The Marketing Society’s Digital Day England 2023 looked at some of the big themes the industry faces. 

The AI debate frequently appears binary. It’s either a catastrophe in the making or it’s about to open up a whole new future for the industry.

Amy Webb is in the former camp, Hannah Hattie Mathews, chief brand officer at ScienceMagic, told the Marketing Society Digital Day England event. Webb, a well-known American futurist, delivered this verdict at this year’s SXSW, suggesting there was only a 20% chance of things turning out well. But another SXSW speaker Mathews heard back in March was reassuring on the subject. Mind you, as co-founder of Open AI, Greg Brockman was always unlikely to view things in quite the same way as Webb.

A Tony Stark suit

Who to believe? Maybe better to step away from the existential aspect of the tech and focus on a practical application of AI in a marketing context. “AI is a partner, not a threat,” Sam Reid of Loops told the Digital Day audience. The future of marketing, he suggested, is not AI-generated ads (that just leads to homogenised content), but rather AI-powered humans. “It’s you in a Tony Stark suit.”

Loops is working with Santander, where, he outlined, it forms part of a hybrid marketing stack along with content creation platform Vidsy and the bank’s own marketing department. Loops is a creative testing tool that has integrated ChatGPT into the marketing process in such a way as to enable the team to deliver optimised content in days. 

It’s taking the principles of agile product development and applying them to marketing, Reid explained. And, crucially, it’s able to go beyond the ‘what’ to provide better answers to the ‘why’ question. Tackling the ‘why’ might once have involved a ten-person focus group responding to a piece of creative, he noted, but “now we can have 800 people, we can gather tonnes of opinions and [using AI] we can synthesise that in seconds – and in that ‘why’ is how we can improve it.” (Read more on this session here.)

A marketing upgrade

If AI is still at a theoretical level of risk, climate change is all too real. Much business effort is being expended on attempting to fix the supply side, but marketing needs to be looking at the demand side of the equation, said Leo Rayman of Eden Lab. He suggested “a marketing upgrade”, highlighting several points: 

  • a sustainable value proposition: sustainability is offered as a co-benefit, not necessarily the primary selling point.
  • sustainable CX: eg browser extensions like ‘The Beagle Button’ offer consumers planet-friendly, ethical products as they shop online.
  • sustainable ecosystems: eg platforms like Byway Travel offer flight-free options for exploring the UK and Europe. 
  • more carrot and less stick: a focus on the negatives is less helpful than providing positive alternatives eg a fossil-free motorbike from Swedish business Cake.
  • new business models: build a circular economy and use different metrics (eg sales are up but are emissions down?)

He also introduced those present to the idea of “greenhushing” – the notion that brands may be committed to taking action around sustainability but as it’s not perfect they don’t want to talk about it for fear of being accused of greenwashing. 

Defunding misinformation 

A related issue is the finding by Media Bounty that 70% of safe climate content online is unmonetisable by media as marketers add certain keywords to their block list. “We’re blocking some of the safe and quality content as well as the controversial stuff,” said Harriet Kingaby of the Conscious Advertising Network.

And it’s not just climate change misinformation that advertisers need to consider; there’s a host of thriving conspiracy theories and hate content out there – misogyny, white supremacy, homophobia and transphobia – that brand spending may inadvertently support. “The problem is that disinformation can be extremely profitable,” she noted: it’s been estimated that $235m, funded by advertising, goes into the pockets of creators pushing extremist and wrong information. 

A manifesto for agency briefs and RFPs is one way to help push towards the creation of a healthy media environment. “Advertising can change the world, but not if you’re asleep at the wheel,” Kingaby said. 

The Z factor

While all these issues affect everyone, it’s the younger generation that will bear the brunt of a failure to find solutions. But it’s also pertinent that Gen Z is also the only generation born after the creation of the internet and consequently has a different perspective on the world.

They’re making use of modern tech in a way older generations aren’t, connecting online in new forms of community, using that to fuel creativity and create content themselves. There are opportunities here for brands to facilitate this and to use people as channels, suggested Meta’s Zehra Chatoo, outlining how, when Hugo Boss rebranded and asked what Boss meant to people, it found that using creators’ work in its marketing was five times more effective. 

But – there’s always a but – just 12% of Gen Z feels represented in current advertising, Chatoo pointed out, and a whopping 71% want to see more diversity in ads. 

While it’s a complicated and challenging environment out there, it needn’t be as scary as some media reports would have you believe – and there are always things brands can do to improve it.