One of my very first jobs was as a recording engineer. Working with musicians, I set up and operated the complex recording equipment that's used to capture, shape and mix the sounds of an album. After working with many artists, I noted there were two kinds of musician: those who wanted to spend more time sitting behind the workstation pulling the knobs and levers until something was "perfect," and those who just wanted to play and be "in the zone." More often than not, the musicians who focused on the playing had the best takes and achieved the best results.
Since those early days, my engineering career has taken me from working in music to financial services and now to marketing and advertising. However, there's always been a constant—no matter the industry, the focus must always be on how best to unlock creativity. And the creativity comes best from being in the zone.
This may seem an odd idea coming from someone of a decidedly technical bent who holds a doctorate in machine learning. However, as marketing continues to be disrupted by technology, it will be critical for brands to get "in the zone" for peak creativity and not get lost in the tech weeds. This will be more important than ever as we enter the AI era, where machine learning can inspire human learning and we will have access to exponentially more powerful tools for us to use as we create.
Understanding the Zone
Typically associated with athletics, the term "being in the zone" is just as important for creativity. The zone is a mental state of supreme focus in the present moment that helps you perform at your peak potential. With your attention absorbed into the here and now, your mind only processes the thoughts and images that help you execute your task successfully. This immersion into the zone lets you trust your skills and react without worry, doubt or fear about results.
The mantra of the AI era is truly this: "Anything that can be automated, will be." So, does that mean the machines are taking over? In some cases, yes. While the repetitive and rote jobs will indeed be automated, I believe there will be many new jobs created. Over time, it will be less about the "artificial" intelligence and more about "augmenting" our intelligence. The jobs of the future will leverage the things that can't be automated—things such as imagination, creativity and strategy. That's exactly the kind of work that most people in the marketing, media and advertising industry truly want to do.
Inspiration From Aviation
So how can we get back to focusing on the creative? I believe that the aviation industry provides an example of a great framework for us to get in the zone. For instance, what are the most important activities that the pilot needs to do? Taking off and landing the plane (I'm assuming safety as a given). Some people may ask, "What about flying the plane?" At first glance, that may seem like a key activity. Yet the reality is that planes today are incredibly automated. When there is turbulence or zero visibility, do you think the pilot is pulling knobs and levers? No way—the plane is a precision instrument with machines making millions of calculations per second. The pilot oversees the machines, but the real focus is on taking off and landing that plane. That's where the pilot's human skills, experience and judgment are key and can't be replicated. That's the zone.
Now let's apply this framework to marketing. I believe the best place to unlock creativity for marketing is in the zone of take-off and landing. The take-off phase is all about setting the strategic objectives and identifying the key results that are important to driving your business. This is all about asking the right questions. This is about using AI-driven insights to understand audience behavior so you can see the patterns in the data and discover a competitive advantage. This is all about the creative and crafting the right message for the right audience. This is where you begin doing audience planning to ensure that you are set up for success with your customers.
Once you are done with audience planning, you are ready to launch your campaign. This is where the machine takes over and the campaign is in flight. This is where AI can be harnessed to best find that audience. Whether it's a brand or direct response campaign, there is no way that people can find these audiences across the media ecosystem better than a machine. This is where machine learning truly is like a bloodhound—the model will not stop until it finds the outcome. This is the benefit of using programmatic technology to perform audience buying. It's the precision instrument making millions of calculations per second. If this is set up properly, you don't need to spend your time tinkering with the knobs and levers.
After the campaign is done, it's time for landing the plane—or, in this case, the campaign. This is all about measurement, validation and analytics. Did your campaign reach the right audience? Did your creative and message engage the consumer? Were all of your KPIs calibrated properly so they would work in unison? Were you both efficient and effective? And most importantly: Did you land the business outcome that you intended?
We are just at the beginning of the AI era, and AI will transform every industry, every company and every customer experience. Now more than ever, brands need to get in the zone and focus on unlocking creativity.