The value of differentiation will only increase as more brands follow the AI herd

There are far more pressing issues marketers should be turning their attention to before getting distracted by AI.

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I went back to work this week after eight busy weeks of paternity leave. I had to speak at the ADMA conference in Sydney. ADMA are one of the most influential marketing bodies in Australia and its Global Forum, which Scott Galloway opened and I had the honour of concluding, is a Very Big Deal.

I was trying to be on my best behaviour. I have not exactly had two months of rest but I’ve been away from the marketing scene and was hoping this pause would translate into a more patient, positive reflection on our discipline. But as I was being introduced by the ever-genial Steve Brennen from Zip, he shared an official count of the most mentioned words across the day’s talks. At the top of the list, smashing all others, was AI with some 300 mentions on stage.

It was 4pm. The event started at 9am. And as I waited to walk on I subtracted the tea breaks and lunch slot and calculated that AI had been mentioned an average of once a minute. Just as I was redoing my maths to check such things were even possible I heard the words… “Mmmmmark Ritson” and I was up on stage and heading downhill from there.

It’s a year since everyone blew their respective loads over the metaverse. Remember? McKinsey said it would be worth “$4 to $5 trillion by 2030”. A bazillion experts suddenly showed up on your feed offering expert advice on how to apply the metaverse to your plumbing business.

In most cases, the big global brands are experimenting with AI for the same reasons they experimented with the techno porn pinup of 2021 – NFTs. Ageing CMOs don’t want to look out of touch.

Twelve months later and no one – not even Meta – is still excited about it. Something I pointed out at the ADMA conference much to the delight of the Meta table. And yet here we are again all gimlet-eyed and paneled up over the next shiny shiny shit. McKinsey is estimating AI will be worth “$2.6 to $4.4 trillion”. And another horde of marketing experts have sprung up, this time with long-standing expertise in AI and how to navigate your way through it. Which is odd. Because surely the point of AI is that we don’t need anyone to help navigate our way through it? It’s literally going to do that itself? Right?

Meanwhile, marketers cannot do the basic job of marketing well enough. More than half the briefs that brands give their agencies this year will be devoid of any actual strategic objectives and more than 60% won’t be clear on who they are even targeting. Dwell on those very un-artificial numbers for a moment. It’s not just that we are distracted by toys. It’s that they distract us at the expense of getting the real job done.

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Everyone is climbing over everyone else to get AI into every sentence, every campaign and every new product. Occasionally this is because generative AI does have some interesting applications for marketing work. Implications which will surely grow in impact and importance over time. But it’s mostly because marketers are too hooked on the pornography of change and too bored with the real challenges of marketing.

In most cases, the big global brands are experimenting with AI for the same reasons they experimented with the techno porn pinup of 2021 – NFTs. Ageing CMOs don’t want to look out of touch. And the more out of touch they are, the more desperate they become. So they cover their asses with much heralded, under-thought, ultimately pointless new tech ventures. If anyone upstairs in the Big Room asks what we doing about 3D printing / NFTs / the metaverse and now AI – the exec in question is poised, ready to fling techno horseshit at a moment’s notice in any and all directions.

Coke has a vending machine powered by AI to something something personalised advertising and something something something new operational efficiencies. Nike uses AI to something something future trends and something something innovate new products. Kohler uses AI in its intelligent toilet so you can ask it questions about the weather or, presumably, your shits while you squeeze them out.

Kohler’s Numi 2.0 smart toilet. Where do I shit into it? Source:

But that is not the worst of it. We all expected marketers to adopt AI despite no clear benefit to their organisations or brands. It’s how marketers roll when tech turns up at the party. But there are also companies jumping on the AI bandwagon despite it clearly coming at the expense of their brand. Such is AI’s hold over modern business thinking.

Take LinkedIn as a perfect example. The most famous social network in business is now testing new AI functionality that allows managers to use generative artificial intelligence to write posts on the platform. You read that right. A user can bang out the first quick 30 words of a post and then a vacuous, generic machine takes over and adds the remaining 20 or 30 paragraphs and publishes the post. Brilliant! What could possibly go wrong?

“When it comes to posting on LinkedIn, we’ve heard that you generally know what you want to say,” explained LinkedIn’s director of product, Keren Baruch. “But going from a great idea to a full-fledged post can be challenging and time-consuming. So, we’re starting to test a way for members to use generative AI directly within the LinkedIn share box.”

When they invent a zigging machine, the value of a zag goes into the stratosphere.

Surely at some level of LinkedIn’s executive hierarchy this was flagged as an existential threat? Even a false allegation that your platform is populated by bots is a dangerous, possibly fatal situation. But having a company spend time and money to develop a tool to enable human users to step out of their own social posts boggles the mind. And then to openly promote this tool to the world boggles it to another level.

LinkedIn! You are a social network! Fuck me! The clue is in the name! The actual humans on your platform are annoying enough. Imagine how much worse it will be when 30% of the posts we read are written by a soul-less algorithm trying to replicate them?

Brands’ biggest AI opportunity is in making customers believe the bullshit

If you’d asked me last week for a company in an unassailable competitive position I would have said LinkedIn. Not anymore. Because the one great threat the company must somehow survive is… LinkedIn and its own executives who follow the techno-herd of animatronic sheep toward an AI future without realising that it’s a path that runs against the company’s brand, audience engagement and revenue stream.

There is a word for the ability to ignore the herd, especially when it is baaing at its peak. It is called ‘differentiation’. And as more and more brands adopt more and more identikit, replicatory AI approaches its value will increase all the more. When they invent a zigging machine, the value of a zag goes into the stratosphere.

“I have some news,” an unruffled Steve Brennen announced to the ADMA audience as I was being helped, James Brown style, from the stage. AI is no longer our most mentioned word of the day. A late entry – “fuck” – has overtaken it.

Mark Ritson teaches on the Mini MBA in Marketing and Mini MBA in Brand Management. Places are still available for both September courses.