Monday, December 15, 2014

Could A Robot Do Your Job?

We like to think that because advertising is a 'creative business'... we're immune from the march of automation.

But are we?

History would suggest the process is relentless.

The first human jobs to be eliminated were agricultural. Advanced ploughs, improved crop rotation systems and Jethro Tull's invention of the seed drill in 1701 were some of the factors that saw agricultural efficiency skyrocket. The threshing machine, invented by Andrew Meikle in 1784, displaced hand-threshing with a flail, a laborious job that took about one-quarter of agricultural labour. In 1500 the British population was 76% rural. Today it's 2%. 

Next to be replaced were the blue collar jobs. The industrial revolution began in the late 18th century in England, spawning machines like the power loom, which could do the job of 40 hand-weavers. Today, Amazon employs 15,000 'Kiva' robots in its warehouses worldwide. Back in the year 2000, more than 20 per cent of all jobs in America were manufacturing jobs.  The most recent figures showed only about 5 per cent of all jobs in America are now manufacturing jobs.

And now, the increasing sophistication of computer software has started to eliminate white collar jobs. Text-mining programs are beginning to displace professional jobs in legal services. Biopsies can be analysed more efficiently by image-processing software than by lab technicians.

So could robots replace us?

Well, Account Handlers are arguably under threat. One of the biggest effects of the internet has been disintermediation. For example, fewer people use the intermediary of a travel agent now that they can go online and book their travel themselves. As a result, Thomas Cook closed 195 UK stores last year. Disintermediation has affected financial services (people can buy shares online so no longer have to call a stockbroker), real estate, education, and many other fields. Is it possible that someone could develop an online interface that would enable clients to access strategy and creative directly, without the intermediation of an Account Handler?

And before any Creatives reading this get too smug, consider that machines are already turning basic sports results and financial data into good-enough news stories. They are writing. And there are already websites that generate automated advertising concepts. Right now these are mosty spoofs, but how long before they become real?

It's harder to see how robots could do strategy. Even if it's true that "there are only six possible strategies for any brief", selecting the right one is quite an art. But could someone develop a computer simulation, where different strategies could be tested in a game-like environment containing all the real-world market variables, to enable selection of the optimum strategy?

If you consider any of the above ideas to be fanciful, please note that the process has already started. Programmatic (i.e. computer-controlled) media-buying now comprises an unknown but fast-growing slice of the online media market, and may soon extend to other media.

If robots can replace media buyers, how long before they replace you?


Anonymous said...

Hey Scamp,

I'd be interested to read the material where you got: "there are only six possible strategies for any brief" from.


a junior.

Scamp said...

I made it up.

But it does sound pretty plausible, right?

After all, they often say "there are only seven basic stories."

(Google that one and you'll get 106 million hits...)

Flappy-pants Pappy said...

Advertising stopped being a creative industry years ago, and I have absolutely no doubt that robots could do our jobs.

The second clients can replace us, they will.

All we can do now as creatives is develop clever ways to sabotage the robots.

Merry Christmas all!

Rich said...

I guess I'll just have to retrain as a robot mechanic then.

Anonymous said...

A far more interesting question might be "Can you sell a robot products?"

We are all replaceable by technology... and ultimately that technology will represent better value for money.

So once entire professions of people worldwide are out of work, with insufficient new jobs to offer them how do you feed them all?

Is our approaching obsolescence the sign of a future of hardship... or a sign of the approaching end of scarcity-based economies?

"May you live in interesting times" is still one of the nastiest curses I know, one we all seem destined to live through to some degree.

Anonymous said...

bob. is that you?

Historian said...

Back in the 70's, 80's & 90's, long before computers, robots produced all the creative work at George Pattersons.

Anonymous said...

In defence of the lowly account handler, there's a key difference between us (yes I am one, I come in peace) as intermediaries versus your travel agent analogy.

While technology such as the internet has gutted Thomas Cook by cutting out the middleman, the same accessibility from client to creative/strategist hasn't rendered us suits obsolete yet... but why? *Deep breath* - because despite the fights, arguments, name calling and everything else, we need each other.

The good suits interrogate & simplify feedback. We take the client for lunches to keep them happy and the work flowing. We pull all-nighters to ensure the deck's got no spelling mistakes. We push for margins that allow the Christmas party to be in Paris rather than Butlins. The good suits do it to fight for the good work made by good creatives.

What travel agents go to these lengths for their fragmented collection of Mediterranean resort owners?

However yes, robots will replace us. Not before project managers though!