This “World’s First” Artificially Intelligent Ad Is A Test of Automated Creativity

M&C Saatchi experiments with advertising by algorithm.


M&C Saatchi has developed an outdoor campaign which “evolves” unique ads based on its audience’s reactions, which makes it the world’s first artificial intelligence poster campaign, the agency claims.


Built around a single site in central London, the campaign, for invented coffee brand Bahio, is powered by a genetic algorithm that tests different executions by analyzing the strengths of various features such as copy, layout, font and image.

The project, now underway, launched with around 1,000 different images and other variable creative components served randomly to passers-by before the self-selection process began. The ad also tests fonts and font sizes, layout and also words which are now being selected, presented then refined by a recursive grammar engine.

Creative components which fail to engage are automatically removed from circulation while those prompting an engaged reaction are re-worked into further executions–a process which will play out over the next couple of weeks.

Audience response is measured by a camera embedded in the site. “Strength” of creative components is determined by the engagement of passers-by–whether they look happy, sad or neutral.

The project is a Darwinian approach to advertising which, though only an experiment, points to an interesting future role of artificial intelligence in advertising creativity, M&C Saatchi’s Chief Innovation Officer David Cox says.


“Already, automated creativity is starting the enter the mainstream,” he points out, citing e-David, a robot created by computer scientists at the University of Konstanz in Germany, programmed to paint pictures while making its own decisions on brush strokes and shading. Then there’s Electric Sheep–a collaborative art project created by developer Scott Draves in which computers create abstract animations users then vote on to help the system “learn” what is good and influence the next stage of its evolution.

Meanwhile, Associated Press recently began publishing financial stories written from scratch then published by Automated Insights’ Wordsmith platform that automatically turns financial data into stories–a process some observers have described as “robot journalism.”

“Already, the design of web sites is being refined automatically using perpetual multivariate testing to make ongoing enhancements over time,” Cox says. “So we set out to discover whether it is possible to accumulate sufficient data to make such an approach work for an ad, and how best to create an automatic process that could write an ad from scratch.”

The campaign is due to run for three to four weeks by the end of which M&C Saatchi expects to end up with a single ad representing the strongest creative execution. For Cox, however, more interesting than the end result will be the insights gained throughout the journey.

“One interesting aspect of this is the ability to let the system create weird ads no one would otherwise have written, bringing to life ideas that are absurd, and seeing whether by being absurd they are more effective,” he says. “The power of using data in this way is that algorithms can expose things from beyond the human realm of preconceived notions and self-editing.”


Another interesting aspect is the potential to make the system more sophisticated, Cox adds. “Moving forward we could make this more sophisticated by factoring in, for example, whether the audience visited a URL, and whether they then went on to make a purchase in order to select the key creative components offering the strongest result,” he observes.

So far, initial data is enabling M&C Saatchi to map how a number of creative components are evolving. Words are moving towards being exclusively in upper case, and in shorter sentences, for example.

But like actual evolution it will always change. And this might not necessarily be about ending up with just one ad. Some elements might work best in summer rather than winter, or on a weekday rather than a weekend, Cox points out.

“The most obvious commercial application of this is to use elements of the system to optimize ads over time–just as you would using multivariate testing in web site design but, in this case, for a poster,” he says.

“It will be interesting if in the future ads write themselves from scratch. But while that won’t be happening for quite some time, it is a possibility as computers become better at being creative.”


About the author

Meg Carter is a UK-based freelance journalist who has written widely on all aspects of branding, media, marketing & creativity for a wide range of outlets including The Independent, Financial Times and Guardian newspapers, New Media Age and Wired.