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From Web 2.0 to AI – Tracing the Second Wave of Digital Transformation

David Nicholson

Key takeaways

  • AI is extending the advances of Web 2.0 from information to goods
  • Billing practices will need to account for ‘human intervention’
  • Digital marketeers must innovate, test and learn
  • Speed and scale are the main advantages of AI

David Nicholson: Jeremy, thank you for taking the time to talk today. We’re going to talk about the impact of AI. Looking back at your time as an academic in the mid-2000s, tell me why you think history is repeating itself? 

Jeremy Depauw: As a PhD researcher, I spent four years studying how Web 2.0 was transforming the work of communication professionals. I found that new digital content formats like blogs, wikis, podcasts, content-sharing platforms and social networks created a change of paradigm in the way people created, published and consumed online content. For example, how anyone can edit a Wikipedia page or write a blog. This led to publishing content for sharing, leading to social media, where you create a profile and connect with others. In other words: anybody can publish anything.

This new access to publishing tools rocked the professional world across all industries, although some were faster to respond than others. It was particularly impactful on corporate communications, market research, PR, competitive intelligence and journalism. Instead of the high price of being online, with formal professionalism, on recognised websites, Web 2.0 meant that a 15-year-old in their bedroom could publish what they wanted.

From a formal assessment of sources, people turned to the authority and reputation of authors. What had been common in academia transferred into the real world. 

DN: What happened after you completed your PhD?

JD: After four years observing from the outside, I realised I wanted to join the circus. Danone gave me a chance in 2009. I was fortunate to work also for Coca Cola Europacific Partners before joining Diageo in 2020 as Global Head of Digital B2B. It was in 2022 at a work event, where a Harvard academic shared a model on the rise of marketplaces and 3P models, that it struck me: we’re now in a world where anybody can sell anything. We’ve moved from publishing content to selling goods. I realised that this is the next iteration of the transformation that began with Web 2.0. 

DN: Where do you see this next iteration leading?

JD: For a few years, people have been talking about Web 3.0, including blockchain technology, virtual reality, NFTs, etc. In a way, they are still very much in the realm of transactions between individuals or groups. But when I finally paid attention to generative AI through the rise of ChatGPT, I woke up. I am now convinced that we are living through a new paradigm shift, where the lines are blurred between humans and machines. 

DN: What should we be looking out for?

JD: As industries and individuals, we will be confronted by critical business and ethical questions. I think a fundamental reflection is required to redefine authority and ownership, identity and intellectual property. Who is the author of content generated through AI technology? Who is accountable for it? Who owns it? And there are of course all the questions of biases and toxicity.

It will probably soon be time to rethink how some businesses run. We will have to start invoicing for different things: instead of billing for (let’s say) writing 500 words or creating an image, we’ll have to bill for ‘human intervention’. People will need to justify what value they’re adding. AI reminds me of the transformations of Web 2.0, and I think there are lessons that can be drawn between both to accelerate our learning curve today. 

DN: How can digital marketing professionals best respond to these challenges and opportunities?

JD: I think that the learning we can take is that, within industries and professional branches, the people who reacted and transformed their businesses best under Web 2.0 were those that found a fine balance between “ignoring the trends” and jumping too hard into it. How do I selectively use these new tools for the benefit they bring today without forgetting my core business? At the same time, how do I stay curious and open, to make sure I keep my business ready for the future? 

It is way too soon to jump to conclusions about this paradigm shift. It’s all well and good to have a chatbot, but if it doesn’t connect a customer complaint with the relevant salesperson, then ChatGPT’s not going to cut it. 

DN: Do you see people jumping on the bandwagon?

JD: Whether your brand is selling B2C or B2B, people are very excited about marketing technology and how data can optimise the funnel and create new journeys. But things have never been so fragmented. A large multinational used to work with around five agencies, but now there are integrators and agencies selling SAAS and everyone’s saying that AI is going to transform your life. 

DN: What are the dangers for digital marketing?

JD: There are two pitfalls that I try to avoid in my role as a digital professional.

The first is rushing in too fast and expecting that, with technology, you won’t have to think about the relationship you are trying to build and the communication you are creating. The feedback I’m getting from round table discussions with peers is that AI will make everything much easier.

In the end, you still need to have a message you want to convey and you need to understand how to communicate and engage with customers based on proper insights. Any marketing interaction gets its relevance when scripted with a human in mind. It can be recreated using technology and CRM etc, but it is still a human interaction. You can’t expect AI to do it all on your behalf or to generate the insights. 

On the other hand, a second mistake would be complacency and to overlook AI and say: “It’s not relevant for us” or “we have always done it like that”. You’re probably doing something in 2023 that you weren’t in 2005-2010. So marketing technologies and data are enablers and it is important to stay informed and open. Ideally, make sure you innovate, test and learn. Ignore AI or any new tech at your own risk! Look at the examples of Kodak and Blockbuster Video.

DN: You mentioned earlier some important considerations around GenAI and its impact on our lives. What are your thoughts on the impact on ownership?

JD: In terms of web users and consumers, I come back to the paradigm shift and the parallels from Web 2.0 to today. AI is moving the needle on ownership, and the ramifications – bearing in mind that I’m not a futurologist – will be that a brand’s authority, its originality, its IP, will become more important than ever. It will be ever more crucial to ensure that the brand protects this currency.

DN: What should digital marketeers do, to harness AI in the best way?

JD: The paradigm shift of AI is not a copy of Web 2.0 but something deeper. This makes it important to dig into how it emerged, to identify the structure and the line of enquiry. Can we find a framework, so that if we understand the past, we can understand the future? I think it’s important to keep a cool head and take a sensible and responsible approach. The worst thing would be another gold rush, with the inevitable crash further down the line.


DN: When we look back at Web 2.0, it felt like a process of democratisation, giving publishing tools to everyone, whereas AI seems like the opposite: concentrating power in a few hands. Is that how you see it?

JD: In theory, Web 2.0 can be seen through the prism of democratisation, but we have seen the best and the worst of what people can do online. Overall, I like what [Apple CEO] Tim Cook said recently: “Technology is neither inherently good nor inherently bad, it is what we make of it.” And AI is a tool that has benefits of making things more efficient, accelerating progress and improving lives. 

For me, for example, AI has been a great leveller. As a non-native English speaker [Depauw is Belgian and attended the Université Libre de Bruxelles], I use Grammarly to improve my sentences. This is tremendously helpful when I present a transformation project or engage with senior people.

I hope AI isn’t going to turn into a ‘Terminator’ situation, where humans are replaced by machines, but more of an ‘Iron Man’ situation, where AI provides tools to front-line people working in digital transformation. 

DN: Where do you see the most relevance for consumer goods companies?

JD: Within the context of consumer goods, I think AI can have a direct impact on the ease and speed and scale at which you can create commodities. It improves the efficiency of operations that were cumbersome in the past. For example, I’ve been in B2B for seven years in Diageo and Coca-Cola and I’ve struggled to convince teams to pay for a photo-shoot of a pallet – of the kind that we distribute to customers. It’s now much easier to scale and accelerate this kind of creation, it’s like an upgrade on existing processes. 

DN: Does the same apply to the way you use data?

JD: I’d love to say that it was a silver bullet, but my experience is that there are still a lot of organisational silos. There is still work to do. I think in the medium term, it would be healthy to start thinking about this, to train the next generation of marketeers on what is the value of strong marketing in the world of generative AI. 

How do you train, value, and reward marketeers, because in a world in which a lot of things you value have become commodities, how can you value yourself?

Jeremy Depauw is Global Head of Websites Ecosystem at drinks giant Diageo, owner of the Guinness, Johnnie Walker and Gordon’s brands, with 23,000 employees and an annual turnover above $28 billion. He previously worked for Danone and Coca Cola Europacific Partners before joining Diageo in 2020 as Global Head of Digital B2B.

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