The engineer using AI to disrupt creative decision making: Martin Adams

Martin D Adams.jpg

Our everyday lives are somehow directed and curated by artificial intelligence, from basic internet searches during our morning commute to our online shopping experiences where suggestions are made according to our personal preferences and habits.

On the commercial side of the AI landscape, machine learning is helping the marketing industry to reach a wider audience but often it’s also hitting the wrong audiences with irrelevant content – a gap which Martin Adams has identified and led to the birth of Codec.ai, a creative intelligence platform that uses artificial intelligence to show companies what content audiences want them to make, before they have to make it.

Since 2015, Martin, who was amongst the UK’s Maserati 100 Entrepreneurs and Top 50 UK innovators by Penrose, has been the engineer behind some international big brands, providing them with insights to help them to build the right content for the right audiences.

Besides working behind the scene, he often speaks internationally on topics including innovation, entrepreneurship and the future of work.  He’s also actively involved with Digital Future Council, Digital Leadership Council and consults for the Royal Marines and the Department for Communities & Local Government in the UK Government.

Advance caught up with the UNSW graduate and he shared how he’s taking on artificial intelligence in marketing.

Interview by Tammy Lee, Marketing & Communications & Digital Manager, Advance.

·How did the Codec.ai concept come about?

Codec.ai came out of a very clear conviction that audiences were having a very poor experience on the Internet, because big companies were just bombarding them with advertising. And that this dynamic could, and should, be improved.  

The way we reached this conclusion was interesting. I was working with my brother and a few friends nearly 15 years ago. Because we were still students we had very early access to Facebook as it launched. We saw that you could use social media to understand what audiences actually wanted and that this could help brands make more interesting, challenging and ultimately nourishing content to put in front of those audiences. As a result we built one of the world’s first social media consultancies where we represented around 5000 of the world’s most powerful online accounts (Barack Obama, Hugh Jackman, Will Smith etc) on the one hand, and brands like Unilever and L’Oreal on the other. We were able to use the insights about the audiences of all of these big influencers to help brands understand what really mattered, so that they could make content about this, rather than just talking about their products time and time again.

With Codec.ai we took this to a truly mind-bending level, using machine learning to understand content interactions online and generate a real time feed for content creators and strategic decision makers that helps them understand what will resonate with different audiences.

Fast forward a few years and we operate across 30+ markets and have all the major brand groups as clients. It’s been a hell of a ride.

What was the biggest challenge during the start of the operation? What's the most exciting part of Codec.ai's journey?

The biggest challenge during the start of Codec.ai was explaining to investors and customers why we were going in the diametric opposite direction from where everyone else was going (and where the revenue was). The whole industry was focusing on ever more creepy ways of understanding individuals and using their personally identifiable information to advertise to them.

But my Masters at Harvard Law School was in advanced intellectual property and data privacy and I didn’t want us to go that way at all. In fact, I was convinced that, to the extent that the marketing industry relied on that sort of creepy personal data, it was unsustainable. So we built technology that would understand online content interactions and provide anonymized data on audience networks instead. And we focused on using this technology to help decision makers identify the rights audiences and understand what content to make for them, not simply how to distribute their guesses about those things!

The most exciting part of the business has been the market validating that we were right. Within a few months of one another there was the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the new European privacy laws coming into effect. Suddenly people realized that the old ways didn’t work anymore. And we were at the very center of the new way of thinking about strategic and creative decision making, and that this would translate into better experiences for audiences online because brands and creators would be making the right stuff that people cared about. It was a great moment for the team and a real vindication of their hard work and vision.

·What's next for Codec.ai?

We’re blessed to be working with the best companies on the planet, in the likes of L’Oreal, Samsung, Chanel, Dove etc. The next step is going to be opening New York and APAC offices to help service all the demand from clients in those regions. It’s very exciting.

How has artificial intelligence affected our lives without us noticing it?

We live in a world where recommendation algorithms dominate our lives. The music, films, products and ideas that we are exposed to are determined algorithmically through dominant platforms like Facebook,Amazon, Spottfy and Netflix.

We currently only have a very shallow conception of how profound the impact of this is. These algorithms are processing over more data and they are learning and improving over time.  The result is that they are able to spot patterns in our behaviour and data that we couldn’t spot and so in many ways they know us better than we know ourselves.

That means we are constantly being marketed at, but in less obvious ways. These recommender algorithms essentially amount to an army of salespeople deep within our computers and phones. They are constantly trying to sell us the next thing that they think we need, and we are vulnerable to their pitch because it’s based on data and insight.

It’s really smart. But ultimately something we need to have a conversation about as a society.

You regularly participate in public speaking, what's the biggest lesson you've learnt? What has been the most memorable experience?

I am adoring doing more and more public speaking on topics like innovation, artificial intelligence and how businesses can deploy an understanding of networks to win big in the modern world.

I’ve had the pleasure of being asked to present my ideas at big conferences and to structure more intimate and applied workshops for businesses of all types and sizes, government departments and charities. I really get a kick out of helping these organizations, and the people within them, understand how to think about the modern world in a way that will mean they succeed in it.

Year after year, public speaking comes out as the top activity that people get most anxious about. And I think that’s because people think the emphasis is on them being entertaining or ‘brilliant’ on the actual presentation side of things. The biggest lesson for me has been to prioritise the ‘WHAT’ of the message, rather than obsess over the ‘HOW’ of presenting it.

The substance of what you are saying has to be built around the particular audience you are speaking to and will be different depending on their perspective, background and things like the industry and company that they work within.

Once you have built something on the substance side which is going to make full sense to the audience, then the form and style of how you present it comes more organically. You’re then speaking from a place of confidence because you know your key messages are going to land with the audience and that you’ve got them with you on this journey to see the world in a different way.

It’s an utter joy to see these ideas ‘clicking’ in peoples’ brains and the reality is that you can’t help but speak passionately when you see it happening in front of you.

The most memorable experience was being invited to speak in Russia on innovation alongside the Russian Prime Minster and various international ministers and politicians.   

We had in-ear audio and a translator was translating audience questions for me- in theory. The truth is he was making a good deal of it up as the questions didn’t make any sense. It was very funny and eventually they brought someone in who could speak English.

·How do you juggle multiple roles? What's your advice for others to balance multiple responsibilities?

I think that running a business is genuinely the very best way to be the author of your own life. This idea of being an ‘author’ is an idea I believe in more strongly than anything else.

I really think that we exist to contribute an idea or ideas (if we are really lucky) to the world that can be helpful to others on their own journey through life.

To do that you have to tread your own path, in your own way, or else there’s no new perspective or insight to give to others. You have nothing new to give if you haven’t created something or seen something a different way.

I want to have the deepest experiences possible in life. And I want others -those I know and love, and everyone else- to do the same.  For me, that depth of experience has been possible through business. Creating something with others that didn’t exist before, and wouldn’t exist but for your teamwork, is a miraculous feeling. It sprinkles what you do with a very real sense of purpose.

But you can’t turn that on at 9am and off at 5pm. So I don’t believe in a fixed work life balance in that sense. In fact, I think we often have to abandon the goal of balance in any particular given window of our lives if we are going to get that perspective and be able to share something new that will help others. Start that business, create that volunteer group, form that band you’ve been talking about with people you love and want to be with and learn from and spend 90% of your waking life focused on that. Then you can reassess 6 or 12 months later and ask yourself if this is still the right way to be spending your time and energy.

It’s good to be internally balanced and you can meditate, exercise, and make sure your inner voice is kind to yourself and others around you in order to achieve that. But my honest advice is to abandon the quest for balance in your external life right now and try and find purpose and something original and creative to do with your time instead.

That’s clearly going to require the knowing support of the people around you to ensure you aren’t neglecting them or other responsibilities. But tell them you need to write your ‘story’. You’re very likely to see that they want you to write it too, and that they want to help you do that. After all, others are waiting to know what it says!

What did you enjoy most in your study in Australia? How was your experience at UNSW compared to your expectations?

 UNSW is a truly fantastic place to study and it genuinely exceeded all my expectations. In Australia I found the educational focus to be far more sensitive to the actual world outside compared to my education in the UK, where the emphasis was much more on abstract ideas and theories.

That practical application of what we were discussing in class at UNSW was phenomenal. As a law student writing about mental health in prisons I was encouraged to get out and meet prisoners and ex-offenders and talk to them about their experience and incorporate that in my work.

I also did a lot of classes on Negotiation with Dr. Rosemary Howell and Alan Limbury- two of my favourite people in the world. Again, I was encouraged to use recent experience travelling through Myanmar as a case study to apply the theories of negotiation strategy.

This reflexive approach to theory and practical application made such a difference to how I understood what I was learning. It helped me realise how I learn best also. And I’m eternally grateful for that.

What’s your suggestion for Aussie expats in London to find a good flat white?

There’s a little spot near our offices called NEPA, a stone’s throw from Old Street roundabout They do a mean flat white and they are all super friendly in their too. It’s a little slice of Sydney in London.