The sudoku problem and the delusion of conservative ad men

This is in response to Mr. Rory sutherland’s article about targeting in advertising. Read that article before reading this one.

“By deluding everyone that the whole of advertising is reducible to “the efficient and inexpensive delivery of targeted messages” through the extensive use of data and algorithms, two companies have gained a multi-billion-dollar rent-seeking monopoly over the majority of advertising activity.”

– The extraordinarily persuasive Mr. Rory Sutherland in his campaignlive article.

Bang on. But right after identifying the problem correctly, he then completely misses the big picture.

1. Platforms are relevant beyond advertising. Agencies aren’t.
Yes, facebook and google create the illusion of measurable effectiveness of comms through targeting, even as it turns out, it is just as much a gamble as traditional media was. But Mr. Rory doesn’t comprehend the broader utility of these technological giants. They aren’t simply channels of communications. They are default platform of commerce, knowledge & social connections. They inform not just marketing but supply chain strategies, go-to-market strategies and even new product development. These platforms are fundamentally shaping the new era of business growth. The ‘sudoku’ like big picture consciousness needs to take this into account. It needs to take into account the fact that these platforms are fundamentally changing the way we work, we behave, we interact and we live.
So, my first moment of ‘wtf’ came when Mr. Rory thought that the multi-billion dollar rent-seeking was just about ‘advertising activity’. Either he needs to appreciate the far broader footprint of that ‘activity’ where creative agencies don’t compete or he should look for reasons within the creative industry for why we aren’t getting a share of any of that activity.
I don’t particularly like the tech giants myself. But advertising industry is no innocent minnow either. It has always been a morally grey industry. So for its statesman to target the tech industry while absolving itself of its failing fortunes, felt a bit weak. The sense one gets is “we don’t need to change, you should. we are not muddled in our heads, you are.”  Which is horseshit ofcourse.

2. False duality of Targeting/ Creativity:
I wholehearted agree that obsessing about targeting is problematic, not just strategically but even morally and hopefully eventually legally.  But with metaphors of sudoku and door man, he ends up creating a false sense  of comprehensiveness with targeting & creativity. Indeed he talks about sudoku – the big picture consciousness needed to solve the problem, but doesn’t take into account the big picture of advertising operations. We are way too busy advising businesses about their transformation to notice the need for our own transformation.

He essentially creates a false duality about targeting & Creativity. Advertising comprises of far more acts than that of creative messaging and targeting. As a matter of fact, technology’s relevance for advertising is precisely outside of these two acts – servicing, client feedback, HR, research, basic analysis even creative inspiration … all these tasks that support creativity can be improved with technology. And they can improve only by ‘breaking-down-to-manageable-parts’ approach. The sudoku metaphor, though very enticing feels wrong. The sudoku metaphor is relevant for big picture strategy or pure acts of creativity. But no other process beyond it. and there are far too many processes beyond these two processes in advertising.

3. The untold story about the doorman: So in Rory Sutherland’s piece, tech company automates the door and boom – end of the hotel. But in reality, there is a story after that. Unlike our industry, tech industry is notoriously good at improving with feedback. They are famously ‘forever in beta’. They would recognise the error, and plan ahead. perhaps by creating  gadget for the doorman to greet different patrons in different language. Perhaps, by creating a entry chamber that is even more secure and pleasurable to enter into. The possible improvements are endless with creative thinking.
What I am trying to get at is… tech will improve the processes that it can improve until no improvements are needed. And unless agencies get on with the ‘arms race of feedback led improvements’, we are doomed to get thrown out by the doorman like he would a bum.

4. Tech’s role in advertising:
Do clients want us to be more nimble, more responsive? how can it happen without tech?
Digital media is creating a Just-in-time and plug and play mentality for solutions. can we deliver solutions JIT and PnP without tech?
Agencies service just the largest corporates in the world. we can’t profitably service SMEs. Is that the world we want to be in where the biggest get unfair advantages of our talent? Can technology help agencies in servicing at scale?
Most of our time goes in idiotic tasks such as filling time sheets, arranging meetings, reworking forever due to bad feedback… Each of these tasks can be improved with tech.
We are using tech to reduce productivity actually – Take for instance the process of installing a font currently – raise a ticket, wait for technician, who installs it. the first two steps are completely unnecessary. but we do it, because we don’t take tech led improvement in processes seriously, even as we idolize Apple.
Most importantly, effectiveness of campaigns is still akin to picking a lottery ticket. There is no scientific algorithm to achieve right effectiveness. Similar to the problem faced by stock-brokers. But people like Mandlebrot have been suggesting scientific and a different approach to that problem. Maybe, there is much to learn for us from that approach. (Stochastic and as such programmable to an extent. but not anytime soon.

5. ‘Creativity’ has been agencies’ excuse for long to get away with their privileged complacency. Advertising agencies are too expensive,  unreliable and inaccessible. Tech will disrupt advertising agencies soon enough, because industry leaders echo Rory’s myopia.

And here’s the blueprint for that disruption – Agency as a platform.


Targeting: the holy grail of 201x’s ad-tech creeps

Traditional advertising was famously opaque. As the old adage went – “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” So when digital advertising came about, the initial siren songs were about the promise of precise targeting and reducing the ‘wastage’. That siren song has not lost its appeal. More and more ad-tech firms pile on with newer and newer ways to target/ retarget by usurping personal data of unsuspecting consumers in morally repugnant ways, even if legal.
IoT, mobile phones, smart TVs, alexa…. the spying glass now comes in various shapes and sizes. And there are thousands of companies trying to incrementally increase the creep efficiency with each of these surveillance windows.

But to what effect?

  1. A vast majority of ad-tech firms are not making much money. A ridiculously large share of the profit pie goes to only two players – Google and Facebook. So the prospects for ad-tech guys don’t look all that well. Their hope is for the laggard holding companies to buy them off.
  2. Brands -Brands are waking up to the reality of indirectly funding fake news, hate mongers, trolls, sexual predators and so on with their programmatic buys. Even as the ‘inventory’ gets cleaned, they are getting a terrible deal on the rupee spent – for every rupee spent, merely 3 paise actually amounts to something useful. The rest goes to middlemen. So much for efficiency.
  3. Trust – and most insidiously, more and more people are looking at media, at devices, at brands with suspicion. All the tracking, hacking, retargeting efforts have left people uncertain about the faustian bargain. the deal perhaps was not all that good. free apps, it turns out, are fairly costly. The utopia of ‘Choices of brands’ is turning into dystopia of incessant, insidious and inescapable commercial propaganda.
    How insidious you ask? Here’s an interesting article telling you exactly how insidious – apps, ad exchanges pervasively track  (beyond your permission, your imagination or your awareness of it) your behavior in hope of ‘monetizing’ your behavioral data.
    The creeps go so far as to use sonar or wifi to monitor your every move in a store to figure out your preferences. Without your knowing ad tech guys are monitoring where you are, what you do and much much more. The ‘big data’ then gets traded around to ‘third parties’, mixed with and analysed so as to know you better than you ever can know yourself. Right now, no can say for sure who in the world has what information about you and how could it potentially be used two years from now.
    Things you wouldn’t care for ten years ago like your routine, your choice of retail shops, your click streams, your idle time on phone etc, are now data points that can be weaponised to influence you. We are being forced to care for our inane details.
    A lot of ad-tech is built by people who either can’t fathom the societal context of what they are doing or don’t care. They are at best naive, at worst slimy scumbags who profiteer at the expense of ruining the internet for everyone.

Most likely, like EU, many other countries will tighten consumer laws (or worse! Use these surveillance system for government’s use like in China) and put an end to overt targeting.
This can’t end well for ad-tech guys for sure.

Essentially we must realise that targeting is a false goal. 1:1 connection might be desirable, but is sustainably possible only in certain ecosystems – physical, amazon prime perhaps to an extent and such. That means  monopolistic powers might gain further, but not without them too getting under the scanner.

Stop obsessing over Targeting.
Make advertising great again. 😛