Robert Sawatzky
Dec 20, 2023

Wesley ter Haar on the difference AI makes to creative content

MediaMonks' bearded boy wonder celebrates the power of creative scale through AI while looking back at his company's humble roots inspired by the Wu-Tang Clan.

Wesley ter Haar on the difference AI makes to creative content

Wesley ter Haar founded MediaMonks in the Netherlands more than 20 years ago with a bunch of friends who wanted to do cool things online. A couple of decades later, with the help of arguably the advertising industry's most influential executive, that company now has about 8,200 employees in 57 locations in 32 global markets.

That's down from the roughly 9,100 employees parent company S4 Capital had at its peak in 2022. Admittedly, 2023 has been a rough year for the company, hit hard by the slowdown in the global technology sector and its recent quarterly results have reflected this. 

However, the company's founding 'monk', who once took inspiration from Shaolin culture and hip hop collective Wu-Tang Clan around their shared intense focus and dedication to craft, has now become an evangelist for a new kind of scale, one powered by artificial intelligence. Ter Haar outspokenly argues that AI delivers on the original promise of digital, putting him at odds with critics who fear a tidal wave of mediocre content churned out by algorithms.

Campaign Asia-Pacific recently caught up with ter Haar while on a recent trip to Korea, where he preached publicly about the benefits AI brings to creative work. 

Here's our edited conversation:

You’ve been actively speaking out on generative AI. What’s the message you want to put forward?

There’s quite a lot of anxiety in our industry in general around it and I feel it's driving a defensive mindset. Whereas I look at it as a reality. It's pretty clear that the technology, while not perfect, is already quite powerful. And you can project how impactful it will be for our industry, which revolves around relatively traditional commercial models around time and materials, logged hours for people. That won't be the typical commercial model a few years from now.  

So it's about looking at what this change means and being excited about the opportunity that AI creates. Because for me, it really gets to the original promise of the digital advertising ecosystem with personalisation and massive scale in real time and in context. All of that promise has never really been livable. It’s the first time we've been able to work at the speed and scale that you need in digital in a high-quality, high-craft way.  

You mention the benefit of scale in using AI for creative work. Some argue that alongside that we can also expect AI to churn out more mediocre work. What are your expectations for AI-led creative output?

When it comes to mediocre work I’d argue a lot of people produce mediocre work too. When technology encroaches on an area of human expertise, we get really defensive and tend to balance out AI with the very best work that is done by people in an area of industry expertise. Using AI is about the promise of speed, scale, and smarter marketing with predictive modeling on your data set, generating deeper or more unexpected insights from data sets.  But the quality of the work is really dependent on how a team or an ECD decides to use it.  

It’s really easy to skate on top of it, stay on the surface and do a bit of prompt engineering versus really thinking about the future of the way we do the work. I can see massive changes in our team already in all parts of the business in how we work and that will only become more and more different as we go through next year. If you do that well, the work will only be better than you're able to produce now and isn’t competitive to humans—maybe in three to 10 years it will be—but currently it’s humans using it. 

Can you elaborate on some of these massive changes to how your teams work with AI?

A lot of the local workflow changes are focused on systemic issues like the ten steps to get a piece of work out the door. It’s maybe become a little less organic, but because of that people are able to collaborate in different ways. The ability to do more output in a shorter time frame, especially in our studio team, is really interesting. A lot of the translation work we do is heavily supported by machines. Our photography team has still physical production, but also now has a synthetic production pipeline [meaning no need for travel or expensive sets] which is completely different from how we used to produce the work. So there is there's a lot of reinvention and invention. 

And it's pretty amazing to see massive amounts of additional output without lowering cost. A lot of our clients are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They need to do more stuff, but they have less budget. For this, AI is massive. 

How does AI make you a better creative agency? By doing more with less or is it more than that?

More with less, but also more native to digital. The last decade of digital has been about optimisation. You still broadly work from a traditional idea, a single big campaign, that still often looks and feels like a piece of traditional film. And then you take that and try to get the most value out of that creative idea. It’s still quite traditional and very incremental.  

AI opens up a different way to think about creativity; like why we only focus on one ‘right’ idea? Why aren't we doing five or ten? We call it experimental learning, but the reality is that there is massive, untapped value in every client’s media buy.  Because even though we’re all professionals, clients and agencies still do a lot of guessing about which idea will work best. Then we might try to couch that guessing in some research. But anytime we do four, five or six different creative ideas in-market, unexpected performance happens. I think AI opens that up completely.  

Are clients more excited about the content or the cost savings from using AI?

Honestly, it differs. Many of our big enterprise clients are still risk averse and are still piloting early in the process, but there are a few who understand the value and fundamental shift and want to get AI working relatively fast.  

I've actually been quite positively surprised that most clients see AI as a way to do more rather than pay less for the same. But the idea that you don't need to spend a lot more money to get potentially a lot more output is not an unfair ask, to be honest. 

In longtail ecommerce, for example, our clients use massive amounts of content to sell on their own environments and with external partners and vendors. And the stat that keeps coming up is that 70 or 80% of that content isn't optimised. For instance, we have a client in the US selling products via Walmart and Target to very different demographics, but up until now they've used the same imagery and the same copy because they just haven't had either the headcount or the budget or the bandwidth or combination of those three to do it the way it should be.

So a lot of improvements for clients I would call ‘white glove long tail’, the ability to do the best version of something everywhere in the ecosystem. Relatively soon this should be—and for some already is—table stakes. Then, if you can connect that to real-time data and media activations at higher speeds, you start to see what the next slide in digital advertising will be. It will be more generative. It will be more predictive. It will be done more in real time.  

Although tech is advancing it hasn’t been a great year for the sector. Earlier this year at CES you predicted 2023 would be tough. What impact have economic challenges had on your business?

We definitely see compression in specific categories like technology which has had a tough year. China has been tough the last few years. Advertising marketing spend is a specific part of client budgets and a relatively fixed percentage of gross domestic product. So economic pressures tend to translate quite directly to marketing spend. We're weighted heavily in, in technology, our client base is around 60% technology, so we've probably had an outsized impact. But I think this is still really a strength for us because it has put us on the front lines of AI conversations and most of the big tech companies are gearing up to return to decent growth percentages. But we’re on top of the waves of the economy, so if it goes down we tend to have some struggles as well. 

What is the outlook for you here in Asia?

Media Monks has a presence in China, India, Australia, Singapore, Japan and Korea. Here in Korea we're seeing a lot of opportunity for name brands to surf the Korean wave outside of Korea. So a lot of our role is helping Asian brands enter into other parts of the world. That same offering is really strong in China now, whereas when we started it was more about Western brands entering China. Now it's more about helping Chinese enter into Europe and the US and even a bit of Latin America. So I think it speaks to the cultural strength of Asia as more of an export than historically. There’s lots of really good local market work too but our outlier opportunity is really about helping international growth for local clients. 

Enough of the future, let’s look to the past. You're a founder of Media Monks. What’s your origin story?

The origin story is I dropped out of high school with a few friends. We just wanted to do cool stuff online and that then turned into quite a big business. Everyone asks: “Was there a master plan?” I was 21. Not only did I have no master plan, but I had zero plans.  

It was 2001, which wasn't the best moment to start anything digital. We called it MediaMonks Interactive Art, which was a celebration of the channel and reflected an excitement about the creative opportunities of a relatively new medium. I think we've always managed to keep than in our DNA. You can see it play out now with AI. Instead of fearfulness we as a team are running at it fast and first. When we started the company, we believed in very high craft and quality. There was never a plan to be as big as we are now, but there we wanted to have a more meaningful impact on the industry. So it's been really meaningful get to this level of scale. And of course, S4 and Sir Martin just as elevated our ability to make friends and lead trends instead of just being a follower which has been really exciting for everyone.  

And where did the name ‘Media Monks’ come from? 

There a PR version and a real version to that. We were obsessed by 1970s Kung Fu movies in combination with the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album 36 Chambers, because that was a massive celebration of Shaolin culture. It was about dedication and training needed to do something at such a high level of expertise. We saw that as a great reflection of the amazing things we wanted to do through dedication, effort, training and repetition.  

Then there's the also the PR story around a Dutch saying which says ‘a monk’s work is never done’, which again is a reflection on attention to detail. So it works on a couple of levels, but it really is about 70s Kung Fu movies and the Wu-Tang Clan. 

Campaign Asia

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