Can AI Recreate the Mind of Don Draper?

In 2007, when business pages first started appearing on Facebook, two friends, Brennan White and Matt Peters, recognized that marketing was changing. Social media was giving consumers a voice that allowed them to interact with brands, opening up marketing to the possibility of two-way communication with customers. They founded a social media agency called Pandemic Labs where they have worked with various big brands, including DirecTV and Dunkin’ Donuts. Then they caught on to the next big digital trend: Artificial Intelligence (AI).

They started Cortex in 2014 in an attempt to create a utility for creative decision making. Using AI, Cortex directs content creation based on your historical marketing performance and the data of your competition.

I was intrigued by this concept, so I sat down with Brennan and Matt to discuss their vision.

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“This area of creativity has been this last holdout. There has been no software to help it…” —Matt

Software exists to aid various aspects of marketing, from project management to tracking social media posts, but before Cortex, there was no product to address the issue of content creation. “Everyone thinks you’re just supposed to be Don Draper and drink a bunch of scotch and come up with this like unbelievably awesome idea,” said Matt. That might have worked in the past when marketers and advertisers only had to come up with one great piece of content per year for an ad for TV or radio. However, because of social media, that same job might entail creating dozens or even hundreds of unique pieces of content per day. That strategy of drinking a lot of alcohol and coming up with good ideas isn’t going to work at that scale, and that’s where Cortex can help.


“The human and the AI together can do something better than either the human alone or the AI alone…” — Matt

People tend to worry about AI replacing human workers or allowing robots to take over the world. Cortex’s goal is not to replace human marketers. Instead, by enhancing the creative process, Cortex makes social media managers better at their job. Thus, “we’re not replacing you, we’re making you more important,” said Brennan.

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“If anyone tells you there’s a right Instagram post for everyone, they’re lying to you.” —Brennan

So how does my software know what I should be posting on Instagram?

Essentially, it learns what makes a good piece of content. Each thing that can be recognized by AI is called a feature. Cortex can recognize various features, from post length and timing to the colors and objects in a photo. Cortex then works to figure out which of these features help you reach your specific goals. You might be optimizing for likes, shares or clicks, or someday soon, even a specific reaction on Facebook. Cortex is able to account for your data and your competitors’ data to figure out what types of content will perform well among your target audience. Since there are so many factors to think about when optimizing performance, it’s helpful to have AI analyzing the data and providing feedback, so you craft the best content possible.

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“The most important thing that people need is the ability to write.” —Brennan

Finally, I asked Brennan and Matt for some career advice. They said to have a successful career in social media marketing, make sure you can write well without making any mistakes. You should be able to reliably write grammatically correct tweets and Facebook posts because billion dollar companies cannot have you using the wrong “its” while representing them.

Additionally, it helps to build a portfolio of creative work. Credentials are nice. The fact that you took IS6621 is great, but the sooner you can demonstrate your ability, the better.

For students in Professor Kane’s class who might be looking for a job, apply to Pandemic Labs if you want to work at a social media agency and apply to Cortex if you want to work on cutting edge technology for the marketing industry. Oh, and Matt asks that you please stop listing Microsoft Office on your resume as something that you’re good at.

-Jess, @jayyayybee


  1. I’m reposting a comment I made earlier today on an older post as it’s relevant here too:

    Hey Gang, Brennan White here (Founder of the company discussed in this post).

    I just stumbled across this post after reading Jessica’s post from today discussing Cortex. Thanks so much for profiling us. Great commentary and thoughts in the comments here.

    This seems like an amazing class. I wish we had something like this back in my day. You students are lucky to be able to look at things academically before being thrust into the working world. We had to do our own testing when we first started. This class should prepare you well.

    To follow up on the desire for results and the legitimate questions you have on this front, I’ve shared some real stats below. Like Profkane says, I believe real numbers are the only standard that matters:

    The first customer that I have access to in my personal account that I’m allowed to share is The Ritz-Carlton. So we’ll use them as the case study.

    Since Dyhuang’s post (that I’m responding to) until today, 353 days have elapsed. During that time period (all of which has been supported by Cortex), they have sustained a 2.1% engagement rate on Facebook vs 0.596% of their comp set. That’s 3.5x higher, sustained over almost exactly one year.

    Since they choose their comp set, and since this date range is based on the date of this discussion, this isn’t cherry-picked data.

    On Twitter over that same time period, they’ve sustained a 0.185% engagement rate vs 0.018% of their comp set. That’s 10.25x higher.

    On Instagram over the same period they sustained 1.77% vs 0.404% for their comp set (4.38x better).

    In the game of big-brand content marketing, all of these companies are spending millions on their content in the form of photographers, videographers, designers, influencers, events, agencies, and advertising support. That’s a significant investment. The “return” on that investment is marketing results (defined however they define or optimize their goals).

    If a technology like Cortex can help a company sustain a 3-10x return on that investment vs their competition, that’s a huge competitive gain. That means, their competitor, if they spent the same exact budget, would receive 3-10x less value from that investment. Or, put a more meaningful way to a business person, the competitor would have to spend many times what a Cortex customer spends to achieve the same result. That’s the ultimate point of using machine learning to improve both your content and content deployment strategy.

    Full disclosure, these results above are particularly good. Our average customer sees a sustained 50% and 400% increase against their competition after a couple months with Cortex.

    Happy to share more. If interested, just reach out – b (at) meetcortex (dot) com

    Keep up the great posts on this blog. I’m excited to catch up on my reading.

    Thanks Jerry and Jessica.

  2. Really creative and interesting post! As a Mad Man/Don Draper fan, the title immediately caught my eye. But the idea behind Cortex is pretty fascinating. I think a lot of us immediately question if Artificial Intelligence can actually work because on a deeper level there is that fear that technology will replace us. And also our pride tells us that a machine won’t be able to produce better work than humans can. But once we put these doubts aside, it is clear that AI can enhance our efforts–as Cortex isn’t trying to replace us. The fact that social media is becoming an increasingly bigger part of our lives means that it will become harder to manage, and technology like Cortex seems like a great tool to help navigate and act on these deeper analytics. Thanks for this super interesting post, I’ll be interested to see what happens in the future!

  3. Nice post. I actually have spoken to Brennan before, as he is the brother in law of a colleague of mine. He actually sent me an email about your post. Nice work!

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