AI in Marketing: Words of Wisdom and Caution

  • Categories:

    Industry Trends

  • Date:

    January 24, 2024

AI in Marketing: Words of Wisdom and Caution

Industry Trends

When OpenAI launched ChatGPT in late 2022, it didn’t exactly take the world by storm. In fact, when I returned to the office after a long holiday break and a coworker asked if I’d tried the new chatbot, I didn’t know what he was talking about.

Here’s what happened next: ChatGPT became one of the fastest-growing services ever, amassing 100 million users by late January 2023 and igniting a generative AI boom that shaped a dynamic new landscape and influenced how most people do business.

Little more than a year later, AI touches almost every aspect of marketing — from creative concepting to coding, content marketing, social media, analytics and much more.

Along the way, I jumped headlong into the AI conversation: I joined Wray Ward’s AI leadership team and chair a multidisciplinary working group focused on AI and its role in writing and content development. Whether you believe artificial intelligence is the real deal or a fancy party trick, I’m willing to bet it’s here to stay; however, the extent to which it will or should permeate our work is wholly up for debate. You could say I’m proceeding with caution and an open mind.

That’s why I seized an opportunity to moderate a recent conversation with three brilliant marketing and technology experts from our industry. The event, co-hosted by Wray Ward and the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance®, featured:

  • Kelly Grogan, senior digital marketing manager, Honeywell

  • Sathish Muthukrishnan, chief information, data and digital officer, Ally Financial

  • Sriram Venkataraman, professor of marketing and associate dean of the Online MBA Program (MBA@UNC), UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

We had a fascinating discussion about the world of AI and its implications for marketing communications. Here are a handful of my top takeaways from 60 minutes with these leaders.

What is the role of AI in the future of marketing?

AI must start in the C-suite, but it can’t end there.

Artificial intelligence touches every aspect of an organization. Adoption can’t happen in a vacuum or within the walls of one or a few departments. The moment someone says, “That’s [insert department name]’s job,” you’ve already lost. Instead, AI strategy must start in the C-suite, be blessed and advocated for by leadership, but then be considered for everyone.

Ally Financial’s Sathish Muthukrishnan said, “Frontline employees have to feel that they are part of the journey.” That’s partly why, every few months, the company hosts an AI Day to expose staff to technologies and empower them to come up with use cases.

Kelly Grogan said that at Honeywell, this means embracing AI from the top down and empowering a task force to make sound decisions and ask tough questions. What are the use cases that make the most sense? How will they evaluate the results?

Muthukrishnan echoed Grogan: Though in charge of the company’s tech and digital capabilities, he said AI “is a journey that shouldn’t happen within the four walls of technology.”

AI tools hold incredible marketing potential if we know how to use them.

Grogan, who leads Honeywell’s global social media and paid media team, called AI an “amazing” innovation for the marketing industry. “Often, we’re challenged to do more with less,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of success with derivative content, and that’s where generative AI can accelerate [our work].”

Indeed, increased efficiency has emerged as one of the most significant potential benefits of AI, specifically generative AI tools such as ChatGPT, GitHub Copilot and Midjourney (all of which we’ve explored at Wray Ward).

“AI is not here to challenge our jobs,” said Muthukrishnan. “It’s here to augment them.” He lauded AI’s ability to help humans achieve higher productivity — and shared several examples of how they’re doing just that at his company. For example, Ally marketing team members have used AI tools to combat writer’s block. But they must still “connect what they create to the company they work for,” Muthukrishnan said. AI can’t do that, but it can give already good writers a solid starting point, shortening the length of the runway to a finished product.

Meanwhile, UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Sriram Venkataraman offered a glass-half-full perspective: At its best, AI is a godsend … but like any tool, it can fail. And when it does, it’s more hype than the real deal.

We must identify the problem we’re trying to solve before evaluating an AI tool as a solution.

Muthukrishnan always says, “Don’t start with technology. Instead, focus on your customers and the problem you’re solving for them.” Then, consider how AI tools can help you do that.

A measured approach is necessary for success (and it’s the right thing to do).

Even with many of the world’s top companies and smart people steering the herd, it’s the Wild West out there. “Some people want to bring ChatGPT in-house and let things run wild,” said Venkataraman. “But this is not a good approach.” Instead, he says businesses should empower their people by training them to ask the right questions — and recognize when something’s awry. Grogan, too, stressed the importance of responsible usage and testing.

The chaos extends to regulatory concerns: The global regulatory landscape for AI is inconsistent at best and convoluted at worst. Indeed, Muthukrishnan warned our audience that the misuse of AI can have far-reaching consequences we haven’t yet imagined.

So, what’s the secret to staying safe without getting left in the dust?

Here’s a start: Embrace, but verify. As Venkataraman said, “Businesses that open the black box and run with it” might as well take the fast lane to failure. Clear and concise governance not only creates more value but also supports basic ethical standards. The tricky part, he said, might be assuming regulators know what to regulate in a space that changes shape at lightning speed.

AI won’t do everything for us (not even close).

Grogan noted “a perception among people who are not experienced with AI that AI will do everything for you” — and that it’s far from the truth. “It takes time, and it takes asking the right questions,” she said. “You get out what you put in.”

Getting a quality output starts with remembering that generative AI tools are exactly that — tools. Think about them as physical objects: The world’s finest sander won’t give you a flat, smooth surface unless you know how to use it. I have yet to get a good blog post from ChatGPT, though I’ve used the chatbot to organize my thoughts and brainstorm headlines.

Besides their often rudimentary grasp of sound sentence structure, AI tools struggle with authenticity, which is paramount for marketers whose outputs must inspire action. Marketing still needs a human touch. This is a foundational principle, and our panelists agreed it isn’t likely to change.

Plenty can go wrong if we’re not careful.

Because our discussion focused on AI in marketing, we touched on generative AI tools’ sometimes astonishing ability to create convincing visual and audio content that isn’t real.

Unlike other machine learning models that operate within a narrow set of variables, generative AI technologies are open-ended. Their access to massive datasets makes them extremely powerful but also inherently risky.

“Deepfakes are a perfect example of how things can go wrong,” said Grogan.

We’re all in this race together.

Muthukrishnan may have put it best: “Your competitors are your friends in this space.” The Ally executive has become a connector of company leaders who are charged with pondering — and solving — concerns about generative AI tools. “When you have common struggles, collectively, you can make significant progress for the industry as a whole,” he said. Muthukrishnan also urges his peers to be open about their challenges and be willing to learn from others.

Harnessing the Power of AI

I learned a lot from our experts. I’m also aware that it’s still very, very early, even though researchers coined the term “artificial intelligence” 14 years before humans first walked on the moon. During the panel event, Venkataraman declared that we don’t know what we don’t know. I think that understanding and embracing the incompleteness of our knowledge will be critical as we continue to move forward.

Will AI change marketing to the same degree as, say, social media — the rise of which transformed how people and companies interact? (As an older millennial who finished college before Facebook reached 1 million users, I can attest that social media was, indeed, a game changer.)

I don’t know where artificial intelligence will land in the hierarchy of inventions that shaped our industry. I can’t tell you which AI tools will be most widely used by marketing professionals one year from now or even which tools will still exist in 2025. Venkataraman likened generative AI to “the most unpredictable dinner guest you’ll ever have.” I love this as a metaphor on multiple levels.

But without a doubt, the potential of AI has and will continue to capture our imaginations. It’s caused us to think long and hard about how human ingenuity and technology can flourish together — how these tools can push our strategic and creative thinking, help us crunch data and help scale our work. And in a landscape that’s changing about as fast as you can say Chat-G-P-T, the marketers who learn how to harness these tools will replace those who still think AI is a short-lived fad.

We’re excited to participate in more discussions on this critical topic. Want to join the conversation? Let us know.

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