another big area is the creation of articles, and even attempts to create AI-driven press release structures. We do use some of these tools, but the content then goes to teams of creators to fine-tune, polish and edit. It’s early days.

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