Instinct versus algorithm
A view from Sue Unerman

Instinct versus algorithm

It's something that our evolving media landscape needs to consider.

"All my best decisions are made with heart, guts and taste." 

Instinct or algorithm? It’s a question that Karen Blackett asked her three interviewees at her chancellor’s dinner at the University of Portsmouth last month.

Kanya King, super-cool founder of the Mobos, said instinct. Sir Lenny Henry, fresh from raising money for Comic Relief, said instinct too. But tech entrepreneur Tom Ilube, as you might predict (using your instincts), chose algorithm.

Every time I jump in the car, the same question comes up. Should I turn on Waze? Should I use my instincts? Surely Waze’s algorithm knows more than me? And so it proves, until there’s an unexpected road closure and you wind up trapped in the "Wazelocked" traffic.

Blackett asked her guests about cheerleaders in their lives and Henry talked about the big break he got from Chris Tarrant. When Henry was on breakfast show Tiswas, Tarrant took him for lunch and told him that he was failing to make the transition from stand-up to presenter and would soon be off the show. Tarrant suggested that Henry pivot and try a different approach; Henry listened, followed his advice and soon this turned him into a star.

When Blackett asked Henry why he thought Tarrant had bothered to stage this intervention, he replied: "He saw the potential in me." Tarrant gave him a leg up and saw something even when Henry was screwing up, trusting his instincts. Don’t trust that any algorithm could have delivered on that fame and a career that, aside from the laughter, has helped raise more than £1bn for Comic Relief.

A black box thrown into a tech stack can certainly do a lot of automated heavylifting, but there is still a need for human intervention to guide what the algorithms are trying to achieve, as well as augmenting their outputs with ingenuity and inspiration. Delegating this responsibility to an opaque black box to make all the decisions is short-sighted, since the algorithm is only a part of the process. It cannot define what data to assess, how that data should be featured and interpretation of the results in line with commercial goals.

Media delivery has been transformed in this decade because of algorithms and the business model will continue to change. As artificial intelligence grows in real functionality, many traditional aspects of media planning and trading will fade. But the industry must stay rooted in the real world, where instincts and creativity will always play a crucial role.

The digital ad bombardment of consumers is just one outcome from too much faith in algorithms, and marketing chiefs are right to question this. Real-world planning for communications using instinct as well as data to drive competitive advantage has never been more important. As Jeff Bezos says in the opening quotation: trust your heart.

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom
@SueU