AI, Not Your Digital Don Draper

AI, Not Your Digital Don Draper

“Computer” was once a job title, not a device. It described specialists who performed complex mathematical calculations. The movie Hidden Figures famously depicted the contributions of African-American computers like Katherine Johnson who were crucial to the U.S. space program.

Johnson and her colleagues were amazingly reliable. When NASA began using electronic computers to calculate orbits, John Glenn insisted that Johnson personally verify the accuracy of the new machines.

Thousands of hours of drudgery were required to generate numbers for any large scale technical project, not just spaceflights. When wind tunnel testing showed the 747 jetliner was experiencing “flutter” at cruising speed, a Boeing vice president leapt into action. He ripped the seats out of an auditorium and made it a huge office for 50 engineers working day and night with slide rules to design a new wing. He planned to have them there for two months, or at least 36,000 hours of design time. Similar calculations would be done in minutes with today’s aerodynamic modeling software.

As digital computers replaced human computers, engineering and other complex fields became more about creative problem solving, insight, and other soft skills than ever before. Katherine Johnson remained at NASA until 1986. Digital computing helped her do her work more quickly, but strong critical thinking skills made her truly valuable.

Joe Sutter, the head of the 747 project, solved the flutter problem without the help of 50 engineers. He devised a way for the outermost section of the wing to twist in response to aerodynamic forces. Boeing had bet everything on the success of the 747, so this single idea may have saved the company from bankruptcy.

Number crunching was crucial, but insight still won the day. The same is true with AI today.

A powerful tool, not a trusted advisor

In the months since the ChatGPT application launched, newsfeeds have been filled with its accomplishments. A version of it passed the bar exam, achieved a 710 on the SAT, and passed finals from the Wharton Business School’s MBA program. In another stranger case, a Slate reporter detailed how she used ChatGPT to write a friend’s online dating bio, pickup lines, and more.

The implications are clear: If a computer can write, why hire a human? For most businesses, marketing is their most language-intensive activity, so why not start saving there? One reason is that instead of being a digital Don Draper, ChatGPT and its competitors are more like the tech that replaced the human computers and the slide rule.

Effective marketing requires a great deal of complex problem solving and emotional intelligence. AI uses very sophisticated pattern recognition, but can’t truly understand, and no problem is solved unless it is understood.

The same is true when it comes to critical thinking as well as strategy and other complex decision making. By definition, AI can’t think for itself. It can see and even analyze patterns, but not take them out of the box and think through implications. In fact, the reason ChatGPT replicates human writing so well is that it draws on patterns it learned from a massive catalog of—you guessed it—human writing.

Finally, truly understanding human thought and emotion is essential in marketing, and something only humans can do.

In the Excel spreadsheet age, the best financial advisor isn’t the one who can make Excel spit out numbers the fastest, but the one you can trust to help you reach your goals. She’ll also understand what financial moves make you nervous. With machine learning we will spot cancers earlier, but computers won’t replace the oncologist, much less learn good bedside manner.

In the same way, ChatGPT can write a sales email, but truly understanding your business, audience, value propositions, and the myriad other moving parts of a solid marketing effort are beyond it. Marketing that gets results is a process of insight, true creativity, managing complexity, and adaptive thinking.

AI is a tool growing in power; it may even someday bear out the prediction that we are in a new era as consequential as the Industrial Revolution. But it can’t be a trusted advisor. For well-crafted strategy that builds connection and trust with your target market, rely on human insight, ingenuity, and experience.

With the marketing landscape changing every day, consider enlisting the experts at Cain & Company to help you create truly creative marketing and deploy it with proven strategies.

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