subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now
Picture: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic
Picture: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

Recently the world’s most advanced humanoid robot, Ameca, was asked by one of her handlers to tell a joke. Ameca’s joke was about a scientist who, amazed at his robot’s ability, asks it to add up numbers: “What  is two plus two?” he asks. “Four,” says the robot. “Four plus four?” “Eight,” says the robot. “Eight plus eight?” “Sixteen,” says the robot. That was the sum total of the joke — a rather curious effort that had neither a punchline nor an iota of humour. Media reports on the interaction were funnier – suggesting that comedians would not be in peril of losing their jobs to artificial intelligence (AI) any time soon.  

But for marketers, is our future as secure? With the meteoric rise of AI, even within the past six months, what does an AI-immersed future look like for marketers? 

AI has emerged as a transformative force across various industries, and the marketing sector is no exception. With its ability to process and analyse vast amounts of data, AI has revolutionised traditional marketing practices and opened up new opportunities for businesses — and continues to do so.

The past decade’s proliferation of AI technologies and applications was spurred more recently by the internet of things, which expanded AI applications (think machine learning tools, virtual assistants, chatbots). And generative AI (such as ChatGPT) has just this year revealed an astounding vista of opportunity for businesses, marketers and content creators. 

Yet while generative AI is the hottest topic today, it has been regenerative AI that has driven the most significant paradigm shift in AI technology. As Robert Thacker writes for information technology and services company SAP, regenerative AI systems are highly resilient and responsive, given their ability to continuously learn, adapt and improve based on feedback. Marketers need no introduction to this type of AI, which has been integral to marketing processes for some time, being able to collect vast and intricate data, and to learn, interpret and predict customer behaviour, among a host of other capabilities.  

In 2019, the CMO Survey, a futures-focused survey that seeks to improve the value of marketing, found that of the top 341 marketers at US companies, 27% had reported an increase in the implementation of AI or machine learning in their companies’ marketing toolkits. Respondents expected that these technologies would be implemented at even higher levels over the next few years.

IBM’s “Global Tech Investment Predictions Report 2022”, having targeted a sample size of 4001 global business leaders, indicates that the top emerging technologies that are expected to change industries in the next three to five years are what are called digital employees, and generative AI. Digital employees are automated or software robots that are trained to carry out business processes similar to an employee, just with more accuracy and speed. IBM describes these as being able to “independently execute meaningful parts of complex, end-to-end processes, using a range of skills”. 

From advertising to customer service, communications, content marketing, analytics, sales and e-commerce, AI is spreading everywhere. What does this mean for marketers and the discipline of marketing? Will we simply become the technicians who manage our AI-driven marketing processes and digital employees, sitting at arm’s length from our customers while AI does all the work? Will generative AI spit out beautiful and on-brief messaging while marketing’s creatives turn into mere curators adding  the right adjectives and content requirements? As we grow increasingly closer to our customers by knowing more about them than ever before, could we end up moving further away from them, as the powerful AI middleman guides, implements and iterates our marketing strategies? 

AI has revolutionised traditional marketing practices and opened up new opportunities for businesses

Not many marketing leaders are considering this right now. There’s an “AI gold rush” on, says The Drum, a marketing website. Everyone is scrambling to find the AI gold. Diverse brands across multiple sectors are fast experimenting with AI tools in an effort to provide their audiences with more personalised, automated customer service experiences and opportunities for artistic collaboration”. It is expected that global spending on AI will hit the $154bn mark this year, while the value brought to marketing and sales via AI is expected to be more than $2-trillion through increasing revenue or decreasing costs.  

But it’s important to be aware of the limitations. The Marketing AI Institute gathered a group of AI-focused specialists, start-ups and entrepreneurs to provide some valuable advice on the pros and cons of AI. Andre Konig, co-founder of Opentopic, an AI software company, said that despite the progress AI has made, there remain many capabilities that are still fairly simplistic when it comes to real-world application. “AI has some very powerful, proven use cases for marketing and beyond, but it is important that customers, vendors, providers, consultants and everybody else stick to these value-adding, working applications rather than building castles in the sky and setting unrealistic expectations,” he said.  

Or Shani, CEO of Albert, an AI-driven digital advertising solution, cautions that limitations in AI stem from the “degree of precision with which technologists are able to replicate human ‘intelligence’ and decision-making.”  

Crucially, Guillaume Decugis, co-founder of, says that building AI systems to replace humans is incredibly difficult and that the best-case scenario is for AI to rather empower humans. For example,  when AI is used to crunch data for making recommendations, he says, it still provides a lot of value if these recommendations are ‘right’ only 80% or 90% of the time — because humans can quickly determine the correct actions from the incorrect ones.”   

We are undoubtedly experiencing a seminal moment in the emergence of AI for marketing, even while there remain concerns about the future role of the marketer. But perhaps Ameca’s joke can teach us a thing or two: beyond the data, the analytics and the predictions, our marketing strategies and creative messaging requires humanity, insight, understanding and humour. They must strike a chord with our customers and their human quirks. Sometimes what makes a winning message, a glowing brand or an unprecedented marketing success can be hard to define but intrinsically easy to recognise. It's marketing alchemy, not AI. And that, Ameca, is the punchline. 

Dale Hefer is the CEO of the Nedbank Integrated Marketing Council (IMC) Conference.  

The IMC Conference  is an annual marketing event that brings together marketing thought leaders from Africa and around the globe in the drive to position Marketing as Business©. It will take place on September 15 2023 and is Africa’s foremost integrated marketing conference. It is presented in association with the Marketing Association of South Africa, in collaboration with the Association for Communication & Advertising and in partnership with the Direct Marketing Association of South Africa, and is endorsed by the  Interactive Advertising Bureau.  

This year thought leaders will coalesce around the theme “Marketing. Up close and personal”. While this can signify a variety of things, at its essence it is about marketers really, really knowing who their customers are rather than about who they think their customers are or should be.  

For more information on the IMC Conference visit In-person tickets (conference only) are priced at R3,500 (excluding VAT) until May 31 2023. In-person tickets (conference and Effie Awards South Africa) are priced at R4,500 (excluding VAT) until May 31 2023. Limited seats are available. Virtual tickets are priced at R1,499. 

The big take-out:

Beyond the data, analytics and predictions, marketing strategies and creative messaging requires humanity, insight, understanding, humour, and must strike a chord with customers and their human quirks. 

subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.