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Opinion: Learn to Innovate or Innovate to Learn

With artificial intelligence making the headlines at the moment, there are unlimited opportunities for marketers and agencies to innovate, writes Gareth Irvine of OLIVER

Yes, we all know the classic innovate or die case studies, be those Kodak or Blockbuster. This hyperbole is like the 1st year Marketing undergrad assignment: Is marketing an art or a science?  A leading question asked of which there is no one correct answer. Innovation is, for most, an essential component of long-term product and service evolution strategy, but it is not always the primary requirement for immediate customer retention, acquisition and P&L growth.

Why then does the marketing industry constantly fly like a magpie on a sunny day towards that shiny new innovation object? Do we need to rethink our personal definitions of “marketing innovation” away from the traditional product or service-led R&D cycle and back into the areas of increased productivity of individuals, processes, business & distribution models? Perhaps marketing innovation is no different from business innovation, with customer experience, brand essence and purpose remaining the north stars for +NPS and our collective marketing growth efforts.

As a nation, we pride ourselves in our competitive nature and sometimes are obsessed with international bench marketing. The IMF ranks Ireland as 3rd out of 192 nations in the GDP per capita tables. When it comes to innovation the 2022 Global Innovation Index has us at 23rd out of the 132 economies measured. Recognition is given for “Top10” levels of institutional innovation and business sophistication, but Ireland is merely “European average” when it comes to innovative creative outputs.

A cynical view is not the starting point here, but more an observation of the practical reality facing marketing professionals right now. Firstly, AI is not new. It’s been around since before humans landed on the moon.  1956 , believe it or not.  AI has already progressed through the complete Rogers adoption curve, past the tech enthusiasts, the visionaries, the pragmatists, the conservatives and even the laggard sceptics.

AI is mainstream and it is omnipresent is all our lives. We just don’t know it most of the time. Generative AI on the other hand is a different story and that is where the skill is, in separating the “next big thing” narrative from the practical delivery of: “How does our marketing and our product (or service) better service our customers today, whilst future proofing and growing our market share?”  We land back in the simple marketing theory of ‘needs, features and benefits’.

  • Is our brand consumer led, or market led?
  • Is innovative evolution of our product strategy and marketing mix, technology enabled, or technology led?

If only it was this simple. We all know it isn’t. Add in C-suite and investor demands, along with organisational cultural imperatives, those around “Innovation, Disruption, Curiosity and 1st to market” delivery.

Talking disruptive strategy is always positive and it makes us all question the norm. The safe zone from which our experience has served us well, just may not be safe anymore. The comfort zone clichés force us to question everything and rightly so. Some might believe that no business can disrupt itself, but I suggest that human capital can disrupt everything. The technology may be the disrupter, but the human capital is building it and the human defined governance will regulate it. Disruptive innovation takes many forms. It’s just semantics.

The obsession with AI continues, as “generative” shiny new toys are the talk of Twitter spaces, Discord channels, LinkedIn webinars, the marketing industry conferences, and boardrooms the world over.  Some conversations and initial beliefs are around “magic wand” CX capability, cost reduction and overall transformational potential.

The voices cry out, “How do we leverage this opportunity? How do we not get left behind?” How are our competitors innovating and embracing AI to positively disrupt customer experience and buying journeys?  Whilst in the background, the AI legal and ethical debates are often unfortunately often very disconnected.

The reality is that very few agencies or brands are delivering transformational generative AI impact……. yet.  As with advocates (of which I am one) of the shiny new toy predecessors NFTs and the Metaverse, many remain talking to themselves in a parallel digital universe.

Some agencies convince clients to run proof of concept campaigns. Some deliver based on insights and valued adding utility, pushing boundaries and brands into previously untested channels.  However, let’s learn from past innovation POC errors, those where some minted and then bought their own NFT collections into empty wallets, newly opened for the purpose. The blockchain offers nowhere to hide! Discord channels remain empty and unmoderated, with the projects classified correctly as “rugs”.  Awards may follow but the compromised integrity cannot be undone.

On the flip side many continue to “build in the bear” and it is these brands and agency collaborations that will thrive in the next bull market. Starbucks Odyssey and their tokenised “Stamp” loyalty programme beta is one that is progressing at pace, raising the bar for others to follow and most likely attempt to replicate.

The GenAI originated campaign narrative is pushed. Merit and credit are due to those who have maximised the opportunity to illustrate both AI and GenAI potential, whilst also remaining grounded in the reality and power of the human creative mind. Of note are Heineken’s new Charlie Chatbot who is leading the way in enhanced recruitment CX. Nike and Tommy Hilfiger are also in Beta with GenAI product cocreation, as fashion brands continue to innovate (& fail forward) faster than many other verticals.

Whilst highly functional, on launch day CNN has already reported teacher and parental concern around Snapchats new AI features with both privacy and “creepy exchange” concerns being widely cited.  Perhaps most worrying is the inability to turn off the AI features without the purchase of a premium subscription. AI plagiarism at homework time might rise but come exam time, that bot will not be much help!

But are some of these issues a reason to be sceptical or cynical? Absolutely not. Innovation and R&D, like the seasons, will always be cyclical and iterative. One Crypto winter will be followed by a spring when the market cap explodes to new all-time highs. One mass adoption innovation will be the catalyst for new ecosystems that build on top of the infrastructure.  Digital asset tokenised gateways and AI powered CX and UI will be the norm before we know it. Of that, I am sure.

Thus, the real learning is to learn now. Learning to innovate or innovate to learn. That is the question.

Meanwhile a public phone call overheard around D4 on the dart…….

” Did you hear about my new multilayer GPT chat prompt strategy that built me an affiliate marketing aggregated ecommerce site, in 3 hours?”  NO, I did not. In my mind I contemplate……

Whilst I love and respect your passion, can we not just perhaps revisit some of the marketing basics? Those that we know can be much improved and will 100% help grow our business tomorrow.

The pause is deafening but the non GPT answer is simple.

“Tomorrow never comes. So, we must innovate today.”

Gareth Irvine is Digital & Sustainable Business Director, OLIVER

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