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20 June 2017

Why robots won’t ever make good brand ambassadors



Everyone’s obsessed with robots right now – and most of them haven’t got anything good to say about them, except for a small number of researchers (if that’s quite the right word) who seem to be working on robot sex toys.

Leaving sex aside for the moment, what’s really scary about robots, according to lots of experts, is that they’re going to steal our jobs.

What’s wrong with that, you ask? Robots can do all the work, and humans can party.

Great concept, but the execution is the killer – at least, if you’ve watched any movies involving robot helpers recently.

They’re usually rebelling against their human overlords, seeking to become self-aware, and wiping out the human race. Think Terminator, think Westworld, think The Stepford Wives – the list is endless. And (spoilers!) if they’re not doing it on purpose, they’re doing it by accident – like the cute droids in Dr Who the other week…

Let’s get serious: as many as 10 million UK jobs are going to be lost to robots, automation and Artificial Intelligence, according to a recent report from the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Report. The IPPR says 5 million of those jobs are going to be disappearing from four sectors alone – retail, hospitality, transport and manufacturing. Now that’s a spoiler.

In marketing, there a lot of talk right now about how robots or automated systems are going to replace the human touch: writing news stories and press releases, planning marketing campaigns, buying media space and (the area that particularly interests me) delivering marketing messages face to face as part of an experiential activation.

Personally, I don’t accept the idea that robots can take over the customer facing role. Not entirely, anyway. I believe there will always be a need for the kind of intelligence and empathy that you can’t get from a robot.

But then I would say that, wouldn’t I? After all, I’m founder of one of the UK’s leading suppliers of temporary staff for the retail and leisure industries, as well as brand ambassadors for client marketers and PR and ad agencies.

There are jobs in the retail, hospitality and marketing sectors that robots (using the term loosely, to incorporate interactive systems and kiosks as well as programmable mobile units) will be able to do.

You could replace a check in person in a hotel with a bank-style ATM, for example. But why bother? You could just as easily create a check-in or check out app, and most hotels now let you check out via your in-room information and entertainment system anyway.

In fact, next time you see a story about someone bringing in a robot to replace a human, look more closely; you’ll almost certainly discover that the robot in question is actually a piece of automated manufacturing equipment which has taken over a boring, mindless, repetitive task which requires absolutely no interaction with real people.

Yes, we have seen some retailers and hospitality venues using robots in a customer-facing role, although usually as a PR stunt. Often, though, they’re not even proper robots, in the sense of intelligent, autonomous machines – they’re ‘telepresence robots’, which is a glorified way to say an iPad stuck on a Segway linked up to the Internet, allowing someone thousands of miles away to ‘be there’ in the room with you.

But a real robot is a big investment and a big commitment; perhaps the world’s most famous real robot (as opposed to movie and TV ones) is Honda’s Asimo, who was launched way back in 2000. Each Asimo (apparently, there are at least 60 by now) cost an estimated $1 million to make and there are reports that you can hire one for $150,000 a month.

Temporary staff, even well-trained, motivated and professional people like we provide, don’t cost anything like that much (not to the client, anyway – obviously, we invest huge amounts in them). You hire them when you need them. The clue is in the word temporary…

They are cost effective, they are easy to deploy, you can bring in as many or as few as you need, and if you have the right staffing agency, you’ll have a huge range of skills to choose from.

Buy a robot, you need somewhere to keep it safe (it’s an expensive piece of kit – you don’t want someone jacking it and taking it to the robo chop shop). You need to have someone to fix it when it goes wrong (remember the last time you queued in the supermarket at the self-service tills? How many of them were broken? Think robots are simpler?). You need to have access to a pretty good programmer if you need to change the instruction set and the task parameters. I could go on…

Don’t believe the hype: robots are complicated and expensive.

People are complicated, too. But that’s exactly why a real person is better than any robot or kiosk or interactive system at engaging with other real people – humans understand human complexity, are adaptable and are programmed (by nature) not just to understand speech but also to read subtle non-verbal communications.

We’ve worked for a range of clients, finding and training high quality staff who can engage with passers-by and potential customers. For example, we recently provided Rugby club Saracens with a team of brand ambassadors to look after VIP and corporate clients at the team’s Allianz Park home ground.

Would robots have worked in that situation? I don’t think so. For that level of interaction, you need the human touch.

By James Rix, Co-founder and CEO, Harrix Group (which owns promotional campaigns and staffing agency StreetPR)

*Image credit: HBO


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  • Right Brain, Left Brain sums up the dichotomy of a media business that’s constantly battling with the challenge of delivering a profit and discovering new ways to communicate to consumers. The Cream editorial team combined with a dream team of industry pioneers from around the world share their expert opinions.

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