This post originally appeared in Ohio Today, the award-winning alumni magazine of Ohio University.
The question-answering computer, named “Watson” by its IBM creators, handily defeated Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter while much of the tech world watched with interest.
The historic match between man and machine also caught the interest of Bobcat entrepreneur Paul Roetzer.
At the time, the Clevelander was wrapping up his first book, The Marketing Agency Blueprint, in which he laid out the disruptive path he had blazed through the marketing industry since founding his agency, PR 20/20, in 2004.
Roetzer posited that the traditional marketing agency model was broken. So, he created a new one—one that rejected customary pillars like billable hours and requests for proposals and embraced transparency, technology, and talent.
This innovative vision attracted clients and employees alike, and the business grew. However, Roetzer’s natural curiosity kept his gaze trained on the horizon. After watching Watson’s victory, Roetzer immersed himself in artificial intelligence (AI) research, eventually realizing that this technology would lead another, far greater disruption within the marketing industry.
A New Intelligence
“At the end of the day, AI is about giving a machine human-like ability—sight, hearing, understanding language. It doesn’t have any of those things natively,” Roetzer says. “And then being able to make predictions at superhuman levels.”
You already interact with AI regularly if you upload a photo to Facebook, binge Netflix, or listen to Spotify. The algorithms those platforms use to recommend a tag, show, or song all rely on AI.
Much of what a marketing agency like PR 20/20 offers clients is strategy: how and where to distribute a particular message with a given budget, audience, timeline, and other variables that have expanded exponentially in the digital age.
“There were basically five ways you could spend marketing budget in 2000. Fast forward to 2012, there’s like 5,000 ways,” Roetzer explains. “So, I came to believe that the human mind wasn’t actually capable of building an optimal strategy.”
Roetzer predicted that with enough computing power, AI-delivered predictions would fill this gap.
He turned to his team, sharing his thoughts about the role AI will play in the future, inspiring them to collectively research the topic. As they accumulated more knowledge, Roetzer decided, “Let’s publish this stuff. If nothing else, we’ll learn.”
As it turned out, they were earlier along the adoption curve than they thought. The team discovered it had an advanced understanding of AI and how it can be leveraged within the field.
Over the next two years, PR 20/20’s AI-focused blog and newsletter received significantly increased attention, as well as a name: The Marketing AI Institute, which is today a standalone media company that “seeks to make artificial intelligence approachable and actionable for marketers,” according to its director, Mike Kaput.
In addition to consulting services, the institute and PR 20/20 also offered a first-of-its-kind conference in July 2019 focusing solely on AI in marketing. The Marketing AI Conference (MAICON) drew hundreds of professionals to Cleveland. Why? To start telling the story of how AI could change the field.
“We wanted to help ... drive industry transformation with AI,” Kaput says. So they invited marketing change agents. And they came.
Speakers from Facebook and Hubspot, as well as authors, journalists, and futurists working on the cutting edge of the field discussed topics from practical applications of AI in marketing to the ethical questions the technology presents.
Karen Hao, the AI reporter for MIT Technology Review, moderated a panel discussion on the ethics of AI.
“All technology can be wielded for good or bad. ... I think the reason why AI is particularly troublesome in this regard is because it just scales things so quickly. Software is much easier to deploy as a technology than other things,” Hao says.
Because AI-marketing has the unprecedented potential to affect billions of consumers and comes with its own ethical conundrums, Roetzer set up the panel as a main-stage event in order to reach all attendees.
“Nobody was probably coming to the conference thinking, ‘Oh, I hope we have a topic on ethics,’ but I was not going to let people leave without listening to a topic on ethics,” Roetzer says. “Otherwise, you could look at what we’re doing as just teaching people to better predict and influence consumers. And that’s not at all what we’re in it for.”
The nature of both MAICON and PR 20/20 is a reflection of Roetzer’s values—not just those of a marketer or entrepreneur, but of a human.
“I’ve always run the business where family came first,” Roetzer says. “We’ve made lots of decisions around the growth of the agency and passing up on growth opportunities largely because I wanted to be home at night to spend time with my family.”
This value of work-life balance applies to the entire staff and is at the core of the agency’s culture.
“You work with people more than you see your family sometimes, so you want to really care about each other,” says Vice President and Managing Director Jessica Miller. “You literally look around the room, and you know every person there is on the same page. You all have different strengths, but every person would help you out. Every person is working hard, learning all the time.”
How do you maintain that culture across a staff of 16? It’s not easy, says Vice President of Talent Tracy Lewis.
“One wrong hire can have a huge impact on the overall team, the overall happiness of the team, the way we treat one another,” she says. In hiring five of his current employees, Roetzer chose fellow Bobcats. A coincidence? Yes and no.
“In the early days, we just knew the skills we were looking for ... and we knew that OU produced it,” Roetzer says. “Then, it just so happened a lot of the people we interviewed came from similar value systems.”
Roetzer’s character and vision have a reverberant effect on those around him. For Kaput, it’s Roetzer’s “relentless curiosity about what comes next.” Miller agrees, pointing out the truth behind the agency’s tagline: “Look beyond.”
“This is our culture. People are working here because they’re doing cool and innovative things and they want to be a part of that,” she says. “Whether it’s our employees, or clients, or industry peers, it’s what you expect when you associate with PR 20/20.”
Learn more about how AI can make your marketing more intelligent and more human.
There’s a conference for marketers who want to get started with AI: The Marketing Artificial Intelligence Conference, or MAICON.
MAICON is happening July 14-16, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio, and will take you beyond the splashy headlines and industry jargon to explore the business and practice of AI through workshops, keynotes, and breakout sessions.