Sharpening the Field of Digital Advertising | SGInnovate

Sharpening the Field of Digital Advertising

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Topics: AI / Machine Learning / Deep Learning, Investments, Startup and Corporate Open Innovation

Will Hanschell is building Pencil, an AI platform for generating digital content, which he believes will be as fundamental to creativity in the future as the pencil was in the past.



Have you ever clicked on an ad for a pair of jeans, only to have that same pair of jeans follow you around the web as you switch platforms from Google to Facebook? Then, in uncanny timing, you receive a recommendation for a pair of sneakers to match that same pair of jeans?

Thanks to modern digital advertising, brands are able to reach out directly to their consumers across multiple platforms by tapping on biographical data such as gender and age, as well as what they have previously ‘liked’, be it movies or fashion brands. But what ads should companies serve you once they have found you?

“I was working at a creative agency at the time, consulting for brands on their data-driven marketing programmes,” said Mr Will Hanschell, co-founder and CEO of Pencil, the world’s first creative AI for generating digital content. “One of the biggest problems our clients faced was having enough content to satisfy the powerful targeting their data afforded them.” 

His plan: build a tool that helps creatives make lots of ads and then extend it beyond ads to any personalised experience. With that goal in mind, Mr Hanschell left his job, and teamed up with Mr Sumukh Avadhani, a deep-learning and computer-vision specialist who was previously a principal at Google, to launch Pencil.

“Pencil is a creative Artificial Intelligence (AI) company with a vision to put machine creativity into every organisation in a sustainable way,” Mr Hanschell said.


We believe that AI will be as fundamental to creativity in the future as the pencil was in the past. Our goal is to bring the scale and speed of automation to creativity, without killing it.

Will Hanschell

Getting Personalisation Right

Today, creatives increasingly find themselves writing dozens of ad slogans into a spreadsheet, which are then combined with product imagery and automatically served up on social media platforms and search engines. This is a burgeoning industry—in 2018, online advertising finally overtook TV advertising, with 40% of the global advertising budget spent online. 

Getting personalisation right is therefore crucial, Mr Hanschell said, but e-commerce companies, brands and agencies—which increasingly depend on targeted content that is slow and expensive to make, test and refresh—are fundamentally limited by the number of visuals or text they can produce.

Pencil takes a new approach to solving this problem. Using its enterprise product, a generative creative platform called Studio, creative teams can generate compelling original copy and visuals in a scalable manner, for any message or audience. 

The technology works by using computational power to massively experiment, then use AI detection to spot the best ideas. Studio provides predictive feedback to users, using a brand’s history and public data from news or social media, and suggests whether the generated content is likely to be ‘on brand’, differentiated from the competition or effective in a marketing context. 

“One of the great things about applying a new technology is that almost all the challenges you face are new too,” Mr Hanschell said. “A machine charged with generating ad visuals for a cereal brand doesn’t necessarily know that a collection of silver pixels is a spoon, and that spoons go next to bowls around breakfast time, and that spoons aren't generally twice the size of bowls. Some of these datasets don't even exist yet.”

RELATED NEWS: PENCIL RAISES S$1.5m in Wavemaker-Led Seed Round

Creative, Not Creepy Ads

Pencil has started working with a number of high-profile clients, including Sephora SEA, Pond’s (Unilever) and Mindshare (WPP). According to Mr Hanschell, early results indicate a two-fold improvement in advertising performance and a ten-fold reduction in time and cost using Pencil’s technology. More interestingly, the team found that content created from human-AI collaborations outperformed the work of either humans or AI alone.

“Our generative creative platform, Studio, operates under a SaaS model of annual subscription, billed monthly, with a quota of generated language or visuals each month. Writers and designers who use the platform are elevated from routine to conceptual work, and we are working to help them monetise the training they give the system in the future,” he elaborated.

Pencil’s business success, therefore, will depend on whether Mr Hanschell and team can convince e-commerce, brand and agency users to adopt a workflow that is different to how they currently create content—but with a gain in productivity for their teams and improved performance for their advertising.

“We set out not just to use machines to generate advertising content, but to generate compelling content a human writer or designer would approve of. Great advertising is fundamentally about creativity, but advertising is also increasingly targeted. The industry needs technology that can make online ads creative, not creepy,” Mr Hanschell said. 

From Coffee to Clients 

Pencil was founded in March 2018 when Mr Hanschell was a fellow in Entrepreneur First’s third cohort in Singapore. Less than a year later, the company secured S$1.5 million in seed funding led by Wavemaker Partners, together with SGInnovate and Entrepreneur First. Other investors included members of Xoogler Angels, an angel network of Google executives based in Southeast Asia. 

Mr Hanschell credits SGInnovate for supporting Pencil from inception to seed funding, and even for making sure his team had access to lots of free coffee. “First of all, SGInnovate is a big part of the ecosystem of people, ideas and courage that creates companies in Singapore. 32 Carpenter Street was the centre of the universe to many of us in the early days. There was always excellent—and free—coffee,” he said. 

“Then, they put their money in and helped with funding through SG Equity. They helped us to find talent with their Comet and Summation programmes, pushed us to deepen our intellectual property, and even introduced us to customers. Singapore has done well by providing real practical support to early stage companies like us through entities like SGInnovate.”

Here at SGInnovate, we work with entrepreneurial scientists to build and scale their companies. Pencil is the world’s first generative AI platform for creative culturally inspired ad copies and visuals. Find out more about them here.

Topics: AI / Machine Learning / Deep Learning, Investments, Startup and Corporate Open Innovation

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