World Media Group CEO Belinda Barker: don't overlook AI's threat to journalism at Cannes

World Media Group CEO: don’t overlook AI’s threat to journalism at Cannes
The Media Leader Interview: Cannes Lions 2023

The World Media Group CEO says she doesn’t ‘need’ to network but admits Cannes Lions’ biggest draw is the chance to network. So why’s she making a rare appearance this year?

It was the sight of the marina that put off Belinda Barker from going to Cannes Lions for many years.

“It was the excruciating amounts of money that [was] thrown around without any consideration for carbon footprint,” the World Media Group CEO says with a sigh. “It felt a bit uncomfortable to me. So I’d be very interested to see how that has changed or if that has changed.”

We are speaking ahead of Barker’s first trip to Cannes Lions for many years and the first year that World Media Group has held a format event at the annual advertising festival. Barker, who has been CEO of the international media owners’ alliance for 16 years, regards this year’s jamboree as a reconnaissance mission as much as anything else.

This is partly strategic: some media companies have traditionally made a big splash at Cannes, adorning the resort town with branded boats, sponsored events and a “floating presence”, as Barker describes it.

But, frankly, Barker confides, the major draw of Cannes Lions is networking and, perhaps unlike ad agencies, tech services vendors and media owner salespeople, networking isn’t her priority.

“I have a close group of members,” she says.” “But for the brands, it is certainly much more about networking, and very little about the actual awards.”

This year, however, the WMG, Politico and Insider are hosting a “low key” session this morning on the impact of artificial intelligence on media, a topic which would be sure to dominate conversation through the week. Whereas many of this year’s Cannes Lions winners may triumph for innovative applications of AI, the media owners are, according to Barker, far more concerned about the tech’s short-term impact.

Barker explains: “For publishers, the issue is around copyright. It’s about funding journalism through advertising and subscription. But these language learning models scrape everything, they don’t pay for any of the information that they’re using… Google’s one, Bard, is still in test mode but can even scrape [information] from behind [publishers’] paywalls. Now they say that they’re going to turn that off, but that doesn’t change the fact it undermines the payment model of journalism, and that is something that needs to be sorted out really quickly.”

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AI: ‘we’re always going to need the human touch’

Part of WMG’s mission is to promote the values of journalism to the advertising community, but Barker is worried that brand marketers will overlook the potential threats to journalism posed by AI and be enamoured with cost-saving benefits which, as she puts it, “is really only upside for them”.

“For marketers, it’s largely positive, all these capabilities around hyper-personalization, both in terms of email, account-based personalization, and even, you know, advertising personalization. Yes, they’re going to have to change their skill base to be able to take advantage of these things, but there is really a lot of upside for them.”

Barker then relays some big numbers from reports she has read recently, such as how “80% of [brand] account responsibilities could disappear.” She is sceptical that AI and automation will impact marketing services to such a large degree, claiming that “we’re always going to need the human touch… particularly for high-end brands where their brand voice is so important.”

The clear implication is that Google, Microsoft, OpenAI, and other AI developers need to be regulated. Barker nods enthusiastically when the word “regulation” is brought up, but warns it’s a complicated task because “it’s not a country-specific issue… We’re going to end up with different legislation in in different countries, which is going to be impossible to manage.”

Perhaps paradoxically, but understandably, Barker is worried about the quality of generative AI declining over time once the bots are regulated. A program like ChatGPT is so attractive because it crunches through huge databases of quality information and is able to select appropriate information when creating responses to carefully-word tasks.

What happens when bad actors start figuring out how to feed AI models with disinformation or low-quality content, or when AI programs create information that is is then fed into other AI LLMs? A copy of a copy, to be reductive.

“Once it’s out there, if there’s enough of it out there, it starts feeding into the system because generative AI doesn’t qualify what’s good content and what’s bad content. The quality of generative AI could actually decline over time. It could end up eating itself.”

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‘Why are women not connecting with news?’

As tantalising as the thought of cyber-cannibalism sounds, this thought is not what animates Barker most during the interview. She is speaking to The Media Leader shortly after the release of the annual Reuters Digital News Report, which contained some hard numbers to swallow for newsbrand executives.

The UK fared particularly badly and Barker complains how “upsetting” it is to find a decline in the number of people connecting with news declining with by 10 percentage points.

The gender split makes things worse, she says: “For those that do connect with the news, they tend to be male and educated, which, as a woman really pisses me off – why are the hell are women not connecting with quality news?”

Why do you think that is, The Media Leader asks. “It makes no sense to me at all. I just don’t get it,” she replies.

The WMG’s Cannes briefing, The Implication of Generative AI on Trust and Truth in Marketing, is hosted by Politico and Insider at the Hotel Barriere Le Majestic in Cannes, takes place at 9.45am CET and features Evan Bretos, director of The Washington Post’s Newsroom Special Initiatives & Partnerships, and Amir Malik, Accenture’s MD, Growth.

Click here to read the rest of our coverage from throughout the week at Cannes.

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