Here’s how marketers are forging the future with artificial intelligence

Jen Robinson

Artificial intelligence could change everything we know, in ways we can’t yet imagine. It has yet to deliver on that promise, however – or peril, depending on your point of view. With the way we live and work poised for transformation, how should businesses be thinking about emerging technologies, and acting to use them?

Bloomberg Technology’s global Apple and consumer technology reporter Mark Gurman explored these questions with a trio of top executives last week, at a lunch event for marketing leaders held at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. This was the fourth in a continuing series of technology-focused programs designed to share intelligence among brand marketers. (You’ll find recaps of the first three, which took place in San Francisco, Boston and New York, linked below.)

Bloomberg Media Group hosted marketing executives from across industries at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. The event was the fourth in an ongoing series focused on media, marketing and tech. Photo: Susanne Stansell for Bloomberg

The expert panel represented three very different sides of the technology equation. Craig Johnson, Group Account Director at Omnicom Media Group, shared insight from his work with chip-maker Intel, whose products are ubiquitous yet unseen. Brittany Mitchell, Marketing Manager for State Farm, offered wisdom from a company that interacts with consumers daily. And Michael Petersen, Senior Director, Global Product Marketing, Zebra Technologies, provided a view from the intersection of physical and digital information.

Together, the three cover technology from hardware to software to service – generating a wide-ranging conversation centered on how marketers and business leaders can navigate a time when extraordinary change seems both imminent and incremental.

Bloomberg Media Group Technology Practice Lead Michelle Evers welcomes guests as the panel looks on. L-R: Evers; Mark Gurman, Global Apple and Consumer Technology Reporter, Bloomberg News, Moderator; Craig Johnson, Group Account Director, Omnicom Media Group; Brittany Mitchell, Marketing Manager, State Farm; Michael Petersen, Senior Director, Global Product Marketing, Zebra Technologies. Photo: Susanne Stansell for Bloomberg

A strategic way to do that, said Mitchell, is to find the right environments in which to test new technologies. In the insurance industry, she said, AI-powered chat bots might seem like a great solution for getting consumers information they need on products or claims – yet automating what can be nuanced information could also present serious risk. “We want to be very clear about the technology, its risks and its potential, before we jump into ‘here’s this bot,’” she said.

Working across the company could provide a solution. State Farm also has a program, Neighborhood of Good, which connects people to local volunteer opportunities when they choose category of interest and enter a zip code. “Maybe we can have a chat bot in that space, and learn what your needs are, what your concerns are,” Mitchell said. That way, the company can try something new and work out any bugs with little risk to the business.

Honing in on the benefits a particular technology offers, rather than the specifics of how it works, is another fruitful approach, said Omnicom’s Johnson. “Intel pushes us to be there at the forefront of these discussions,” he said. “I’m sure you’ve seen the drone shows done for the Olympics – they do a great job themselves.”

That kind of storytelling helps people envision what the future could look like – while bringing to life what’s amazing about the present moment. “It’s really about what the technology can do for them – either the enterprise or a consumer – maybe not today, but tomorrow,” Johnson added. “It’s about the solution it can provide for you.”

There’s no doubt the future will be digital; everything that can be digitized will be digitized. That, in turn, opens up new worlds of possibility, said Zebra Technologies’ Petersen. His company has been on the leading edge of digitizing information for decades, starting with the barcode scanners that allowed businesses to track pricing and inventory in a completely new way.

“That led us into the world of AI,” he said, because AI systems essentially do the same thing: create new opportunities based on a newly available understanding of real-world information. “The majority of what we see is all about just drive and efficiency,” Petersen added.

The Zebra technology used by the National Football League is an example. The company’s sensors are now in player’s shoulder pads, helmets, even the football itself – affording real-time information that feeds into online and television coverage of games.

But what’s really interesting, Petersen said, is the way that information can now be used. Competitive information can now be shared with each team across the league in real time. “It’s taking that information and converting it to useable predictive information to make better business decisions,” he said.

Bloomberg’s Gurman added, “That’s really what the power of AI is – being able to apply it to things that have been going on for years, making it easier and simpler for both companies and consumers.”

Looking at AI, augmented reality and other emerging technologies through that lens makes business sense, State Farm’s Mitchell said. “You always have to think about what the consumer needs, where you can you solve a problem, what promises are you making. You still need people behind the technology – and those people need to use common sense and empathy.”

The promise of the future isn’t yet clear with AI, the panelists agreed. “We all have a hard time predicting what 20 or 30 years will look like,” Petersen said. “We are in this constant state of flux and metamorphosis in tech, and as soon as something leaves, something else tends to go fill its space.”

“It’s all of our jobs to be thinking about it,” added Johnson. “The reality is that it’s a responsibility of the business and its shareholders to go figure this stuff out, and have a strategic plan that capitalizes on the technology and doesn’t make a mistake.”

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San Francisco: Here’s how technology marketing leaders are competing in the (new) new normal

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