Arshad Mahmud On AI And The Future Of Copywriting

ByAzleen Abdul Rahim

ChatGPT is presently the trending topic being discussed among the marketing community here in the Asia Pacific. There are even claims that artificial intelligence or AI is definitely going to change the world and the future of marketing. Some are even bold enough to say that it will take over a number of today’s jobs, and one of those jobs is copywriting. What is AI? In short, artificial intelligence is human intelligence manifested by machines, software or tools. AI is able to solve a number of complex problems in seconds or even minutes. From writing codes, and running chatbots to writing tools et al. Besides Chat GPT, there are a number of similar AI-based writing tools being utilised by the marketing community. Rytr, Jasper, Elsa and Chincilla are among them, just to name a few. I was asking Arshad Mahmud, a seasoned Kuala Lumpur-based copywriter, the other day to talk more about this.

Hello Arshad. As you know, people are talking about ChatGPT everywhere. From Twitter to forums and blogs, they said it’s just crazy—in a good way of course. AI is definitely here to stay. And there’s a tweet from one marketer that is considering firing his marketing team as AI can save him a lot of money and yet be able to offer better value. Tell us, is ChatGPT or AI writing tool, in general, really that good? 

Hey Azleen, thanks for having me. Yes, it’s been crazy in the advertising industry since ChatGPT launched. There are copywriters embracing AI, there are those fighting against it. And like any new idea, people are understandably cautious. 

But to your question, is AI good at writing? Well, it depends on the model. Most AI writing tools help writers get out a first draft quickly. Some are even capable of writing for conversion. I’d say it’s good enough to get out a rough first draft. I’m still on the fence when it comes to conversion. But I suspect AI will get better really fast, really soon.

Image | Alex Hormozi,

I’m pretty sure you’ve tried it. Share with us, how was your first-hand experience after using it.

My personal experience is with ChatGPT. I tried different prompts. I tried being vague, then I tried being very specific. The results? It’s beginner-level. In writing general copy, AI lacks context and human nuance. On direct response copy, it’s too structured and awkward. For example, I had prompted ChatGPT to “write this in the style of direct response” 

And the most it did was use a question as an opener, and it added a call to action. That’s it!
That was weeks ago, it may have gotten better now. 

Based on the conversation happening out there, is it going to replace copywriters, bloggers and writers anytime now? Where do you think this thing is going actually?

I can’t speak for bloggers or writers. But for copywriters, I think we will be replaced. Not in the sense you’re thinking though. I’d say 20% of a copywriter’s job is writing. Our day-to-day is more spent understanding consumer behaviour, industry trends, competitors, etc. But the biggest responsibility every copywriter has is creating big ideas. And there aren’t many copywriters who can do this. Even I’m still training the ideation muscle. 

During the time of David Ogilvy, he was only responsible for about 20. So, I suspect, with writing first drafts and doing research… these tedious tasks will be done by AI. Giving copywriters an evolution in their purpose. And that is to craft big ideas. 

I imagine us coming to the office, working from home, talking to our personal AI… “Larry, give me updates on today’s industry trend.” or “Larry, what’s the general perception of consumers about Tesla after the stock dip?” 

Then we’ll take all of the summarised info, and start ideating an exceptional campaign that will be used for years to come.

Years ago, there was a big hype about Google Glass. It didn’t last. Then came VR and metaverse, which the hype is yet to be taken seriously by the majority of the Asian business community in general. Perhaps Asian people prefer real-life experiences better we guess. Will this AI-based writing tool face a similar fate too in your opinion?

Well, if I’m not mistaken, Google Glass was always doomed to fail. Google likes to do these wild crazy projects to push boundaries, but the minute it starts getting traction, they kill it. I don’t know what they do with all the performance data, but I guess it’s there to serve as a guide for future projects. 

VR is gaining some traction. There’s a surge of VR games on Steam, a video game distribution service, and the experience is getting better. I think once manufacturing costs become cheaper, adoption here in Asia will ramp up faster. But Metaverse, I’m not too sure about that. I could be wrong, but it looks like it’s going to die.

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For AI-based writing, unfortunately, I think Asia will be very slow on adopting it. We like to stay comfortably within our own bubble. Because that’s where we feel safe. We know everything about our bubble. AI is the unknown and new things are still emerging.

So who knows? Perhaps my generation or new startups will push Asia into making AI-based tools a norm. I know a few people who are doing it already. 

Unlike our counterparts in Western countries, many business owners and start-up founders in Asia are in the wait-and-see mode. Thanks to our moderate, not-that-high-tech background we inherit culturally. Is the wait-and-see moment here the right thing to do? 

Right thing to do? Hmm… a tough question. I honestly don’t know enough to comment on that. Perhaps business owners have seen this trend before. Something new comes up, the hype for weeks, people join, and then it dies. And the money goes down the drain. 

But if I were a startup founder in Asia, I won’t be focused here. I’ll join our counterparts in Western countries and serve a global audience. The thing is, in Malaysia, we have exceptional talent. When I say exceptional, I mean we’re able to compete with American talents. 

And we’re cheaper too. I had a chat with a colleague about this the other day. And he mentioned that understanding the local nuances would be a barrier. But I believe, thanks to social media and AI, we can overcome that barrier.

Aren’t call centres doing that already? 

How many more years in your opinion will the AI writing tool mature?

Since the announcement of ChatGPT4? I think it’s only going to take a couple of years, or maybe shorter than that. 

Arshad, I personally feel that AI won’t be able to write as deeply as how human writers. FYI I have tried a number of the tools mentioned above, yet I have to correct several sentences still. The AI tool can write but there’s no soul to it. Am I wrong to say this? There are some contradicting opinions out there claiming the opposite. 

Great question. So here’s the thing. The performance of AI is only limited to our imagination AND our knowledge of using prompts. The better we get at prompting, the better the AI performs. That, plus, OpenAI is actively training its models to perform more complex tasks. Which may involve writing with depth, as you mentioned.  

So you have a choice. Do you want to embark on this new job, which some may call prompt engineer, or just chill out as a writer and use AI as a simple first draft tool? Both are fine. 

It is, after all, a tool. And who knows? Copywriters or writers in general may have an entirely new meaning in the future. I’m not even sure if we will be called that. We may be called storycrafters. Trademarked, Arshad Mahmud. Haha! 

Let’s talk about copywriting a little. Some people are confused between copywriting and writing. Do you mind clearing the air here? 

I’ve gotten this question many times, so I’m prepared. A writer is someone who primarily writes for the purpose of creative output. While a copywriter primarily writes for commercial output. While some techniques may overlap, the intention is entirely different. 

Should copywriting work be done in-house or outsourced, what’s your take on this?

Man, you’re putting me on the spot here. Hahaha!

Well, this is according to my experience. So don’t take my word for facts. Just my educated opinion. The way copywriters are trained, currently, will not be enough to meet the expectations of businesses in the near future. It’s costly to make sure a new butler gets your tea right. Especially a butler who is lacking in skill.

It makes more business sense, to marry a dignified woman, who has valuable skills and contributes to your upkeep, as much as you do. She’ll make sure the house is in order. She covers your blind spots, makes you tea, and sometimes, surprises you with coffee. Before you know it, your household has grown in size and in headcount.

You’ll sit there realising, even though scary at first, it’s the best decision you’ve ever made. I trust you get what I’m saying. 

Any parting words?

Advertising is at a crossroads. AI may be the very thing that forces them to decide, whether to innovate and survive or die a gruesome death, which many will be indifferent to. But the ones who have spent years learning their craft and innovating will ride the waves comfortably. 

How to reach you, Arshad?

You can find me on Twitter or Linkedin. Thanks for having me.

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