Marketing and advertising agencies’ ability to tap into the seemingly boundless opportunities of generative AI (genAI) is running into a stubborn human obstacle: the lack of AI expertise and employee concerns of obsolescence. A new Forrester report, The State Of Generative AI Inside US Agencies, 2024 (client-only access), shows that among the top challenges to adopting AI is concerns for employee expertise and readiness, which we defined as lack of necessary skills or training and employee cultural resistance. This human obstacle is a part of an agency AI fear factor that the industry must take immediate steps to overcome.

A Secure Economic Future Is At Stake

The failure to rise to the AI moment puts the future of the agency industry and a decade of agencies’ business change at risk. GenAI not only promises to be the next biggest thing since the smartphone but also the likely ingredient to unlock the expansion of the agency economic model away from commoditized services and toward value-add creativity algorithms. GenAI infused with the creative process is the final element to a new system of value for brands: data intelligence and technology scale combined with human creative intuition. At Forrester, we call this intelligent creativity and believe that it will energize the creative process (i.e., change how marketing is created and by whom), expand the value produced for brands, and modernize the economic model governing marketing services. To say that agency leaders understand the significance of the moment is an understatement, because 77% believe that genAI is a disruptor and nearly a third call genAI a major disruption that will change their business forever.

Emotional Safety Runs Unchecked

Today’s employees are still recovering from multiple workplace disruptions over the last four years: pandemic-forced remote work, return to the office, the great resignation, quiet quitting, and, now, white-collar automation. Agencies are no exception; arguably, agency workers are even more at risk given their industry’s reputation for long hours and low wages. The fear of AI job displacement is not new, even in creative industries: Look no further than the tension between the Hollywood business model and writers’ creativity. But agency employees find themselves in a particularly precarious position: The exponential rise of genAI inside agencies acts as a superconductor for their fear of obsolescence, challenging their artistic identities and personal livelihoods.

Invest In Essential AI Literacy

Agency employees need the skills and confidence to master AI and not let the AI fear factor master them. A compulsory system of AI literacy and training will solve this dilemma. It’s true that there’s no shortage of advertising and marketing education, training, and continuing education opportunities with university programs such as the Savannah College of Art and Design or Utrecht University, technology partner certification programs, or even Cannes’ Creative Academy. While these programs and hundreds of others like them are significant, they’re not nearly enough. Additional investments are needed to provide agency employees the skills and practice to integrate AI into their daily jobs and the emotional safety to adapt to the AI era in advertising and marketing creativity.

Agencies, technology partners, universities, trade groups, and even award shows need to rise to the occasion to reskill, invest in retraining, and support the creative workforce as it learns to incorporate AI as part of the creative team. This can be accomplished at the university level, in formal training, via technology/software certification, and through informal on-the-job training. No doubt, some agencies are providing some training, but the data indicates that AI literacy must be a top priority among agency and industry leaders.

To embrace the first meaningful innovation of its creative process and business model in decades, the industry should commit to invest in every employee inside an agency or marketing organization and every student pursuing an advertising or marketing degree. This will help agencies — which are currently leading in AI adoption and innovation — maintain their edge and bring elevated value to their clients in the form of agency algorithms powered by creativity.

If you would like more information on these issues and the use of generative AI in marketing agencies, read my latest report, The State Of Generative AI Inside US Agencies, 2024.