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Automation improving efficiency of advertising agencies but raises need for employees' upskilling

Several agencies are now adopting AI and automating to simplify, accelerate and maximise their processes. spoke to some agencies to understand how they have adopted automation technology in their agencies and its impact

Last month, Wavemaker launched a new Artificial Intelligence-powered media planning tool, Maximize, to allow planners to create media plans for multiple audiences. It helps them to create an optimised campaign across channels and markets while saving a great deal of time. 

Several agencies are now adopting AI and automating to simplify, accelerate and maximise their processes. This could range from simple functions such as scheduled emails to more complex functions like using AI for media planning. This is changing the way they function, making them more efficient and also helping them save on costs. spoke to some agencies to understand how they have adopted automation technology in their agencies and its impact on their business. 

Dentsu International started automating their processes in India and across the globe a while back. This involves the use of Robotic Process Automation (RPA), a technology that allows bots to execute business processes, and automation of other processes such as delivery, media services, and support functions. 

Anand Bhadkamkar

Anand Bhadkamkar, CEO India, dentsu, feels that the pandemic brought some urgency into the process and helped to push it at a faster pace.

“Automation helps sharpen service delivery because AI and the learnings coming out of data improve the product much better and helps take much more evolved decisions. It makes processes simpler and brings uniformity into the entire solutioning,” he said. 

TheSmallBigIdea (TSBI), a digital and social media marketing agency, utilises automation technology for internal processes like work allocation, report generation and for scheduled posts so that people can focus on other functions that involve creativity and planning.  From a client standpoint, they have a tool called Advanced Content Evaluation (ACE) that uses technology to give stronger content insights. The Online Reputation Management (ORM) or sentiment analysis is also automated.

Harikrishnan Pillai

“Use of data and tech for driving performance is a given, what differentiates our tech is the focus on using data for driving content insights. There is a serious amount of effort that goes into building the content. ACE, our tech product makes the creative process more data driven,” said Harikrishnan Pillai, CEO and Co-Founder, TSBI. 

Though the process of automation began over three years ago at TSBI, Pillai said that the pandemic accelerated the process. “Clients became even more judicious about the money they spent and hence actionable insights became the order of the day,” he said. 

A Forrester Research report predicts that 11% of creative and media agency tasks are expected to be automated by 2023 and 23% of the overall agencies would be automated by 2032. It also predicts that these agencies will lose 11% of their jobs to automation by 2023. 

Kishan Kumar MS

However, Kishan Kumar MS, Chief Growth Officer & South- Head, at Wavemaker, said that they are not automating to cut jobs but only to get better and faster at their work so that the resources can be utilised to do better things. 

Speaking on the changing composition of the agency, he said, “You will see a lot of thinkers and doers. We’ll find more people doing the thinking part. The doing part will be split between people and machines. We believe we would want more and more thinkers to emerge from this.”


Pillai agreed, saying, “It is not that jobs will be lost. Some jobs will become redundant and new avenues will open up. The key to staying relevant will be to upskill. For example, the creative writer will learn to use insights to pave their narrative real time and a designer will use AI to create dynamic designs.”


Dentsu’s Bhadkamkar says the workforce needs to be reoriented or repurposed based on the skill set needed. “We are seeing over the last two to three years that digital is taking the centre stage, and becoming the medium to reach out to consumers. So at this juncture, the investments in people are also from that aspect. So resources with data background or martech background become very important because that's where the solutions are needed; and we also are investing in. I think it's going to be critical for the existing staff to keep learning and evolving,” he said. 

Automation has helped agencies get real-time large data. An analyst only needs to look at that data to provide a sharp creative input. However, Pillai feels that we are a few miles away from machine intelligence replacing human intelligence when it comes to creativity. 

"Machine learning is still largely dependent on the data that is put into the algorithm. It's still an outcome of a thought. Creativity is an outcome that is far less measurable. So till the time robots don't learn how to emote, the human contribution in the creative process cannot be taken away. Technology and data will ease and sharpen the creative process, but humans will still remain crucial," he said.

Bhadkamkar holds the same opinion that technology will aid creativity. “Automation can provide data or inputs to creative ideas and provide much more options or decision points. Ultimately, human interaction and creativity will still remain at the core. The machine learning and technology may be involved, but to develop the final product creativity would be involved,” he said. 

Kumar believes that technology and creativity can go hand in hand and creativity need not bear the brunt of automation. Citing the example of their Cadbury Celebrations TVC for Diwali, he said that it was a beautiful combination of both and technology elevated the message. Though technology helped tell an engaging story, it can’t provide the human touch. 

As more and more agencies automate, there is a fear among agencies of being left behind or becoming obsolete if they do not adapt with time. However, Kumar dismisses this notion, saying that agencies will not by default become obsolete if they do not automate. In fact, he says that automation on its own will not help grow the agency. Instead it is the human capital, and how they automate in an efficient manner that will make the difference.

“So for the agency to grow, automation would be a part of the overall process. Just doing automation for the sake of automation is not going to change anything as long as the product output and the solutions for the clients are not there,” he said. 

Though Bhadkamkar also does not believe that automation is the only solution for agencies to remain relevant, he still feels that they will be left behind if they do not automate their processes. He feels automation is only an enabler and not an end in itself. The end is to get solutions to the clients’ problems. “It's not like a manufacturing unit that you set up the entire system and it just keeps on doing on its own. Because in our agencies, each product or idea is always different. Automation should enable that ideation. So automation would be an aid or an accelerator for that solution,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Pillai believes it is essential that agencies adopt automation, else they will become redundant as they will be seen as an agency that provides decreased efficiency. 

According to Pillai, automation eventually helps clients get a sharper and faster service without the risk of human error. “It allows you to capture a large amount of data in a really small time. It also allows you to dissect the data. This helps answer very pointed questions and benefits both the client and the advertiser,” he said. 

Bhadkamkar says with automation, change management and agility is of prime importance. 

“When you automate certain things, you need to keep evaluating it as technology evolves. There ought to be a process of reviewing from time to time. Automation does not bring rigidity, it helps in agility, and uniqueness and efficiencies,” he said.

Pillai highlights a resistance to change as the key challenge to automation, apart from data piracy and privacy concerns. He also feels that automation might just make people think less and depend a lot more on the machine. "People will get used to getting things at the click of a button. The key is to train the next generation to ask the right questions. We cannot afford to lose that curiosity," he said.

Speaking about the preparedness of Indian agencies to automate their processes, Pillai said that an inflection point is awaited. "In India, we have seen this across categories, technology takes time. But the moment we hit the inflection point, the uptake, the diffusion of innovation is really quick," he said.

Bhadkamkar believes Indian agencies are as ready for automation as any other global agency. “It's no different or no lesser. The challenges definitely would be different, as compared to European or US counterparts, but we are definitely much more likely to automate,” he said. 

However, Kumar differs with this view and feels India is still only scratching the surface and very few agencies are speaking about automation. “We need to look at this from the user's lens and suddenly we will realise that a lot could be done,” he said. 

Though automation eventually helps the agencies become cost-effective, it does involve an initial high cost. Kumar said they conducted the process in phases to manage the risks. They checked out its benefits with planning and then eventually moved into other areas. 

“There is a lot of initial investment required and it is just like any other capital investment. When we began automation, it was very new and I don't think any other agency had automated media functions before. And globally, I have not seen many. But the good part is that Wavemaker was very clear that the industry is moving in this direction and we wanted to be ahead of the curve. And hence, we need to facilitate whatever it takes,” said Kumar. 

Bhadkamkar says agencies need to plan for it as it is an investment they need to make from a long-term perspective. “It might not be just monetary investment, it may also be the time cost involved in that as some resources need to be developed,” he said.

While this can deter independent small agencies from automating themselves, Kumar thinks it's easier for smaller agencies to automate as network agencies have to follow a certain way of working. “Because we want to be sure in whatever we're doing. So it's easier to do it in independent agencies,” he said. 

Pillai says it depends on what problem they are looking to solve through technology. "Technology is a means to a goal. You have to understand what problem you are using to solve through technology and what the long term advantages are. Also tech need not always solve world problems, simple tech can make everyday life in agencies and for brands easy," he said.

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