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Embracing the human touch in the age of AI

A chain link split in half reveals sets of organic and artificial hands exchanging a blue circle.

Illustration by Dave Cole / Getty / The Current

Culturally, we are clearly having an awakening about the potential of artificial intelligence (AI), and what its evolution could mean for all aspects of our world — including and especially the human experience. I know this not just from reading headlines and listening to recent earnings reports, but also from looking at my own AI-derived data. In February of 2023 alone, The Trade Desk’s AI lab found there was a 300 percent increase in the number of media headlines about the technology.

But in my funny little corner of the world, where we talk about programmatic media buying all day, a conversation about AI is not all that new. The Trade Desk was founded and built to be an open platform that brings AI and humans together in service of the world’s leading advertisers and agencies. In that light, I would love to share some experiences with you about what we’ve learned on that journey — particularly when it comes to the debate around the roles of humans and machines, where in the world of media buying, both parties have gained immense power and potential in recent years. Spoiler: Both humans and machines will continue to play essential roles to fulfill the promise of what the open internet has to offer.

The power of human collaboration

I’ll start with a warning, but maybe not the kind of warning you are used to reading in AI think pieces: AI is not magic, and believing that it is magic is potentially harmful. This is especially important because AI is currently being marketed that way. Right now, many big technology companies are contributing to a misperception that AI is this mystical one-size-fits-all solution for everything. And the sales pitch is a little bit like “My AI is smarter than your AI, so I have a magic button and if you push it, everything will work.”

The danger of this approach is it’s sacrificing the best of human capacity to machines, often owned by other parties. Consider this: the more decision-making power you hand over to another party, the more you must trust and understand their intentions.

From my perspective, while AI technology offers unprecedented opportunities for innovation and efficiency, it is essential to view it as a tool and enabler of human potential, rather than a magic button, or an all-encompassing solution. It is also essential to include AI in the requirements of transparency, trust, and openness, on which we continue to judge any party who we trust to make decisions for us. A human and AI approach is optimal, as we are in the business of communicating and influencing other humans, who seek out authenticity as a principal consideration for where they will give attention and trust.

The only way to do this is through an ongoing synergy between humans and AI that complements one another’s strengths, and continually adapts to evolving circumstances. While AI can process vast amounts of data and make predictions at lightning-fast speeds, humans possess unique qualities such as originality, critical decision-making, and hypothesis creation. Humans also possess the potential for the most authentic artistic expression.

On the note of artistic expression, while AI’s potential in creative executions is widely discussed, AI currently has an even larger role in media buying, which I foresee will expand significantly in the near term. Much of “planning” and “optimization” in media buying can be summed up as our attempt to predict reactions and model consumer behaviors to deliver the most relevant ads to them. And while we currently do a pretty good job of it, there is still so much untapped potential. According to SMI, more media buying is done directly, meaning with no auto-optimizations at all, than is done in search, social, or programmatic, which are known for being rich with auto-optimizations. On The Trade Desk’s platform, our goal is for media buyers to interact with AI constantly while planning, optimizing, and measuring campaigns, to see new levels of efficiency and effectiveness. Often this means our AI is working to process heaps of data and surface insights, which we apply on occasion to help buyers make informed decisions themselves.

"A human and AI approach is optimal, as we are in the business of communicating and influencing other humans, who seek out authenticity as a principal consideration for where they will give attention and trust."

Reaching Gen Z

As Gen Z grows into the generation with the most purchase power, they will do so in a world where AI will be everywhere — from their favorite retailer giving them personalized shopping suggestions to the autonomous vehicles they drive. Already, most AI researchers are predicting that the majority of content will be AI-generated by 2025. Now, I’m not a Gen Zer. I’m not even a millennial. I’m what they call a “geriatric millennial.” Still, I know from working with them every day that I hold one of the main qualities that encapsulates the Gen Z generation, and that is what I would call their “bullshit barometer.”

Gen Z is always looking to decipher between what is fake and what is real. In other words, they are expert authenticity detectors, because they’ve grown up in an age of technology-enabled media and persuasion. If you want to reach these increasingly powerful consumers, whose tastes will create the next generation of leading and differentiated brands, you must constantly seek to benefit from the best that AI and humans have to offer. You must create truly authentic creative expressions, and you must plan and execute media that reaches customers and potential customers in optimal moments across the open internet.

In part, I know this from asking the experts. We went around and surveyed some Gen Z employees at The Trade Desk on AI’s potential impact on marketing, and here is some of what they said:

  • AI technology should be viewed as a partner or a bonus, not as a replacement for human input. AI has the capacity to generate innovative ideas and streamline mundane tasks, freeing up time for marketers to focus on creativity and ideation. By working alongside AI, marketers can harness its capabilities to work smarter and more efficiently. However, it is essential to maintain a balance, ensuring that AI is used as a tool for inspiration rather than dictating strategies or ideas.
  • It’s imperative to vet AI technologies for ethical concerns when it comes to the data sets used to train them. This ensures that AI-driven marketing strategies align with a company’s vision, mission, and goals, something that should not fall out of consideration especially with the speed at which the technology is evolving.
  • Embracing AI as part of a creative and scientific process brings artistry and human connection to the forefront, reminding us that the core purpose of marketing is to connect with individuals. There is something raw and artistic about that.

So in a moment of speculation, worry, and wonder about the potential of AI, I hope that these thoughts from my funny little corner of the world, in programmatic media buying, have offered a window into what it has been like for The Trade Desk and our clients to interact with this technology for over a decade. My experience has been that when it is viewed as a tool to unlock human potential and considered through a lens of human values and critical thought, the potential is truly phenomenal. And we are just getting started.