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AI and the 'attention economy': How the tech can be leveraged to promote a sustainable future

Attention is the new sustainable currency
Attention is the new sustainable currency Copyright Euronews/Canva
Copyright Euronews/Canva
By Euronews
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While the advertising industry eagerly embraces AI, understanding the implications for sustainability is a crucial aspect that should not be overlooked.

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From creating realistic virtual images and offering deep insights into writing copy and campaign ideas, the advertising industry is undergoing a significant transformation driven by generative artificial intelligence (AI).

It’s hardly surprising why.

According to Forbes, top-performing companies are more than twice as likely to be using AI for marketing.

Not only that, the AI-assisted digital ads business is expected to draw $192 billion (€175.6 billion) annually by 2032, according to Bloomberg Intelligence research.

McKinsey & Company, the global management consulting firm, says generative AI's impact on productivity could add trillions of dollars in value to the global economy - "and the era is just beginning".

Meanwhile, consultancy giant Accenture announced a €2.7 billion investment in AI, doubling its talent pool from 40,000 to 80,000.

With the technology continuing to gain traction, we are witnessing just the beginning of an era that holds tremendous promise for advertising.

Yet, as the industry quickly jumps to explore how AI can improve the overall performance and impact of advertising campaigns, Peter Huijboom, Global Media CEO of Dentsu - one of the world's largest marketing and advertising agency networks - says advertisers should look further, by analysing how to drive more sustainable practices and understand "what it will mean for the human being".

We’re at the stage where most advertisers are exploring the best applications for the technology, and evaluating how to make their processes more efficient, says Huijboom, "but if we move it one stage further, it will definitely have an effect on sustainability”.

Attention is the new sustainable currency

The advertising industry plays a crucial role in driving society towards a net-zero future, he tells Euronews Next at this year’s Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, and the new currency is the "attention economy".

By prioritising attention, advertisers can determine which means of communication has the most impact, thus optimising resources, evolving with a changing landscape where "4,000 advertising messages hit us daily across multiple platforms" as well as aligning with the planet’s needs.

Only a third of ads get the audience’s full attention, according to Dentsu’s research. Whenever people can skip ads, "they often do. And when they cannot skip, they often look away," a recent report by the company posits.

“The explosion in digital content, new forms of advertising and technology at our fingertips has created both the motive and the means for people to screen advertising out of their lives,” it adds.

Doing advertising with the attention economy at the core "means you don't spend energy on any communication that doesn't have [an effective] effect, which literally for energy makes a big change because you can make ads smaller, more targeted, and more relevant at the same time," Huijboom told Euronews Next.

The new world implies a challenge for advertisers, "an ad that is not seen is worthless" and looked at from a sustainability perspective, it is also a waste of resources, he added.

Simple elements like the length of an online video or file size can be manipulated and changed to improve both the attention metric and carbon footprint.

Choosing marketplaces and media owners that have set net-zero, science-based targets and are committed to continuous improvement is also crucial, says Huijboom, adding that agencies should prioritise marketplaces and media owners that have set net-zero science-based targets themselves.

"Of course, we have our own emission targets as a business, but that's only a small thing we can do. The multiplier for our business is really what we can do with our clients in changing that behaviour," he noted.

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The third dimension of the sustainability strategy is the "how," which focuses on balancing the carbon footprint with commercial objectives. Again, attention plays a vital role in finding the right balance, and AI can help.

Historically, the advertising industry has been focused "on selling more stuff," says the Media CEO at Dentsu, but "in a world where the resources are finite, you need to take a different approach".

The advertising industry can make a difference by influencing how people think, feel, and act, says Huijboom, and by leveraging this "superpower," advertisers can drive positive change.

"Just think about getting people into electric cars, into plant-based food, into reduced packaging products, into green banking, green pensions… If we are able to make that interesting to people and irresistible, we as an industry can move the needle," he noted.

And "if you make the link, it is very obvious that with generative AI we can have a huge social impact" that is "broader than sustainability".

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Watch the video in the media player above for more from this interview at the 2023 Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity.

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