Jailhouse Juggernaut

A friend of mine recently shared an article by Verge  that talks about how inmates in two prisons in Finland have been recruited for AI tagging exercises by a start-up. He quipped that if inmates were doing so called ‘digital’ work should those who grace the halls of Ad Lands fear for their livelihood. Here are my thoughts.

First things first. For the uninitiated,the task described is basically training an AI algorithm to become smarter by helping it to identify certain things. A repetitive task that is human intensive manual labour.

Imagine for example you need to teach an AI to understand what an apple looks like on a webcam. You do so by showing it millions of images of apples of different shapes and sizes, and combinations. Tagging each image with the caption of an apple in the process. So when a user holds up an apple and an apricot in either hand, the AI uses its ‘learned experience’ pick out the apple. Seems simple enough?

By and large this is menial repetitive work, most of us wouldn’t want to put on our CVs. Or even want to do. Agencies can’t quite afford to get into this space with their high overheads – even if they recruit an army of interns to get this done. So what’s wrong with outsourcing it and getting prisoners to do it? After all, running prisons takes big bucks and why don’t those who are incarcerated help pay the tax payer’s bills and make something out of it in the long run?

An underlying question being asked is, whether this is the tip of the iceberg. Are we embarking on a slippery slope that could in the future seem to rob Ad Land of its digital talent and prowess? And more importantly its revenue? I think not. This model could in fact help bring costs down and has a lot of scope to be adapted into the rest of advertising operations.

Let’s define digital

The phrase ‘digital’ is a misnomer these days, covering such a wide umbrella of things from content, video, voice, AR, AI, to media buying and social media & community management. And that isn’t even one tenth of the list. It is ever evolving. It is not just that one thing or technology in fad and focus these days that fuel the entire matrix of activities. It’s everything in a complex ecosystem that grows as complex as the environmental ecosystem that surround us on this planet.

But let’s paint a picture with broader strokes. The digital work in Ad Land falls broadly into buckets of building experiences and conceptualising messaging for platforms. Think of these two buckets as the roots. Everything else, whether it is Big Data, Small Data, AI, Programmatic or whatever is in fad, supports these two main roots.

In order to grow these two roots you will have two kinds of work. The manual repetitive kind like watering the plant daily and the kind that gets your prized petunia ready for the flower show. While advertising work isn’t so generic in that it has to adapt to different seasons and demands, there will always be routine work that can be outsourced. It is this kind of work that a startup outsourced to in Finland.

It doesn’t demean Ad Land or this start-up’s digital prowess or talent in any way. The question we should be asking though is that instead of being afraid, can we capitalize and build such a symbiotic model that makes business sense.

There’s a story in there somewhere

To be honest, my initial reaction to the original article story, was that it was perfect fodder for fiction. I can just see a story evolving about how the incarcerated computer hacker slips a bit of code to another inmate who is working on the program. Teaching him how to bypass security safeguards to build some malicious piece of software code that takes over the AI, or helps instrument a prison break in the process. In a very slow count of Monte Cristo kind of way as the person has only twenty minutes or so with the program each day. It could be brilliant! Add in the hot-shot detective and the typical prison warden baddie. And the final showdown at the Alamo ala Last Castle. Sure it needs a little bit more spice. It’s probably been done before. Somebody will do it again, just better.

Has digital expertise lost its niche?

This is the second question posed. At the surface, if you think about it, digital is no longer a niche expertise of the white collared knowledge worker, or the sole specialty of digital agencies. Digital success stories are often portrayed as the success of small teams in bedrooms, garages and backyards as such. But the truth is colleges around the world are minting so called digital ready (and these days A.I.) talent in the millions. Today digital is de-facto. You don’t need to croon to be digital first as a diffrentiator.

What’s more, the tools and the craft has become much more accessible. It’s never been easier to create your own digital presence, put a website out there or a social campaign for that matter. I’ve seen fresh talent that have portfolios built on less complex platforms that rival people who have been in the business for years. Why? Because they used later tools that were simpler to wield and focussed on the outcome.

The number of tools out there are growing threefold every day. Whether it is design tools (free or paid) prototyping tools, the army of social media tools or even coding tools there’s just so much choice to choose for different levels of expertise to craft that next digital experience today. What’s more the number of really high-quality stock image, video and sound sites out there are ensure you have raw material to work with. There is no monopoly on tool, or resources. There is no niche of talent either. There are hundreds of online courses and universities that one can certify themselves from in the latest tools and techniques.

In fact, we’re at the cusp of experiencing the coin flip of expertise and technology. We are minting more and more digital talent into the workforce and what was once ‘traditional talent’ is turning niche. Take people who specialize in packaging design for example. An old but still in demand niche. But with everyone focusing on up-skilling their digital skills, finding good packaging talent is hard.

The generation that we call ‘Digital natives’ are slowly gaining experience and growing upwards in the workforce, but when it comes to more senior positions, the ability to have had a digital track record of some kinds still earns merit. The problem is expectations are more from these talents considering digital’s ever increasing scope.

So all hope is not lost. But the use of prison inmates to farm out digital production work is an interesting new take of what Ad Land could harness in the years to come. It is just another step in the rapid proliferation of digital.

We can speak volumes

So back to the example at hand. The main issue is the volume of the work and the nature of the work. Its true agencies as they have been traditionally structured aren’t well equipped to do volume work. Unless it’s an agency that is also offering to complete the consumer cycle by offering call-centre and support services to its clients. There are few agencies like that out there. This though has traditionally been the territory of the likes of consulting companies. I’m looking at you Accenture.

So while most advertising agencies may conceive of building AI projects, this kind of training and development work for the AI is likely outsourced already. In fact, clients may be surprised to know how much coding and development work an agency is capable of doing in-house. I recall a certain client specifically asking the agency if the development was going to be undertaken in-house and whether it was going to be done through a third-party. The agency reassured it wasn’t. In truth it likely wouldn’t have been had the work been taken on. This is a story that occurs again and again across at least half of Ad Land.

So the question is not whether work should be outsourced. The question is who can you outsource it to, that has the capabilities and who will do it cheapest without eating into the agency’s budget, while providing work that is error free and up to spec. How discerning do you think the bean counters will be? Usually, developing countries like Indonesia and Philippines with their rich talent and lower currencies benefit, becoming the outsourcing hubs for companies in Singapore. And then there are the online freelancing portals. Intermediaries that clients can go to and source content from at a cheaper rate than what their agency is paying for. Which is what makes what the startup Vainu in collaboration with the Finnish Incarceration system so intriguing. The ethical dilemma aside, they are obviously making a killing. It’s almost criminal. But perhaps it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the possibilities.

Introducing The Shadow Agency

So let’s take a minute and talk about the possibilities. A wild guess.

In the day of agile teams and weekly sprint’s and the multitude of amazing internal processes we have; the client more often than not doesn’t actually see how agencies work on their projects (unless the team works on a model of secondment that is growing popular). It is very rare for a client to come down to the agency and work shoulder-to-shoulder with the creative team. I should know, when it did happen for the P&G client I was working with, it kind of freaked my boss out. But it made pushing out a new design faster. So if most of Ad Land’s work is outsourced and obscured with a smoke and mirrors treatment and client servicing teams are being assailed by clients demanding more cost effectiveness and apparent transparency, perhaps it’s time for Ad Land to give this a little rethink. What is the next step to optimising your outsourcing? Finding something can do the work at half the cost but at the same price. Captive talent at throwaway prices.

What if the agency were to split its operations. Create a shadow agency that mirrors and takes over a bulk of the operations and takes over the bulk of the menial repetitive work allowing the agency to focus its thinking and creative efforts. This is a model that is not new.  You could also think of how finance and hospitality industries have split operations into back office and front office. Even in Ad Land, a lot of companies that operate across markets for economies of scale do this already. So let’s say you are a Singapore based advertising agency (front office client facing), you are likely outsourcing digital work to your agency employees sitting in Philippines and Indonesia (back office that does the work), coordinating between the same. Consulting companies also have similar arrangements across the globe. But your client facing team is based in Singapore and the client is none the wiser. So why not take a step further and outsource your work to a shadow agency built within the incarceration system? Allow the reformed criminal types to explore their creative side and business acumen apart from taking part of the bulk repetitive and production work. Now bear with me. I can see those eyes rolling from over here.

Digital by and large is the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter where you are from and your background, if you have the skills you are likely going to be able to make an impact and build or market an initial product. Digital lore is built on the stories of AirBnb, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and more.  So why don’t you harness a dormant workforce that is committed to working for you around the clock, because they literally have nothing better to do. They are likely to be uber focussed.

The purists will argue that blood sweat and tears have been shed to get into advertising and that their expertise is second to none. That it is art and craft that trumps anything that is teachable. While there is certainly some truth in it – you can’t quite replace experience, but when it comes to digital skills and project builds, the ability to access literature to self-learn and certify yourself, as we discussed above, is unparalleled. You can literally train an army of developers sitting in prison.

When it comes to say building a website’s backend or anything under the hood, it’s a matter of training. It is also perfect for systematic and repetitive tasks. Webmastering. Uploading content for example, website content management, SEO tagging or even identifying and  flagging down social media posts to someone who should read and respond (wouldn’t want the convicts to respond would we).

But where does the line end. Why stop in training convicts to code? How about to write, to ideate and to strategize. These are people who have time on their hand to think out problems. But there are caveats and concerns. Kinks in the system that will need working out. But it is the idea in itself that is intriguing. Create mirror departments of your key departments or interface points and balance the bulk of the workforce within the incarceration system while your agency out there is the spear-head of operations.

The considerations

How attuned are inmates to popular culture and human nature: The first question from an advertising standpoint is this. These are people who have been removed from society so how can they possibly come up with something that is rooted in cultural conflict. This is a real hurdle. Yet prison systems are where human nature and culture gets stripped down to its bare bones. Shouldn’t inmates understand human behaviour and our motivations best? This is going to boil down to a question of access. How much can we afford to give convicts access to the material they need to churn out the right insights and make the connections they need. So let’s be frank, getting them to do strategy perhaps is not the easiest for this so called shadow agency.

How about creative work? Copywriting and art-work of a certain kind is easy to be outsourced for certain. If not the final spec work, this is definitely a rich source of inspirational starters to tap into.

What kind of operations can you outsource to correctional facilities?

One example of out-sourcable work that could be easily achieved would be say a cloud based video editing service. Think about it, some account manager puts in a brief online and a creative person from the same team uploads assets like a script and links to reference video footages. Somewhere behind closed bars you see this burly tattooed inmate sitting in a prison editing suite way into the night enjoying being able to do the first rough edit under the watchful eyes of his keepers. The world would be none the wiser if half of the advertising was being prepped this way.

The other area is research. Not necessarily the in-depth market research kind. But more of the data tabulation and analysis kind. I am sure there are a lot of white collar criminals out there who know their numbers.

Another task is cataloguing or maintaining what we used to call guard books. A competitive analysis and tabulation of competitor advertisements, tagging them into an online resource that is accessible by the agency to check what work is already out there. Or it could be internal footage that exists in cassette or DVD formats that need to be digitised into a repository. This kind of cataloguing work and data sorting is something that could be done through a cloud based interface.

Aren’t we scared about how much we let convicts do?

The only reason why we don’t hear more of these stories turning really is that we are afraid. These are convicts after all. People who by their very nature of breaking the law means they can’t quite follow rules. Advertising is filled with rule breakers, just not this type. How do we then ensure that the convicts aren’t savvy enough to terrorise potential victims through cyber-attacks if they can circumvent safeguards.  

Perhaps something could be borrowed from the idea of air gapping. Create a network of air-gapped computers and deliverables are made through physical deliverables.

The entire system could be put behind the facade of a go-to website cloud based service. At first glance, it wouldn’t be any different from the number of freelancing and portfolio community websites that you have online today.

Whatever the solution we do conceive of, if we can teach convicts to learn traditional craftsman skills to do work, we can surely teach them to do advertising related work and create a new resource for Ad Land to leverage. Half of advertising is a con job after all, it just might turn into a con’s job.