Media's existential threat?

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There's no need to fear how artificial intelligence, programmatic and other technologies are disrupting the media landscape. Instead, we should welcome challenges to the status quo and old habits, Sue Unerman explains.

Artificial intelligence is "humanity’s biggest existential threat," according to Elon Musk, billionaire founder of Tesla cars.

AI is already becoming a reality for the media industry and it means a fundamental change in how consumers will behave and buy things.

When a customer can ask Alexa to switch utilities or order the best-priced groceries, this begs questions about the role of advertising, media strategy and marketing for all kinds of categories.

We know from MediaCom’s Real World Britain research that behavior is starting to change in ordinary homes across the UK. 

Programmatic is proving how much better robots can be at some parts of media planning and buying than humans

This is what Archie, a dad-to-be in Hertfordshire, had to say about Amazon’s voice-activated assistant in an interview earlier this year: "Alexa strangely has become a part of our household—she’s our go-to source of info in the morning for our daily travel and weather update, and we use her when we want to check prices for things to buy online. 

"She’s very smart. We even say goodnight to her."

And this is just the disruption that we can see coming. In the age of Uber, Airbnb and Deliveroo, new challenges to the status quo are being created daily. Not all of these startups will succeed, of course, but the ones that do are likely to change consumer behavior at scale.

There is already significant disruption in media models.

Despite the ubiquitous criticisms and polarizing arguments, programmatic is proving how much better robots can be at some parts of media planning and buying than humans.

A priori rules of thumb that have been the staple of our industry for 30 years are now being replaced by empiricism. You could say that the robots are extracting the thumbs from the rules.

More specific targeting, based on real audience behavior rather than proxies, will significantly cut the amount of audience impacts that a brand needs to reach specific groups of people.

That means less wastage—although no one should be fooled into thinking precision-targeting is the answer to every marketer’s prayers. As Jeremy Bullmore once said: "If a luxury car only ever advertised to people in the market for a luxury car in the next six months then, soon, nobody would be in the market for that car, as you mainly buy one to be the envy of people who can’t afford it."

The media industry as we know it is the result of media departments challenging the status quo.

If the media directors of the last century had continued to sit quietly in full-service agencies, doing as they were told, following the then rules of thumb, our industry would be very different both in terms of media owners and agencies.

However, the speed of change in the last century was relatively gentle. The speed of change that is required is faster now—almost brutal.

In their book Building the Agile Business through Digital Transformation, Neil Perkin and Peter Abraham write: "Just about every organization is finding that navigating the ever-changing environment in which they find themselves is like riding a surfboard on a choppy sea of uncertainty. 

"Yet, for many, their approach to strategy has not changed. We need a new kind of strategy for a new world. A strategy that is far more adaptive than the fixed, inflexible forms of strategy that are still prevalent in many businesses."

Ultimately, this comes down to people, not AI.

For brands, agencies and media owners to be adaptive, they need to foster a culture of challenging the status quo in every part of their organizations.

This requires two fundamental behaviors to be in place: 

  • Welcome challenge from everyone.
  • Replace fear, uncertainty and doubt with acceptance and validation.
Sue Unerman is the chief transformation officer at MediaCom UK

Welcome challenge

It can be intimidating to challenge the status quo. You need resilience. You also need encouragement. Outliers who can point out different perspectives must be nurtured, not sidelined.

It is shocking how much the media industry still needs to do. After Kathryn Jacob and I published The Glass Wall last year, we did a book tour where we presented evidence and case studies that showed how companies enjoy increased profitability and better decision-making from mixed-gender boards.

Then we took questions. One woman asked for our advice after her request for a pay rise was met with: "Is your husband’s career in trouble? You seem unnaturally obsessed by money at the moment." Another woman told us that the normal response to her challenging the status quo was to be asked: "Is it your time of the month?"

Apart from the fact that such comments are in breach of the Equality Act, if this kind of behavior is the norm in the office, then it is very difficult for anyone to challenge the status quo—regardless of gender.

There is a world of difference between funny jokes and disrespectful—or even bullying—"locker-room banter." 

If you want change, if you need bright ideas, you need a culture where people feel and trust that this is welcome

In a conversation about The Glass Wall, one boss assured us that he had checked with the "girls that work for me and they love the banter."

That the women who work for you tell you that you’re funny, or even laugh along with your jokes, does not mean you have a culture of agile transformation or even that you are actually funny.

It’s clear from our talks, or from social media movements such as Everyday Sexism and #BackWomenAtWork, that many women are being made to feel like they’re disruptive when they challenge.

Although our book focused on gender, there is frequently the same lack of inclusive atmosphere for anyone who sits even slightly outside the norm. Without internal challenge, organizations are going to move too slowly to survive.

Replace fear with love

Human beings largely have two states of mind. We’ve evolved either to be frightened or curious.

While necessity is the mother of invention, when we’re panicking, we’re not that curious about change. We’re too busy battening down the hatches against the storm.

That paradox is well-described by Maria Konnikova, author and writer at Scientific American, who explains: "Organizations, institutions and individual decision-makers often reject creative ideas even as they state openly that creativity is, to them, an important and sometimes even central goal."

If you want change, if you need bright ideas, you need a culture where people feel and trust that this is welcome. Which isn’t just a question of slogans or rhetoric. 

As John Kotter and Dan Cohen, two experts on business transformation who have drawn up an "eight-step process for leading change," argue: "The core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people. Behavior change happens in highly successful situations mostly by speaking to people’s feelings."

Often the idea is to create a "burning platform"—an argument that forces everyone to change and to change fast.

Authors Chip and Dan Heath warn that negative emotions have a "narrowing effect on our thoughts … Most big problems we encounter are ambiguous and evolving … to solve these, we need to encourage open minds, creativity and hope."

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that only when all levels of your being are aligned and interlocking are you adaptable and open to new ideas. Your physical actions and emotional thoughts need to cohere, and you need to feel part of your community. If you’re running a work community and excluding some people, then you’re failing to get the best out of everyone.

In the climate of disruption that we’re facing, you need to get the best out of everyone, especially those who are different from the norm.

An army might do as it’s told and obey orders, but the challenges of today’s media workplace require real commitment and involvement of the whole team.

An old-school, traditional media environment of minor humiliations and locker-room banter means people are on edge, awaiting alpha approval or dismissal.

Keeping a low profile to avoid being the next recipient of exclusion or alienation from the pack is no way to encourage change and innovation.

If media is facing an existential threat, the solution lies with people and a culture of inclusiveness. AI is no substitute for that.


Sue Unerman is the chief transformation officer at MediaCom UK.