Creative Salon speakers to Gill  Huber, Managing Partner of Oystercatchers, on whether AI automation revolutionise the agency selection process, and disrupt the intermediary model?

Pitch processes are becoming longer, more onerous and consequently leading to agencies being far more selective about what they pitch for. Is Artificial intelligence (AI) automation, therefore, the answer?

We’re already seeing the emergence of AI-powered B2B marketplaces, which serve as match-making services pairing buyer’s needs with supplier offers. But the agency selection process, as we know it, will that become shorter, faster or better with generative AI? Industry insiders are already talking about AI handling procurement processes, whereby AI bots can crawl digitised procurement platforms and do the heavy lifting in a fraction of the time. And as marketers continue to ask for speed, much more than sizzle or showmanship, generative AI could probably help evolve how current pitch practices are run and maybe even drive greater impact.

Will AI reshape the agency selection process?

If AI can optimise existing procedures, introduce innovative solutions, and streamline operations, how will it meet the demands of the current pitch process?

“Some procurement teams may integrate AI into their commercial and pricing models,” says Gill Huber, managing partner of Oystercatchers. “For example, allowing them more time and productivity to focus on elements which are potentially more nuanced and require human instincts and consensus rather than AI interpretation.”

Procurement teams will be able to improve efficiency and productivity in directing attention towards tasks that demand human judgement and consensus, while AI takes care of the more routine aspects of procurement.

Michelle Whelan, CEO of VMLY&R Commerce, highlights the benefits of AI efficiency, noting how it can be used to summarise things like long white papers or do research and pull out the key findings. “It’s just so wonderful to be able to have these tools that would traditionally have taken hours to do stuff,” she explains. “Now it just takes minutes. This should allow us to use our time for innovating, learning, and thinking about how we give our clients more value as opposed to getting wrapped up in the admin of it all.”

Generative AI applications speed up time-consuming tasks like research and concept illustration, but the chemistry between clients and agencies remains crucial. Michael Sugden, VCCP CEO, highlights AI’s impact on the pitch process and how it hasn’t disrupted the intermediary model quite yet. He explains, “the most important part of any pitch is the chemistry between a client and agency. Ultimately intermediaries are matchmakers and I don’t see this being replaced by AI any time soon.”

Ben Richards, chief experience officer at VMLY&R Commerce, recognizes the historical presence of AI in the creative ecosystem, stating, “Photoshop is one of the earliest forms of distributed AI with content-aware fill and other tools like Magic Wand that have become more explicit now because AI has got more of an interface.” He adds, “Our core product is connecting with humans. We absolutely throw ourselves at the new tools to make the work better.”

Procurement will shift towards infrastructure-focused automation, moving away from traditional pricing models, notes Pablo Bertero, chief content officer at Wunderman Thompson.

He stresses the importance of understanding AI’s impact and says, “While procurement teams may still inquire about the costs of banners or ads, the focus will shift towards establishing the necessary infrastructure first, with the printing process becoming automated. This transition will move away from asset-based pricing or retainer models and towards a setup-oriented approach.”

Impact on agency competition

The impact of AI is meanwhile reshaping competition amongst agencies and necessitating adaptation and investment. In fact, holding company chiefs have been bullish on AI’s potential to drive productivity and efficiency at their businesses. WPP CEO Mark Read recently announced a partnership with Nvidia, an American company that makes specialist AI chips, to create the “future of advertising.” Publicis CEO Arthur Sadoun has been talking about AI playing a role in optimising media planning and buying. IPG CEO Philippe Krakowsky has launched an AI Steering Committee that is working on incubators and labs with its large technology partners on AI projects. On a recent earnings call, Omnicom CEO John Wren said the agency network was the second company, behind Disney, to enter an enterprise relationship with Microsoft, which gives it a dedicated Azure cloud environment with secure access to the latest OpenAI GPT models.

Bertero from Wunderman Thompson adds that the use of AI will unlock a new level of brand experience for both clients and consumers.

Larissa Vince, CEO of TBWA London, acknowledges the need for upskilling in agencies to stay ahead of these new innovations. At TBWA, an innovation hub is in place to keep the collective informed about technological advancements and assist both the employees and clients in leveraging them.

“The quality of strategic and creative thinking as well as team chemistry would still be more important,” she adds. “These things are absolutely fantastic for creativity. They’re simply more intriguing, distinct, and novel tools to enhance creative thinking.”

Agencies that quickly embrace the technology will gain a competitive advantage in the early stages, says Whelan from VMLY&R. “At this point in time, it is in its very early stages. People are just starting to learn how to use it and expedite the delivery of higher quality outputs within shorter timeframes, although this does not necessarily mean it will be cheaper.”

By demonstrating their ability to leverage this technology, agencies can create a distinct and advantageous position for their clients, gaining a competitive advantage in the evolving landscape of competition, adds Huber from Oystercatchers. “For agencies, who are able to invest in this space, AI could enhance how they prepare for the selection process in many ways, such as the development of automated assets at scale, granular levels of personalisation, and in-depth data analysis.”

Richards from VMLY&R Commerce advocates for integrating AI systems effectively into agency processes and leveraging predictive analysis to make informed assessments.

“On a job level, your role will not be replaced by a computer,” he explains. “It will be taken over by someone who knows how to use a computer. Personally, I am an advocate of AI and its positive potential. It will not destroy the planet; instead, it will contribute to sustainability.”

Limitations of AI in agency selection

According to Paul Phillips, managing director at AAR, AI falls short in replacing the human factors involved in agency selection. It lacks the capability to understand relationships, cultural dynamics, and important agency dynamics. “We are trusted advisors who consult to marketers and agency leaders across a wide variety of the marketing, communications, and business challenges that they are trying to address. This goes beyond what AI can successfully replicate.”

Whelan from VMLY&R highlights the vital role of intermediaries in bridging communication gaps and understanding client needs, which AI currently struggles with, due to its limited comprehension of real-time data and the fast-paced business environment.

The instincts and experience of intermediaries are crucial for evaluating agencies and delivering exceptional work.

Huber from Oystercatchers concludes by emphasising the need for intermediaries to proactively develop their AI knowledge and skills to remain valuable partners. “Staying updated with AI developments ensures that AI recommendations serve the best interests of clients and agencies, mirroring the efforts made by brands and agencies themselves.”

This article was originally published on Creative Salon.