End of days? Alex Lawson on whether the robots are coming to take our jobs

Our screens are full of dystopian near-future visions right now such as Her, Ex Machina or the excellent Humans. Their robot or AI characters have worked their way into our lives, endangering the very fabric of human society and persona by taking it from us, overthrowing their human creators.

The Boston Consulting Group and Oxford University have this year both published separate papers on the advancement of robotics and the subsequent threat to jobs and careers. They predict by 2025 that a quarter of current roles won’t be performed by humans. 

We’ve seen, even in the last ten years, a seismic shift in technological advances. We now all walk around with supercomputers in our back pockets, ever contactable with the combined knowledge of the world a finger tap away, and as the old joke goes, we use it to like friends’ inane status updates and watch cat videos. 

Technology is also changing the way we plan and buy media. 

Programmatic buying (ad buying using automated technology) has been the media buzzword bandied around relentlessly in recent times with varying levels of understanding. 

There’s no doubt that programmatic is a major deal and on the rise. Nearly every agency network has an in-house trading desk or an affiliation with one of the plethora of third-party suppliers out there. DSPs and SSPs are rising and falling every day and we’re all talking about being able to target so much more effectively, in real time with tailored, individual messaging based on consumer actions or behaviours. 

Here at ZenithOptimedia, we’re predicting that online display advertising will grow globally at a rate of ten percent per year for the next three years (through 2017), video at 24 percent and social at 28 percent, all fuelled by the growth of programmatic. 

European SSP SpotX predicts that by 2020 the European programmatic video market will have jumped from the current €375 million to over €2 billion, a fivefold increase.

This is not a fad, or something that is going to go away soon; it’s reality. But, is this giant leap forward a double-edged sword? Have we been the masters of our own demise, developing automated technological platforms that effectively put ourselves out of a job as many are currently prophesying?  

Well, yes and no.

In the last ten years, the demand for our own media roles to change has also been seismic. We’ve had to change the way we think, approach briefs and develop new skill sets to stay relevant. The days of the specialist are increasingly numbered as we’re required to execute multi-screen, fully integrated solutions that require programmatic implementation of traditional media—thinking that requires an infinite loop approach to consumer experiences and storytelling rather than the traditional linear pathway.   

The rise of programmatic has forced us, once again, to think differently about our approach and offering to clients. 

So why not just replace us all with a bank of computers programmatically implementing orders from one or two human controllers?

The one USP that we have as humans is how our brain, the most powerful and complex natural computer there is, works. A machine can’t see or predict an emerging trend through intuition, flip an accepted theory on its head from recognising insight or challenge the accepted wisdom without data inputs as our top media folk can.  

Our brains allow us to bring creativity of thought, imagination and intuition to our work, our roles, and solutions to complex problems. Machines, while incredibly useful tools that can accelerate these processes, still cannot answer those questions. 

In the near/medium future some of the functional aspects of the media process will be automated as the rise of programmatic continues into traditional media. The need for buying teams placing spots, sending instructions, reporting on performance will be covered by our metallic friends, but a mechanical brain cannot (yet) provide some of the creative and innovative solutions that we see on a daily basis within our current, human media industry. 

So, I’m not seeing a fully automated media industry anytime soon. 


But let’s end with a warning. There’s an old adage from the poker world: ‘If you look around the table and can’t see the sucker … it’s you.’ 

If you can’t see how you add value over and above that of a machine? Well…

  • Alex Lawson is the group business director at ZenithOptimedia Auckland. [email protected]
  • This column was originally published in the November/December edition of NZ Marketing. 

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