“All my best decisions are made with heart, guts and taste”

kb“All my best decisions are made with heart, guts and taste”

Instinct or algorithm?

It’s a question that Karen Blackett OBE asked her three interviewees at her Chancellor’s Dinner at Portsmouth University last month.

Kanya King OBE, supercool founder of the MOBOS said instinct. Sir Lenny Henry CBE fresh from raising money for Comic Relief said instinct too, but Tom Ilube OBE, tech entrepreneur, as you might predict (using your instincts) chose the algorithm.

Every time I jump in the car the same question comes up. Should I turn on Waze? Should I use my instincts? Surely Waze’s algorithm knows more than me, and, so it proves until, there’s an unexpected road closure and you wind up with me and everyone else trapped in the “ Wazelocked” traffic.

Karen asked her guests about cheerleaders in their lives. Lenny Henry talked about the big break he got from Chris Tarrant. When Lenny was failing on breakfast show Tiswas, Tarrant took him for lunch and told him he was failing to make the transition to presenter from stand-up and would soon be off the show. He suggested that Lenny pivot and try a different approach, and Lenny listened, followed his advice and soon this turned him into a star. Karen asked him why he thought that Chris Tarrant had bothered to stage this intervention. Lenny said: “He saw the potential in me”. Tarrant gave him a leg up. Tarrant saw something in Lenny Henry even when he was screwing up and trusted his instincts too. Don’t trust that any algorithm could have delivered on that potential fame, and a career that aside from the laughter has helped raise over £1bn for Comic Relief.

A black-box thrown into a tech stack can certainly do a lot of automated heavy-lifting, but there is still a need for human intervention to guide what the algorithms are trying to achieve as well as augmenting their outputs with human ingenuity and inspiration. Delegating this responsibility to an opaque black-box to make all the decisions is short sighted – as the algorithm is only a part of the process. It cannot define what data to assess, how that data should be featured and the interpreting of the results in-line with commercial goals.

Media delivery has been transformed in this decade because of algorithms and the business models will continue to change. As AI grows in real functionality many traditional aspects of media planning and trading will fade. But the industry must stay rooted in the real world, where instincts and creativity will always play a crucial role. The digital ad bombardment of consumers is just one outcome from too much faith in algorithms, and marketing chiefs are right to question this. Real world planning for comms using instinct as well as data to drive competitive advantage has never been more important. As Jeff Bezos says in the opening quotation: use the data but trust your heart.

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