Will the second machine age kill off account planning?

A while back, I mused about the coming of the second machine age and the singularity. As computers get better and better at doing more and more human jobs, what will this mean for humans? (You might ask what it will also mean for computers, but they’re not conscious yet and can’t entertain such questions.)

As the first machine age made large swathes of people into animate detritus of the early 20th century, will the second age do the same to ‘creative’ sectors like advertising and, self-interest to declare here, account planners?

Well, it definitely looks like the role will have to radically transform.

The ‘big data’ explosion of information-gobbling Leviathans across the globe is reducing the work planners have had to put into finding, comparing, cross-referencing, controlling and analysing data when working on accounts.

This, theoretically, reduces their time spent on this, meaning they can see more and do more more quickly and more cheaply, their productivity skyrockets, their ‘insight-per-hourly-labour-input’ ratio goes through the roof and agencies and clients make buckets of money. Right?

There is no doubt that properly aggregated and deployed data helps advertising/communications much more targeted and effective. There’s a whole industry in market and advertising intelligence services where users can manipulate nearly real-time data be tweaking a few parameters here and there.

But Chris Kocek, in his ‘The Practical Pocket Guide to Account Planning‘, makes the point that as useful as all these data analytics tools are, planners actually have to spend quite a lot of time calibrating them to ensure that the results are actually relevant, useful and meaningful. It could actually take so much time to tweak these systems that a planner may have been better off sitting in a café, running a focus group or door-stepping some shoppers to find that killer insight. Or at least clarified their objectives and got the precise information required for the job through old fashioned means.

In my previous blog on the second machine age, I mentioned John Searle, the philosopher who dogmatically argued that machines may ape consciousness but they’ll never possess meaning. I can see both sides to this argument (but don’t totally agree).

On one hand, computers will do whatever we tell them, and if we tell them to become so complex and to cross-reference data so much that they begin to make very meaningful associations about the natural and social world and then begin acting in ways consistent with that, who are we to say they don’t possess meaning?

On the other hand, I still think there’s a qualitative difference between that and being a human with a nervous system (the human brain is the most complex structure in the universe), with thoughts and feelings and passions and feelings about memories (computers are brilliant at memory, but not so good on feeling) and, deep down, utterly incomprehensible irrationality kept in check by an unfathomably complex thing we call culture or society. (Does this bring me close to David Chalmers’ position on consciousness?)

Thought and feeling are inseparable anyway.

This is why we crave stories. Our civilisations are built around mystery and myth and meaning, all of which encompass our deepest truths, desires and fears.

If account planning is about uncovering these deep truths, based strongly on intuition, backed up by solid information, deployed by an agency to solve a client’s business problem by answering (and creating) people’s needs and desires, then how could machines replace this function without being (nearly) human themselves?

Only then might planners’ jobs be at risk from machines; but if machines eventually become as human as ourselves, then we’ll be colleagues so we might not even see things that way. Or, in another scenario, the robots will be better than us in every way, in which case we’re all doomed.

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