The advertising industry is notorious for rushing headlong into the latest technology trends, and nowhere is that more on display than at ad industry conferences.
But some workers are growing wary with the industry’s latest obsession with artificial intelligence (AI), which they say is not properly addressing the risks and responsibilities of the powerful technology, and is diverting attention and resources from other important issues.
The schedule of Advertising Week New York (AWNY), which kicks off the U.S. conference season again after a summer break on Monday, provides a useful barometer of the industry’s priorities and investments.
Expectedly, AI is the largest topic at the upcoming conference, as the subject of more than 30 sessions. (That’s an insight ChatGPT surfaced – and I fact-checked.)
While these issues may well come up during conference panels, the session outlines at AWNY paint a picture of an industry preoccupied with AI’s positive potential — including how it can deliver better business outcomes for marketers, bring effectiveness and efficiency to media plans and lead to more relevant and personalised customer experiences — as opposed to addressing its risks head-on.
Some sessions position AI as a panacea to the industry’s issues, such as how generative AI can create “safer” advertising to kids or improve the sustainability of the ad tech industry. But at the same time, AI can exacerbate such challenges: Adalytics’ recent report about ads placed on YouTube “made for kids” content
highlighted the risks of AI-powered ad engines, while AI data centres have raised the carbon emissions
of the tech industry.
“It is surprising that with AI being the industry’s current hyperfixation, the topics of privacy, responsible data use and ethical AI don’t appear to be a larger focal point of the conversation to avoid the mistakes of the past,” says Arielle Garcia, the former chief privacy officer of UM.
Agencies, media and tech companies should be addressing concerns such as what data is being used to train AI models, how intellectual property and confidential information is being protected and how AI makes decisions, Garcia suggests.
“Without adequate governance, AI runs the risk of driving many existing risks further out of view and increasing opacity — which is detrimental to both marketers and their customers,” she says. “For example, are advertisers comfortable relinquishing more control and receiving less transparency
with the greater adoption of AI-powered products like Google’s Performance Max?”
The industry should also address AI’s role in exacerbating the spread of misinformation, especially in the midst of the flood of false information about the Israel-Hamas war
, suggests Dave Kersey, chief media officer of Omnicom ad agency GSD&M.
“The thing that's been top of mind recently, just given current events, is the rise and implications of misinformation and how everyone's talking about it, but no one's actually doing anything about it,” says Kersey. “Everyone talks about AI, but the true power of AI, I think, will actually further emphasise misinformation and division of content based on the individual. And that scares me, personally, just seeing what's been happening with Israel-Hamas.”
Why the industry fixates on the shiny and new
The ad industry has a history of chasing hype instead of fixing the leaky bucket.
Amid the allure of “bright shiny objects,” topics like talent recruitment and channel testing, the “meat and potatoes” of running an ad business, get “too little focus” at industry get togethers, according to Jared Belsky, CEO and cofounder of digital marketing agency Acadia.
“Right now, for most agencies and clients, the number one issue is talent, yet no one wants to focus on this,” he adds.
Garcia — who left her role at UM last month to rid herself of the “shackles” of the industry’s conflicts, as she wrote in an AdExchanger
column — agrees that agency culture warrants deeper discussion at upcoming ad conferences.
“Issues related to diversity, transparency and ethics appear to be driving discontent and division between agency executives and employees and are manifesting in many ways — including burnout, attrition and return to office aversion,” she says. “Inevitably, these cultural chasms, when unaddressed, tend to metastasise, impacting work quality and business results.”
Meanwhile, while there are plenty of sessions at AWNY dedicated to addressability and identity, including the impact of third-party cookie depreciation, few delve into the “seismic shifts” that new regulations such as the E.U. Digital Services Act
, the California “Delete Act
” and growing health data regulations present, says Garcia.
Garcia points out that one session
at AWNY will discuss how a pregnancy tracker app can serve as an “invaluable tool” to collect and analyse user data, alarming given the growing scrutiny of health data since Roe versus Wade was overturned.
Part of the problem is no one wants to be branded a “doomsayer,” according to Ruben Schreurs, chief strategy officer at marketing consultancy Ebiquity.
“Whether it's mobile or Web 3, blockchain or AI, we keep collectively, like a flock of sheep, moving towards the next new thing, while there are some fundamental lingering issues that rip our industry apart,” he says.
From the environmental impact of monetising fossil fuel companies to serving ads for arms manufacturers, the risks that data harvesting practices present to human rights and the opaque algorithms and supply chains that fuel misinformation and fraud — these are dangerous issues, with some simple fixes.
“There are some straightforward decisions to be made that have nothing to do with AI or Web 3, but simply require collective action by those managing media budgets,” says Schreurs. “Actively fund quality journalism, stop buying ‘made for advertising’ rubbish, actively allocate budget to minority-owned media, remove excess carbon emissions from the supply chain. These are just a few examples of simple yet high impact things that must — and can — be done now.”
Industry inaction is a result of complacency, according to Brian O’Kelley, cofounder of digital ad emissions tracking firm Scope3.
“Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth resonates, this idea that it would be really convenient to keep doing things that we are doing because we still make money and it doesn't require taking a risk or taking a chance,” says O’Kelley.
He cites “made for advertising” inventory as an example of an issue with plenty of evidence to show how it is a waste of ad spend and emissions, yet it still appears in media plans.
“Everyone was clamouring for a standard but it didn't actually solve anything or drive action,” says O’Kelley. “There's always another reason, an excuse not to do anything.”
The impact of how these chronic issues in the ad industry negatively impact the user experience is also notably absent from most ad conferences, says Ana Milicevic, principal and cofounder of Sparrow Advisers.
“We rarely stop to consider, what does a regular human think about the hundreds of ads they are bombarded with every day — about disjointed ad experiences, mis-personalised ads that still somehow meet campaign criteria and intrusive formats?” she says.