I originally wrote about the problems with modern advertising in 2015. What started out as a manifesto turned into a resignation letter to the industry I had spent 20 years in.
The model was broken, it probably still is. Agencies are desperate to hold onto client retainers, endlessly churning out work that isn’t effective, endlessly reporting new engagement metrics to hide the underlying problem — the adverts aren’t driving sales.
As a digital agency, we could see exactly what was happening. Every week a call would come from the client, the sales meeting was over, they hadn’t hit target, and we were told to pull the lever on those things which did work — Google ads and special offer emails. Despite our warnings that the Google ads were getting more expensive and constant emails would stress the customer database, the failing expensive creative campaigns continued. Hey, what did we know, we were just a little website company, we didn’t have an office on Charlotte Street and weren’t part of the conversation held in the agency box at Wembley.
The Internet changed the advertising industry, companies could target lower down the funnel. Rather than printing ads in magazines, hoping to spark interest, Google allowed companies to target customers at the point of expressed interest and ‘owned’ assets such as websites and email, allowed a direct conversation with customers.
But the advertising agencies and media planners were still running the show and these new channels were a threat to the broken business model of Charlotte Street. Keen to take their share of the digital dollar, these agencies adapted their creative process for the web with ineffective brand led social media and banner campaigns, and the clients were buying it.
I now see a new threat on the horizon, one which the advertising industry is woefully prepared for.
For the last two years, I have been going down the Bitcoin rabbit hole. For those with little exposure, Bitcoin is more than just some magic Internet money. It is a representative of the decentralisation movement, taking control away from governments and the Silicon Valley behemoths who have monopolised the web and abused our data for their own commercial agenda.
Two days ago I wrote an article for Hackernoon, “We need to talk about Crypto marketing.” I was analysing the additional difficulties which these decentralised businesses face when trying to execute a growth strategy, what I realised are the issues they face will be faced by all companies. Alas, it is time to revisit my resignation letter and start looking at these additional threats to advertising.
Have no doubt, admen (and women) are liars. Compulsive liars.
Have no doubt about how they work, I have sat in meetings with these vultures. Their motivations are simple:
- Convince you to buy more shit you don’t need
- Keep their retainer
- Win an award
Advertising agencies are a willing participant in the mass surveillance operations of Silicon Valley-where the ‘free web’ is monetised by building ever more complex data profiles. Forget the glamorous world portrayed by Don Draper, it doesn’t exist anymore. Advertising is a tough business, clients move multi-million dollar accounts on a whim, whole departments are closed and creative teams who have slaved night after night, weekend after weekend, are discarded. It is a brutal environment fuelled by fear and greed.
There is no place for truth in advertising, a can of Coke WILL make you happy, a pair of Nikes WILL make you cool, goddamnit, buy our shit you miserable loser…
…but the Internet is a truth machine, the aggregation of customer data is unstoppable. We know that a can of Coke is unhealthy and those Nikes, made in a Vietnamese sweatshop are nothing more than a temporary high. Like drug addicts, we keep feeding our misery by buying more, and the advertising industry is the Mexican cartel of consumerism.
The fightback is happening, and the response from business is transparent. You don’t want all that sugar? Here is our sugar-free Coke? You don’t want Coke? Here is our $3 bottle of tap water. No doubt the admen are behind this, presenting their research on changing consumer opinion accompanied by their cunning plan to keep us buying.
The truth machine amplifies the problem. The vision of advertising we saw in The Minority Report is no longer the future, it is happening now. The dot-com mega corporations have enabled the admen to track our every move, thought and like. The artistic beauty of the 60’s has been replaced by custom ad placements stalking our every move.
The NSA would admire Facebook and Google’s data warehouses, but this has come at a cost. Privacy is not just under attack, it is being abused to keep feeding the dark side of Silicon Valley. The philanthropy of these new billionaires is built through modern day sweatshops. While they strategise over burning effigies with their peers at Black Rock City, technology is filtering the consumer dollar into an ever decreasing number of pockets.
Such is the march of technology that the universal basic income <cough>communism</cough>, is now seen as a viable solution to the millions of middle-class jobs are under threat.
Where does it all end?
As I said in my article, marketing is neither good nor bad, marketing is a tool to match needs and wants, it helps companies grow, and despite my misgivings about these dot-com monopolies:
- Google’s ability to find exactly what I am looking for is helpful
- Facebook’s ability to create communities around interests is cool
- Amazon’s convenience is second to none
What isn’t acceptable is how they exploit data and privacy. The Cambridge Analytica scandal highlighted how insidious the business of data has become. Yes, I want to share my photos with my friends, no, I don’t want you using my data to influence elections. Yes, I want you to show me the nearest Chinese restaurant, no, I don’t want you listening to my phone calls.
The problem is these companies can’t be trusted, they are hungry beasts, slaves to their share price and data feeds their growth. But an alternative is coming, a new wave of decentralised and privacy-focused technologies which are taking power back.
With art imitating life, the vision of a decentralised Internet seen in the show Silicon Valley is being built by the inventor of the Internet Tim Berners-Lee. Built off the decentralised web platform Solid, Inrupt puts the user in control of their data and who can access it.
“We are not talking to Facebook and Google about whether or not to introduce a complete change where all their business models are completely upended overnight. We are not asking their permission.”
The threat to these centralised data abusers is significant, Inrupt can upend their entire business model and should it be successful, they won’t be able to do anything about it. Decentralisation is about taking power away from centralised entities and is there a better proponent for such a project than the inventor of the Internet?
Berners-Lee isn’t the only person working on the problem:
- Ad blockers are removing banners and tracking scripts
- Brave has made private browsing default
- Cryptocurrencies are adding privacy to ecommerce
- DuckDuckGo has anonymised search
- Metamask is removing the need for user accounts
The message is clear, people want privacy, ironically, Silicon Valley is responding.
When I wrote about the advertising industry in 2015, my somewhat facetious article highlighted how the advertising industry was misusing the industry for its lies. Now there are new threats:
- Technology which blocks them promoting their lies
- Technology which stops them customising their lies
- Technology which stops them knowing who they are lying to
- Technology which stops them tracking the performance of their lies
Companies will still want to market their products and services, and there is more to the advertising industry than Coke and Nike, there are honest organisations who need and deserve to be able to talk to customers.
What is required is a new model, a new framework of thinking. My expectation is the industry will respond with more ads, wherever the media planners can find places to put them, and new metrics will be invented which allow large numbers to be sent to clients in Excel spreadsheets.
Some of us know what is coming. We are preparing for a future where the consumer holds power and permission-based communications are not just a checkbox and an email.
A civil war is underway in Silicon Valley, and the advertising industry is collateral damage.
- Online Advertising Does Not Work (by me)
- Exclusive: Tim Berners-Lee tells us his radical new plan to upend the World Wide Web (Fast Company)
- Overhauled Brave browser beta gets max privacy with Tor-powered private tabs
- The Cambridge Analytica files: the story so far
- Why I’m done with Chrome (Matthew Green)