AI is no match for human magic
A view from Vanessa Clifford

AI is no match for human magic

It can make an ad now, but can it judge awards?

A recipe for advertiser success

• Take one brilliant idea based on real human insight

• Add well-executed creative that speaks to your consumers

• Mix with relevant contextual placement

• Serve with meaningful results

When it comes to delivering effective (and award-winning) ad campaigns, this is a basic recipe for success. Not very scientific, I’ll grant you, but you don’t have to be a genius to work out that the best campaigns include all of these components, executed to the highest possible standard. And, in some cases, the effect is greater than the sum of the parts – a perfect alchemy that comes from idea, creative and context perfectly aligning.

It’s these campaigns that grab our attention when we’re flicking through the paper or channel surfing or traipsing round the West End with armfuls of Christmas shopping. Unsurprisingly, it’s also these campaigns that often take home the big awards at the end of a long night.

In my experience, it’s generally the campaigns that tap into honest, unfiltered human emotion – whether that be stifled giggles, a creeping tear or stone-cold shock – that stand out, deliver the target results and get the gongs.

With that in mind, is it possible to automate for success? Artificial intelligence is becoming an increasingly dominant feature of our industry to the extent that it can even be used to script an entire ad. So, if AI can be put to work creating an ad campaign, is it capable of accurately judging a set of industry awards?

At Newsworks, we decided to put it to the test. Is automated learning capable of detecting that special magic produced by the very best campaigns our industry creates?

Unsurprisingly, getting to a definitive answer wasn’t an easy feat. When we approached Texture AI with the brief, they were both intrigued and anxious. In the words of James Carney, the company’s director: "Intrigued, because this is exactly the kind of challenge that draws on our expertise in psycholinguistics and machine learning; anxious, because trying to preserve the richness of cultural data when converting it to mathematical form can sometimes feel more like alchemy than science. However, as it turns out, intrigue and anxiety mix better than vodka and tonic, and we learned a lot along the way."

Texture AI analysed five years’ worth of Newsworks Planning Awards entries to create an algorithm for success that was then put to the test. Could it predict the winners of this year’s awards?

In a word: no. While AI could, with a fairly high degree of accuracy, detect entries that had been shortlisted or highly commended, it struggled to predict the winners that our panel of 20 industry judges had animatedly debated over and ultimately decided on.

As we all know, AI works by establishing patterns and following set commands, so when it comes up against the unexpected it falls short. Yet it’s exactly this – the original, unique and novel – that can make the good into something brilliant; creating a spark of magic so rooted in human understanding that AI can’t (yet) comprehend it.

What this process shows is that while AI is an increasing force for change within the media industry, it cannot, by its very nature, predict or capture the quirks of innovation. Nor can AI account for the complexities of human understanding and opinion. There is, and will always be, anomalies from the algorithms.

In the interest of getting some valuable human input, here’s what some of the judges thought when we shared the results of the project with them (post-judging day, of course).

Charlie Ebdy, chief strategy officer, Vizeum UK

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the machines would struggle to separate the good from the great. A machine learns patterns, and whilst you would expect good award entries to share certain similarities – an understanding of challenge and solution, a keen grasp of audience behaviour, clearly attributed results – the great often deviate from an established pattern. You want to find the novel solution, work that is surprising, radical or untested, or pure excellence – a level of accomplishment previously unreached. You want something that positively contradicts your expectations.

What this also suggests, however, is that we could be much smarter in how we use machines to test the strength of our initial thinking and its quality against historic norms. Starting with something the machine thinks might be good gives you a chance to experiment in pursuit of something great.

Paddy Adams, executive director, head of strategy, Manning Gottlieb OMD

It’s an interesting experiment but I’m not sure we’ll see awards being handed out based on the judgement of an algorithm any time soon (other than for the clickbait novelty factor). Much as we like to convince ourselves that advertising is closer to a science than an art and that we’re judging entries entirely objectively, the truth is far messier than that. Advertising itself is a subjective skill – it’s about people, and people are contrary and unpredictable, and judging awards even more so. Using the criteria of "I wish I’d done that" isn’t exactly scientific, but it’s often the best way of working out who deserves to win. On top of that, algorithms can only analyse what has happened in the past and make judgements based on that. I’m not sure how well-equipped they are to deal with genuine innovation.

Hai Bei Chen, head of brand, campaigns and reputation, Virgin Holidays

Whilst the use of machine learning is nothing new for numerical and analytical tasks, I am surprised by the development of it into award judging and how much the machine agrees with the human judges. However, the outcome confirms that there is no set formula to create that extra sparkle or genuine emotional connection with audience that the winning papers all did in their own way. This means the machines won't be able to "learn" the secret of winning any time soon. It also means our job continues to be challenging as well as terrific fun!

Vanessa Clifford is chief executive of Newsworks