TMW #096 | Synthetic Marketing

Sep 12, 2022

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Here’s the week in Martech:

  • Synthetic Marketing: AI and the creative department
  • Forecasting Apple’s ad business: $30b by 2026?
  • US & China: Restricting data flows to China
  • Everything else: Google humanizes search, what’s next for the creator economy? Agency strategist shortage, new gen social networks, and a delightful Microsoft Teams song.

✍ Commentary

Synthetic Marketing

Synthetic marketing is a way to understand how artificial intelligence is changing the creative industry from the perspective of a marketer. Let's break it down. It’s synthetic because AI can now synthesize billions of pieces of content on the web to piece together something entirely new.

It’s marketing because, like most technology that has a human interface, there are opportunities to capitalize on it to help brands grow. In other words – it's unnatural ways to harness creativity at scale. That’s synthetic marketing.

Over the course of 2022, there’s been an explosion of applications in the creative domain of AI. Apps like DALL E 2, Midjourney and the newly announced application Stable Diffusion (which has already reached a $1b valuation) introduced major advancements in how content is created on the web.

Another innovative entrant is RunwayML which takes many of the tasks skilled video producers spent years refining and automates them with simple prompts to edit and produce films.

Right now generative AI content creation tools are going through their News Feed phase – new technology going through rapid iteration cycles across a wide spectrum of applications. What a time to be alive.

What this does mean is the creative industries of film directors, copywriters, designers, and illustrators are about to go through a reckoning as impactful as how the early web changed design. AI has been background noise for a long time, but now the use cases in content creation are becoming a turning point, forcing us to reckon with powerful technology we barely comprehend.

Creative automation is a new domain

Like all hype cycles, there’s always some kind of economic change. But this feels different. AI applied to creativity is not the same kind of disruption that Google search brought to online and offline directories or how Facebook changed the landscape of news publishing or how Uber, Lyft, or Airbnb changed how people take rides or hire a holiday rental. The reason? These examples of innovation were about efficiency, not creativity.

Connecting people with information, a holiday rental, or with each other are all pragmatic questions. How do you build the infrastructure to support the connectivity of a buyer and seller? How do we satisfy the request of someone searching for information? What’s the UX of a news feed? These questions have all been answered in the second wave of marketing technology innovation. And the answers are all old news.

Don’t get me wrong here. The age of synthetic marketing is also about asking questions about efficiency. Replacing a $300 an hour illustrator with a Discord imagine prompt is cheaper, faster, and potentially a better outcome for a marketing team. But the more interesting question is how we can become more creative by using AI tools. If you have a thousand illustrators, creating ten thousand versions from a single illustration brief, you have near-endless creative output. That's gotta be good right?

These new tools force a more important question about the role of creativity in the work of marketing.  There are people now selling AI artwork on Promptbase and the creative contribution of these individuals are not their artwork, but their skill to optimize keywords to feed DALL E 2’s creative algorithm. AI systems have their own way of interpreting the world, and this brings net-new creativity of experiences humans perhaps could never imagine.

I’ve written about the advent of AI in marketing technology in The Great Abstraction. And the throughline of the most recent developments in AI in the creative industries is the idea that Martech used to be about automating communications and experience, but now it’s about automating skills and creative talents. In The Shortcut Economy, I called it the no code to no skills pipeline:

"How will anyone know what good copy looks like? Or when designs communicate something impactful with clarity? We won’t need to if the atomization of marketing goes anywhere near mainstream adoption. The competitive advantage becomes a game of who can harness technology to its best abilities and at scale. If No Code has the potential to unseat the website developer, then No Skill has the potential to unseat the creative talents of marketers everywhere."

Right, wrong and grey

The problem with AI is that technology is advancing faster than our judgment. How are marketers to think about the use of these technologies? There are always winners and losers when something new disrupts a market segment and this will be no different. But the question persists – how should marketers deal with the grey space that is creative automation?

On one side, the argument against these tools is that although the creative output is unique – it’s not a copy or revision of something previous - the imagery used to train these tools is intellectual property. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Mona Lisa or a portrait of Homer Simpson, the AIs are referencing this content and millions of other original artworks to create something new.

Is this unethical? Is the illustrator who’s inspired by a gallery showing ripping off the original artists who created the art? If it’s a person, then the answer is obviously no. But an AI that can create at scale? It’s grey, very grey.

But this is not the biggest problem with AI-generated creativity. The eventual decline in jobs and opportunities for those who work in the creative fields is becoming a much larger issue. And it’s an issue that we can potentially solve before AI becomes more prevalent across other industries.

I do think we are in a really early phase in this technology cycle where the application of AI will eventually find its way to influence entertainment more broadly. It would make sense for entire books, movies, and songs to be partially aided or entirely produced by AI programs because it’s cheaper and potentially higher quality.

How we design and build websites is also an easy candidate for AI disruption. I can see a company like Squarespace or Shopify eventually embedding text–to–website technology. It would be like No Code on a new plane of accessibility. Imagine just having to describe, in words, what kind of website you want, and it’s designed and implemented in minutes, with endless feedback cycles. There’s a lot of drudgery in web development that AI solves.

I would welcome some of these ideas because it increases opportunities for more people in another way.  But it also makes designers and illustrators redundant in the short term. Every automated illustration is one less brief to a designer and a day’s less work. If marketers are not careful, they could be the ones that propagate an industry that dehumanizes creativity and disenfranchises a generation of very talented and skilled people. Do we really want to support this? Or is it inevitable? Marketers are the ones that made companies like Facebook successful, and look how that turned out.

But I’m sure we’ll find a way. If all illustrations come at zero marginal cost, then the way brands use creativity to differentiate and signal status will change too. As Nathan Baschez mentions in a recent piece – the vibe shift and AI design – this is likely to happen. In the same way that the tech industry used photo imagery in the past to signal value, so will there be more costly ways to signal status and value to consumers, and it is likely that AI-generated creativity could be perceived as “low status.” Nathan comments:

"The best and most reliable type of signal is known as a “costly” signal because it’s hard to fake. For example, if a male peacock has a giant array of feathers and still manages to drag it around everywhere and survive, it’s a pretty good bet that they are physically fit and have good genes. These signals are called “costly” because it costs something tangible to send them, which is proof of fitness (in the broadest sense of the word “fit”: well adapted to survive in the environment). The primary function of visual aesthetics in corporate design, in my view, is to send a costly signal to prospective partners that the company is fit to survive. “We are strong, wealthy, and reliable,” they say to your subconscious. Of course, besides visual aesthetics, a company’s marketing materials need to clearly articulate the product’s value proposition."

The web is already synthetic

As it stands, there are already a lot of robots on the web. About 37% of all internet users are bots. You could go as far as to say that it’s a robot’s world and we’re already living in it. But the reality of synthetic marketing is that by replacing the human aspect of creativity it loses something special – knowing that someone, somewhere put deliberate effort into creating something new.

That’s important because human ingenuity is unlikely to be replaced with tools like Midjourney, Stable Diffusion, and DALL E 2. But the ability to save time and money by getting an AI app to create a cover article or a promotional video in a matter of minutes is so valuable, I can’t see how marketers won’t try and harness this technology to create value for brands.

Before you start writing image prompts, it’s worth reflecting on what kind of future you’re sacrificing for endless creativity at a moment’s notice. Becoming a synthetic marketer means working less with humans and more with robots, and there’s something we miss if we think that’s a good thing.

📈Chart Of The Week  

Forecasting Apple’s ad business. The FT is predicting that Apple’s annual revenue from ads could reach more than $30b by 2026 which is a little over a quarter of Meta’s 2021 ad revenue. Most people think this kind of growth is an entirely reasonable outlook. But there are many questions Apple still needs to answer if they are to properly enter the online ads market. Link (Also see TMW #093)

📰 Latest Developments

US & China. The Biden administration is preparing an executive order to restrict data collection by Chinese social media companies. Meanwhile, the US government is barring the creation of advanced technology firms in China. In other news, the federal privacy bill is not going anywhere in congress. Tough on China data collection, easy on our own? Looks like it. EXEC ORDER. CHINA BAN. PRIVACY BILL.

Google’s attempt to humanize search again. The company has announced what they call a "helpful content update" to the search algorithm. It’s an initiative to improve rankings and minimize the rewards for those who try to hack search with keyword and backlink manipulation. Link

Apple Event. The most interesting thing from this year’s Apple event is the introduction of Dynamic Island to iPhone 14 Pro – a way to utilize notifications in the camera and FaceID sensor punchout. This means a new design language for notifications and more ways to add rich content to app experiences. EVENT.ANALYSIS.

📚 Reading

A good read on the crackdown of play-to-earn NFT games. What happens when Minecraft bans an entire category of emerging crypto-based games? A good exploration of the ethics of these types of games, how they rely on new customers (like MLMs), and what kind of value they create for users. Link

The collapse of complex software. Complexity is what brought down some of the world’s greatest civilizations. Can the same happen with technology? Link

What’s next for the creator economy? A forecast for where the concept may be headed. A lot of different angles here on online journalism, Youtubers and musicians. Link

🔢 Data & Insights

OnlyFans growth. OnlyFans is like the dark web of the creator economy. The platform drove more than $4.8 billion last year for online creators (made up of mostly adult entertainers). There’s a lot of money concentrated in this platform that somehow solved the puzzle of making people pay for content. It just turns out it’s not the kind of content anyone is really proud of. Link

Apparently, there’s a shortage of agency strategists. Who’s going to annoy the creative team now? Link

CDP > MAP? Axiom did a study that suggests that B2C enterprise companies are implementing more customer data platforms than marketing automation platforms. Link

💡 Ideas

Influencer measurement. The US Association of National Advertisers has developed a set of organic measurement guidelines for social media influencers. Link

New-gen social networks. A good overview of how the next generation is having their own “Zuckerberg moments.” Social networks are generational, but some are fixed – like YouTube. Link

An interesting AdTech blog. A unique way to aggregate news in the advertising technology space. Link

✨ Weird and Wonderful

This Microsoft Teams song. Link

How the terminally online reacted to the passing of Queen Elizabeth. Warning that this gets really weird but it also exposes how fandoms, online communities, and memes are evolving. Link

Before and after the Spotify model. Does enterprise agile really change anything? Link

Stay Curious,

Make sense of marketing technology.

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Juan Mendoza

Juan Mendoza is an expert in researching global media, marketing, data, and technology trends. He is the CEO of The Martech Weekly, a media and research brand with subscribers in over 65 countries.

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