Rise of the Robowriters?

Robot surgeons, algorithmic lawyers, accountancy apps: as AI begins to make its influence felt everywhere in professional life, there are those who think they’re safe from the march of the machines.

Creatives in ad agencies, for example.

Copywriters scan the briefs they’re given and smugly wonder how a computer could ever replicate what they do – combining words to deliver a persuasive message with empathy and charm.

The bad news is, it seems machines have started doing exactly that.

Phrasee and Persado are just two companies who believe their algorithms can beat humans when creating email subject lines.

Since subject lines determine the all-important open rate, this is a big claim.

Thing is, these robot-written subject lines aren’t bad. When you have only a limited number of characters and a limited number of things to say, it’s quite easy to generate a few hundred lines, which are then tested relentlessly until you have a handful that have been optimised to hell.

Of course, there’s no real surprise here, because direct marketing is basically a rule-based activity.

The clickbait headlines we see everywhere today are the result of dos and don’ts painstakingly worked out by generations of direct marketers, and codified in books such as Ogilvy on Advertising or Commonsense Direct Marketing.

But the best headlines don’t follow the rules. They’re constructed in the same way jokes are, deploying human connection, an awareness of context and an unexpected twist.

Naturally, computers are still rubbish at jokes.

(They’re a bit better at poetry, but only because a great deal of verse in the last 100 years has been so obscure and random it’s difficult to tell apart from computer-ese.)

No program has been developed yet that can get anywhere close to an average copywriter, let alone a David Abbott, a Tony Brignull or a Sean Doyle.

And despite lamentations that the art of copy is dead, there are still some great ads being written today.

For instance, a recent Spotify campaign had some lovely executions:

Spotify campaign images

So why not let the machines get on with the grunt work of generating and optimising millions of subject lines?

We can then undertake the real job – tugging on the heartstrings to open the purse strings.

I’ll leave the last word on the subject of humans and machines to David Abbott, who was once asked what his favourite ad was.

He picked one for a US charity that cared for wounded servicemen. It showed a man in a wheelchair fiddling with the innards of a telly.

The headline said simply, “This is a picture of a TV set repairing a man.”