AI has caused a ‘rapid evolution’ in digital marketing

7 Dec 2023

Colin Hetherington, Zoo Digital MD.

Colin Hetherington discusses the changing world of digital advertising, his company’s expansion to the US and the changes AI will bring to the sector.

Colin Hetherington is the managing director of Zoo Digital, a Dublin-based advertising agency that promotes businesses online with the help of data and technology.

Hetherington has been leading the company since it was founded in 2008, helping it grow from an initial team of three to its current workforce of 27 people.

He has more than two decades of experience in the digital marketing sector, being a communications manager and MD for two other companies before taking the reins of Zoo Digital.

As a result, Hetherington has witnessed the industry grow from its humble beginnings of banner advertisements to the powerful entity it is today.

“The core marketing tenet – getting and keeping customers – has remained the same in all my previous jobs,” Hetherington said. “But how the techniques, technologies and platforms have changed – it’s sometimes jaw-dropping when you think how far we’ve come from email banner ads.”

Hetherington said he is grateful for the support of his dad when he was younger, as he never stopped his son as he explored “this very new area of the internet and all things digital”.

“He was always quietly encouraging me even though none of us knew what it really was all about and for that, I’m forever grateful to him,” Hetherington said. “I’m really proud of 20-year-old me sticking at it, seeing there was something in digital, proving its impact to clients and the industry and ultimately riding the rollercoaster that was the development of digital media – something we totally take for granted now.”

The rise of AI

In terms of changes to the sector, Hetherington said “the machines are coming” and that AI and machine learning will play a more significant role in digital advertising. He said this technology presents opportunities assisting “personalisation, message automation and data analysis”.

“Advertisers and marketers will leverage these technologies to have a greater understanding of customer behaviour and as a result deliver more targeted and relevant communications,” he said. “We’re not quite Minority Report but we’re on the way.”

AI has been making its presence known in more sectors recently, with companies and consumers both taking a greater interest in this technology since the launch of ChatGPT last year.

But while the technology presents potential benefits, Hetherington also described it as a potential challenge and noted that generative AI has already caused a “rapid evolution” in digital marketing and advertising.

“Creativity was once considered the domain of humans, this is no longer the case, though we are in the very early days,” Hetherington said. “It’s going to be fascinating to see how creative companies adopt this next wave of new technologies, which are forcing us to evolve our business models as well.”

Looking beyond Ireland

Hetherington said the core elements of his job are providing strategic direction to clients, working with his team on projects and growing the company. He scored a big win in that third task last year, when Zoo Digital joined the Connelly Partners service group, an advertising agency based in the US.

The deal has helped Zoo Digital to enter the US market and has given it another experienced business to collaborate with.

“We work hard to maintain our company culture and continue to be good folks to work with, so much so that Connelly Partners invited us to join their global team, retaining our brand within their international family,” Hetherington said.

“Over the past two years now, we’ve been working quietly in the background winning new contracts both home and abroad, while creating a centre of digital marketing excellence here in Dublin to service all of Connelly Partners’ clients. So, that’s all certainly keeping us busy.”

In terms of leading his growing workforce, Hetherington believes trust is the key way to get staff to enjoy their job and “deliver great results”.

“Let them do what they do – as I’ve said, we have great teams all with different skills – what we try to do is enable them to bring those skills to the collective table,” he said. “I think a good team also needs to be listened to and get honest answers back.”

Hetherington is also taking more time to focus on his personal life, as he has been so focused on his business that he has “only recently started to develop more personal goals for myself”.

“They are currently all involving the midlife classics – being healthy, maximising the time with the family and cultivating my hobbies,” he said. “I can confirm though, I do not plan to have any lycra in my future.”

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic