Artificial Intelligence: Suddenly everything is different

AI is fundamentally changing our working world and society. While some are moving too fast, others are discovering new potential and evolving. Tobias Zehnder, Co-Founder and Partner at Webrepublic, describes how he experiences these changes. And explains why they make him feel very positive, despite many open construction sites.

Sitting in my office on a Tuesday afternoon, I realize that our AI future tastes good and refreshing, but also surprisingly unspectacular and almost harmless. This is not the realization after weeks of research, but simply due to enjoying a can of Vivi Nova. Vivi Nova? That's probably the first drink in Europe that was completely invented, named and then bottled and distributed by the competent hands and minds of Vivi Kola. Now the cans are in Migros, proclaiming their message: AI has come to stay. AI can text, AI can design, and AI can even dream up a "100% natural and refreshing soda with the juice of the Haskap berry and nutritional fiber from the chicory root." The label, on the other hand, comes from Midjourney, where the graphic designer has also been kindly spared.

Was it ChatGPT's idea to order the label design directly from Midjourney and does the AI want to improve its own margin targets? And what if it also organizes the logistics, calls its robot friends, does the accounting itself and commissions virtual influencers with the advertising? Within a year, Eglisau will become an international AI drinks hub, and thanks to its proximity to the airport and the Rhine, the robot empire will have no limits. The last people in Eglisau in 2025 will be lonely winegrowers who, in addition to the giga-nova factories, will preserve vines from the effects of the climate crisis as a hobby and fish between container ships for self-sufficiency. But of course, it won't get that far.

Finally we can again future

But what I particularly like about the case and the current intensive discussion about AI is that we can finally talk about the future again. To be honest, apart from all the excessive demands that wash over me almost daily from all the AI news, the dominant feeling at the moment is a very positive one: a new age of magic is opening up. The door may only be slightly open at first, but it's clearly sparkling and glittering in the other room.

"Will jobs change? Yes, of course. Will certain jobs no longer be needed at all? Logical."

Whether we like it or not, in the coming years we will witness a social upheaval of the kind previously seen with industrialization and digitization. And thanks to our still fresh experience with digitization, we have also learned to take a somewhat more critical approach - alongside new opportunities, the new risks are also being widely discussed, and rightly so: Hope for a cure for diseases here, the prospect of unemployment for millions of people there. And we are right in the middle of it.

Noble restraint is not appropriate, however, because the cat is out of the bag. Of course, it's worth thinking about what an ethical approach to AI in society and business should look like, but I strongly advise everyone and anyone to gather their own initial experiences now and today. Because the others won't wait: neither criminals, for whom AI offers entirely new opportunities for deception, nor a whole wave of new start-ups that can focus fully on this potential.

Existing companies will also be able to make good use of the potential of the new technology, more quickly than in the early days of digitization. Since then, an entire generation of marketers has been replaced and new minds are at the helm - a new generation that has grown up with a keen sense of changing technologies and a love of experimentation in marketing. Combined with their own data pools, competent employees, and a modern IT infrastructure, they are in a position that should give many companies a very positive outlook on the future of AI.

AI algorithms are already at work in the background today

I'm having a conversation with Manu. Manu is the Creative Director at Webrepublic and also someone who first approaches new things with an open mind, wants to let off steam creatively and wants to use things first before making up his mind.

There are already many AI algorithms working in the background on our platforms and tools, but so far they've been pretty inconspicuous. Media bookings are optimized using AI, we deliver campaigns dynamically, and our own AI hub enables consistent reporting and faster insights. But with the arrival of image generators last summer and then the launch of ChatGPT in the winter, the topic of AI hit the mainstream and triggered a wave of innovation.

"We should always remember that AI supports us, but does not replace our own connected thinking."

Manu shows me that with the skillful use of AI tools, creative processes can be implemented faster and more cost-effectively. Ideas can be visualized faster and more impressively, client and agency can agree on a visual thrust more quickly, and no idea is too wild not to somehow capture it visually and discuss it together. Creating ideas and mock-ups, as well as bringing concepts to life, has been made easier before thanks to tools like Flash, After Effects and Photoshop. Now it's just even faster.

Faster, yes, but not fully automatic. You still have to know which tool can do that at all and how to operate it and achieve the desired results. So the work doesn't disappear, but is postponed - there is more time for ideas, discussions, and perhaps the one or other additional project.

We go from being musicians to conductors

A different form of creativity and marketing craft is required when dealing with AI: good ideas, networked thinking, smart strategies and a talent for translating ideas into suitable prompts to steer the AI. The human conceives the creative concept, which the AI then fills with content. Or we dock various data sources, which our hub then turns into insights. We go from being musicians to conductors. And we need to make sure that AI is not perceived as a competitor, but as a tool that helps us explore our strategic, technological and creative boundaries.

This change is not new, my own job has been almost completely replaced by artificial intelligence and automation and definitely redefined. When I set up the first Google Ads campaigns more than 15 years ago, we as campaign managers were still manually researching all the keywords, setting the match types, typing in keyword variations, designing exclusion lists, and copywriting hundreds of ads. As of 2023, most of this work has been automated by Google's own tools and disappeared from the daily work routine. However, we are not running out of work in digital marketing, quite the opposite. Automation now allows campaign managers to focus less on repetitive and time-consuming tasks and have more time for strategic and creative aspects of their work. For example, with holistic, smart bidding strategies instead of manual budget control.

So marketing is changing, it always has been

So the world of marketing is changing. It always has been and will continue to be. AI is playing a significant role in this - already in the background for some time, but now very active and tangibly transformative in the months and years ahead. With the right approaches and the use of AI, we can create the best of both worlds, human creativity and technological support. Will jobs change? Absolutely. Will certain jobs no longer be needed at all? Logical. Or are any of your friends currently a light cleaner, sponge diver or video store clerk by trade? These are all professions that I tell my children about as bedtime stories. Professions that were once quite normal, but became obsolete in the course of structural change and the introduction of new technologies (electricity, plastics, the Internet). They are not horror stories, but exciting episodes about humanity's inventiveness and our creativity and adaptability.

"There is a tendency to over-emphasize the risks of AI in the media, diverting attention away from more pressing issues, such as climate change."

But we also have to be honest with ourselves

Every "general purpose" technology brings with it an upheaval, and AI is one such technology. There are trade-offs associated with these technologies: the benefits are not evenly distributed, and some benefits arguably accrue to some while others have predominantly disadvantages. In addition, there are potential costs or risks that may arise as the technology is developed and discussed. This explicitly includes the tendency to over-emphasize the risks of AI in the media, thus diverting attention away from more pressing issues such as climate change.

The AI transformation points to an exciting future where together we can seize opportunities and minimize risks. It is a journey we are embarking on together - refreshed and empowered by Vivi Nova - and opening the door to a new age. And as far as our own thinking skills are concerned, we should always remember that AI supports us, but does not replace our own networked thinking.

Born and raised in Zurich, studied Tobias Zehnder at the University of Zurich, during which time he completed an internship at Google, among other things. After graduating, he founded the Webrepublic agency with Tom Hanan, which today has 250 employees and 140 clients. Zehnder is responsible for the agency's client management, lectures at universities and is on the board of the LSA. He lives with his family in Zurich-Albisrieden.

The author Tobias Zehnder. (Image: Chris Reist)

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