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.
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“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.

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OpenAI is not enough: On why Elon Musk must also disrupt the education system and ignite utopian imagination

Elon Musk is one of the few powerful people in the world who actually cares for the world, has a vision and has the ability to steer the world in conscientious directions. And Elon Musk is worried. He is worried about our probable future overlords – Artificial Intelligence (AI) , and rightly so. (“Not all AI futures are benign.“) And his response to that threat is characteristically ambitious and well targeted. He has started two new ventures in that field – Neuralink and OpenAI. Neuralink hopes to create ‘neural lace’ that removes the middleman of hardware between our thoughts and computing power. OpenAI hopes to democratize research about AI so that the advances of the technology are evenly distributed.
I am interested in this promise of OpenAI. Access to technology gives one power. And the currently powerful people, can buy access for themselves and create false barriers of access for others to technologies that are powerful. And OpenAI hopes to subvert that dynamic. The wish to democratise access to knowledge is at the very source of the Open movement. But for the wish to be fulfilled, much more needs to be done than OpenAI.

As it stands now, the two companies, by design, will only contribute to acceleration of AI adoption among elite without actual democratisation. OpenAI stops short at making the advances public, without ensuring that the public has the capability or intent of using those technologies. The current educational infrastructure is tremendously inadequate to educate enough people who could take the research at OpenAI and do something with it. Also, there is the issue of convenience and intent. Look for example, the promise of ‘sixth sense‘. Its been 7 years since that technology went open, but we don’t see people leveraging it widely. Or take the case of 3D printing. It was supposed to revolutionise manufacturing – but it didn’t.

Secondly, look at the world – everyone is building walls. To an extent that is inevitable.What happens to technologies in a world full of walls and xenophobia? Technology gets weaponized and secretive, not open.  

Like I said, there are two key issues here – capability and intent.

First, we need people to have skills in applied sciences with capabilities to leverage AI tech. Second, we need to show people the positive future that they can be a part of. We need people with imagination to dream of positive futures, before we can make the positive futures true. This will help in making it convenient and desirable for people to be part of this open alternate system for AI knowledge.

In both the cases of sixth sense and 3D printing, there simply was not enough public will to disrupt their existing lifestyles in favour of a more empowering tech that is less convenient. They were not emotionally moved by these tech’s promises. In absence of emotional will, people always choose convenience over empowerment. That is the great threat that Aldous Huxley warned us against in his ‘Brave New World’.   People will choose Soma that is detrimental over inconvenient though beneficial changes, because that is in service of prevalent power structures. Status-quo must be maintained, until it becomes unsustainable – That is the rule of the game. People and the power centers are geared for this behavior.

Musk understands the power of convenience well. His wealth is built with his ideas that made transactions convenient (Paypal), alternative fuel convenient and desirable (Tesla). So he is well positioned and capable to do the things necessary to make OpenAI’s promise a reality.

So Elon Musk, please invest in world’s (not US alone, since the promise is that of equality) educational infrastructure.
And secondly, propagandists/ strategists like me can help in making OpenAI a part of our cultural fabric, so that its adoption becomes easy. We need utopian ideas that people get motivated with – ideas that people want to be part of, to participate in. And this is where the strategy would be very different from any of the Elon Musk companies before. You would actually need to do propaganda/ marketing for this to work. We need utopian ideas that ignite people with imagination, for this to work.

The triad of Consultancies, FB and Google will neuter creative agencies globally, unless…

First: The digital disruption.

Globally, Facebook and Google now dominate advertising dollars, not WPP or Publicis or other agency companies. (For comparison about the market muscle – Combined market cap of FB and G was $812Bn as of June 2016. How did WPP, Omnicom, IPG, Publicis stack up? The four combined were at $70 Bn. And the less said about the growth, the better.) So there’s that.

And now consultancies are entering the fray to steal the lunch from agencies. And agencies have largely been too busy in denial to notice their impending irrelevance and gutting of their margins.

Second: The value of ideas.

Adweek recently wrote about the trend of Global consultancy goliaths buying up small agencies to make inroads into the branding industry. And similarly, creative agencies have also been trying to make inroads into consultancy businesses.

Who is more likely to succeed? Which industry will prevail, which will shake-up?

To me the answer is obvious. Why? Here’s why –

  1. Relative Value: Consultancy’s service is typically valued at higher valuations than creative agencies. In another world, where creative agencies didn’t get too complacent early on and put more emphasis on effectiveness beyond awards, perhaps, creatives would have earned more, grew bigger by creatively solving newer and varied problems and given bigger business growth for brands. But we don’t live in that world. Consultancies are good at convincing with numbers how they affect businesses positively.
    P.S. – There should be a research done in success rate of consultancies versus agencies in actually delivering growth.
  2. Positioning: Consulting is positioned as a house of experts. Consultancies typically house ‘domain experts’ that the CXO knows he can access. So, it is not a big stretch to imagine that consultancies house creative experts too. It is a stretch to imagine the chaotic agency to house a supply chain expert though.
    So even if a CXO trusts a creative mind’s judgement in his/her field, I doubt he/she would extend the assumption of competency to other matters of business growth.  As against a typical consultant – no matter how dumb/ smart he/she might be, the CXO trusts him/her to create access to competent people for most business needs.
  3. Ear of CXOs – Both agencies and consultants get to interact and influence CXOs. But, agencies only cater to propaganda need, while consultancies can affect change in almost all facets of a business – supply chain, production, legal etc. So consultancies have a better view of the business and what it needs, and hence better opportunity to offer more services.
  4. Plurality of ‘closed thinking’ projects – Pardon the generalization, but while consultants are masters of ‘closed’ thinking, creatives are masters of ‘open’ thinking. I estimate that there are more ‘closed thinking’ services that a company typically needs help with, than ‘open thinking’ services.
  5. When you can’t innovate, advertise!: Growth in 21st century is about innovations – consolidative tech innovations (FB and G consolidating the ad and comm tech market) or fragmenting tech innovations (innovations in CPG that is creating new breed of many niche players – online or offline.) There is no substitute for actual, real innovation to grow in 21st century.
    While agencies are known for their ‘big ideas’, they are not known for path-breaking ideas that inform a business model or product development. Most of the time, the idea comes from within the company for it to be truly adopted with conviction. And to execute these ideas, they go to the consultancies for help, not to advertisers.
    Can advertising agencies create new business ideas? sure they can. But the evidence is lacking as of now.
    Advertising agencies instead are now becoming home to companies that fail to innovate and then want the advertising to push the ship stuck in the muck.

There have been attempts by agencies to get into consultancy shoes – most recently by R/GA. I wish them best of luck. I really hope someone cracks it and in the process, ‘pivots’ to a higher value service. But so far the trend has not been encouraging.

Here’s an idea for a better future for the industry – start putting your money where your ideas are.

UPDATE:

Two strategies to improve agency prospects –

  1. Agency as a platform
  2. Pivot to go after biggest opportunities

What good are Google glasses? OR How tech companies can choose not to be evil.

Why invent Google glasses?
Here’s Sergey Brin trying to answer that question.

Doesn’t his argument seem a little unconvincing – a weak reason to deploy the best of the brains on the planet and 3 years worth of efforts.
The primary pivot of his argument is the glass’ ability to improve social posture (?). He talks about how when interacting with your cell phone, you look down, away from the rest of the world. How when nervous, one fiddles with cell phone to escape the real world.
So how is Glass a solution? It is an even more ‘evolved’ tool to keep the outside world ‘out’!

Ok, so Glass frees your hands. for what? for better documentation of our narcissism? These series of innovations (social media, smart phones, glass) are answering the most base yearnings of our narcissistic behavior.

When you look down, at least there’s that bit of honesty – ‘yes, I am looking away from you. Sorry for my awkward inability to be social.’ With Glass, how honest are you with your interactions in the real world, if you are constantly mindful of the online world at the corner of your eye. (Social media is the magical mirror for the narcissists. Google glass makes the narcissism even more intimate.) Obsessive Facebook users know the urge to check notifications. Imagine that with Glass.

Watch ‘Black Mirror’s this episode for another perspective of how this tech might evolve. (Must see the whole series. work of genius.)

More importantly, I feel that technology giants like Google and Apple can’t really prioritise well. The world has stepped back and given the mantle of technological progress to these few companies it seems. There is this unfortunate tendency where excellence in one aspect is taken to mean a general quality of excellence – cricketers as politicians, businessmen as policymakers… wrong wrong assumption.

Human ingenuity can certainly do much better than what Google or Apple have done. Well, to begin with, we need to get our priorities right.

The starting point should not be ‘what can technology do?‘. Because, it is with questions like these that Google Glass gets created and one has to see Sergey Brin trying to force fit a weak reason for its creation after the product idea had already been thought of.
Perhaps, the starting point should be ‘what do we really need right now and how can technology help us get it?’

We don’t need more ways to shut off people, we need more ways to be confident in our social interactions.
We need to be able to protect what is sacred & personal to us. (Hence always opt-in as default, not opt-out option as default.)
We need control over what we say, do, hear, see.
We need a better understanding of what we consume and how it affects the world.
We need technology that doesn’t eliminate another human being from interaction/ work/ jobs.
We need technology that  doesn’t increase the gulf between the haves and have-nots.

We need a non-Luddite, but a realist, humanist manifesto for technology companies to follow. To not be evil means eternal vigilance of the effect of one’s own actions.
Companies are eager to ‘lead the change’, ‘make a dent in the universe’, but with what effect? with what cost?
Apples and Oranges of the world need to think not only of the superior interface designs, but also about how the ones who cannot afford these elitist fruits would react to this new exclusion? How is it making obsession about trivial material issues fashionable and what does it mean to our ecology, social interactions, our economy?
If you do not want to be evil, be a little more circumspect.

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Originally published here.