IPA President Sarah Golding on robots, cleaning up and regaining swagger
The IPA's new president has an ambitious and tech-focused agenda. Interview by Ellen Hammett.
Sarah Golding, chief executive of CHI & Partners and the new president of the IPA, wants to "make magic with the machines".
She wants to help the advertising industry get ready for an inevitable reality of more machine learning and automation over the next 100 years - long after current ad folk have popped their clogs - and wants to inject some swagger back into the industry along the way.
She thinks adland has been gazing inwards for far too long and instead wants to look outwards and forwards - and thinks her agenda, outlined at April's inauguration ceremony, will put the industry back on the front foot at a time when the sector is being scrutinised more than ever.
When I go to meet Golding at her Fitzrovia offices - bright, spacious, big plush sofas where all the creative brainstorming takes place - it feels, rather awkwardly, like she hasn't been briefed about my visit.
I explain who I am and why I'm there (at least she's been told my name) and to try to bypass the confusion by jumping straight to the hard stuff: How is her tech-focused agenda going to deal with the list the problems currently plaguing online advertising?
After all, Golding has taken on the presidency at a time when advertising is hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons - most recently following an investigation carried out by The Times' which found brands were having their ads placed next to extremist content on YouTube.
The investigation alone resulted in more than 250 big brands - including HSBC, ITV, L'Oreal and the UK Government - pulling their advertising from Google and YouTube completely, and has prompted a reassessment of how the online ad ecosystem works.
"Creative industries cannot be reduced to an algorithm but if we embrace machine learning we can be even better at what we do"
During her tenure over the next two years, Golding tells me she wants the IPA - which is celebrating its centenary - to be at the forefront of the digital clean-up.
"I can’t talk about data and not acknowledge there is a dark side - and that dark side does threaten our industry commercially and reputationally," she says. "I want the IPA to lead the way in solving that because we can’t let the robots go rogue."
Golding says you only have to look at companies like Uber and AirBnB to understand why Google has found itself in a grey area.
"They grew at such a ridiculously fast rate that they found themselves in grey areas and dark corners they could never imagine. Google’s not dissimilar, if you think that it started as a tech platform and now, whether it likes it or not, it’s a media channel.
"With incredible growth comes the need for incredible learning. We need to work with the machines to make sure we bring a degree of sense and judgement to where, for example, commercial messages are placed."
While Google has publicly laid out its intention to begin working with individual third party companies to check and verify which ads appear on YouTube, Golding says the work doesn’t end there - and wants ISBA, the IAB and other big tech firms such as Facebook to work with the IPA along the way.
"Otherwise our whole industry will be damaged irreparably," she says.
Indeed, the IPA and ISBA have this month embarked on a new joint venture to demand the media industry only uses objective and independently verified data before making buying decisions.
Together, the two organisations have launched a paper asking for all parts of the industry to defend accountable audience data and to uphold the highest industry standards of methodology and independent verification.
Reading the paper, it is certainly a well-argued and confident statement both organisations are making, and kick-starts a presidency that really could witness big, positive changes for adland's online territories.
But back to robots - and to set the record straight - Golding doesn't think machines are going to take over completely; she tells me she wants them to be seen as colleagues, rather than replacements.
"Initially I think the machines will take on the myriad activities that are part of day-to-day life - the more functional things that happen in an agency like legal checks, image searches, contact reports - and if machines are doing all of those things it frees everyone else up to give more time to the important stuff, the creation of ideas and brilliant campaigns," she says.
"Creative industries cannot be reduced to an algorithm but I think if we embrace creative tech and machine learning we can be even better at what we do."
Around 30% of UK jobs could be automated by 2030, with AI technologies forecast to give the UK economy an additional £640-billion boost by 2035.
I ask Golding if she's worried people might start relying on the technology too much - or that people will end up losing their jobs to machines.
She says no.
For Golding, human sense, judgement and insight are - and always will be - vital to the creative industries.
"It’s the reason there’s an ‘and’ in my agenda," she continues. "The creative industry needs human sense and judgement and insight and if they [machines] take away some of the day-to-day, humdrum stuff that needs to be done that actually gets in the way of coming up with creating and developing brilliant business-changing, culturally defining big ideas, then the door is open to machine learning, AI, creative tech."
It is clear to me that Golding, who began working at CHI & Partners in 2001, wants to see the media industry diversify. She is a member of WACL and set up CHI's equal opportunities scheme Spark last year, which is aimed at non-graduate talent and removes CVs and photos from entry-level applications.
While we touch on gender politics only briefly - at my request - she tells me it's a shame she is only the second female president in the IPA's 100-year history (Nicola Mendelsohn was the first in 2011) and "about bloody time" another woman is added to the list.
And alongside seeing more women in the boardroom, Golding also wants the industry to regain some lost pizzazz.
"When I joined as a graduate trainee the industry had a real swagger and I think that that is partly why my agenda is what it is: it’s intended to remind the industry of what it’s good at - and that is brilliant creativity," she says.
I ask her why she thinks it's been lost and she says it's because of the industry's focus on areas of weakness - such as diversity, ability, corporate standing and, more recently, media transparency.
"It’s about getting our confidence back. Talent is in short supply, salaries aren’t as high as they were and that is another challenge for the industry."
Golding hopes that during her presidency the industry will gain more enthusiasm about machine learning and that people will trust the technology more.
"There’s often a fear of the new - a new tech is viewed with suspicion - but if people can see the benefit and the use of these technologies then I think they embrace them and use them willingly and happily," she says.
"[Over the next century] it will still be about the power of the big idea; the difference will be that idea will be brought to life in technologies that are nascent today and technologies that we haven’t even heard of today."
So there will always be a place for agencies?
"Oh my god, yes. And humans."