Inside Wunderman’s 150-person AI practice

Wunderman launched its artificial intelligence division last July with the purpose to help the agency’s clients retain their customers using what it calls “conversational technology.”

Now, it’s ready to start selling its AI solutions with Microsoft. The benefit here is that Microsoft will share Wunderman’s solutions, hopefully bringing in new clients. Wunderman’s AI division is located in the agency’s Seattle office, one of the agency’s 200 offices across 70 markets. According to the company, there are around 150 people — 100 data scientists and 50 consultants — working on designated AI projects.

The WPP agency already has a few clients that are interested, from telecommunications to consumer electronics companies, according to Seth Solomons, CEO of Wunderman North America.

Wunderman’s AI division focuses on using AI to create text-based or voice-activated chatbots and virtual assistants for its clients on four major platforms: Microsoft, Amazon Web Services, Google and IBM, according to Robbee Minicola, global lead of Wunderman AI and president of Wunderman Seattle. Wunderman’s interest in AI is tied to the growth of voice, said Minicola. In March, digital agency Rain and tech firms Voicebot and PullString released a study that found that 20 percent of the U.S. population owns a smart speaker.

Wunderman’s partnership with Microsoft spawns from Minicola’s own background. Minicola, left her post as director of global business development at Microsoft to create Wunderman’s AI division, first joining as president of the Seattle office in November 2016.

Right away, Minicola’s relationship with Microsoft paid off, and she secured a partnership with the company to build the agency’s first set of AI solutions for Cortana. Six months later, Wunderman’s AI service launched, and Minicola assumed the position as global lead of the division.

Today, the partnership with Microsoft remains strong and comes with perks. Minicola said Wunderman gets early insights into what Microsoft is building before it launches beta tests as well as the ability to test ideas on concepts within its AI platform.

“It’s super powerful because the space is moving so fast,” said Minicola. “If you’re not with the engineers that build the platform in the [beginning] phase, then what you’re building today is already outdated.”

Artificial intelligence is the newest shiny object marketers are chasing, with agencies launching their own services to help their clients navigate the technology

Minicola said Wunderman has invested “millions in resources and technology to deliver AI and machine learning solutions for its clients” and that AI is a “key component to Wunderman’s mandate of helping its clients to be ‘Future Ready.’” She claims Wunderman’s investment in AI and predictive analytics is “the largest of any agency.”

Despite such strong ties to Microsoft, Wunderman isn’t only interested in creating chatbots using only platforms’ own APIs. In fact, Wunderman views creating standalone skills for assistants like Cortana, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant as counter to what it’s really trying to achieve for its clients, said Minicola.

“Building your voice business only on third-party platforms means that all of the knowledge is used and owned by that platform,” she said. “It would be like choosing to not have a brand website and allowing your web presence to only be on Facebook. Not a good idea.”

For this reason, Minicola said Wunderman also builds proprietary conversational tech that clients can then implement in third-party assistants like Alexa, Microsoft Cortana or the Google Assistant.

Naturally, the prices are significantly lower for conversational chatbots created for one of these platforms than those for proprietary tech. A chatbot for a dedicated campaign period costs less than a chatbot for customer service, but both are priced at $150,000 or less, according to Minicola. Creating a proprietary virtual assistant that builds on the chatbot foundation would cost the most, up to millions of dollars, said Minicola.

Minicola said the 9-month-old division has worked with 11 clients — most of which had worked with Wunderman in the past — so far, and all projects are still in the production phase. Wunderman cannot disclose its AI-specific clients, said Minicola, but the agency’s clients include Microsoft and T-Mobile.

Still, AI is so new that many clients are still figuring out how they should implement it, Solomons said. “Now that we’re in 2018, we’re taking a much more practical approach,” he said. “So, as opposed to trying to find new and interesting ways to deploy AI, it’s much more about solving real problems big and small.”

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