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Media’s New Business Model: Surveillance Capitalism

The struggle is real.

Brands simply no longer know where to put their money. It’s easy to build a dystopian vision about the current state of digital, but it’s less about a current media dystopia and more about threading the needle between several key facts the marketing industry is currently experiencing, and then drawing our conclusions from there. Before diving into the current day realities, what was the job of the media world? In simplistic terms: deliver information that was paid for and supported by brands and advertising. A (somewhat) fair and equitable exchange. People want information (news, entertainment, sports, etc…). Brands want to capture eyeballs and attention. Charge brands for access to these consumers and their attention. From there, if these consumers buy and support the brand, there is a winning marketing and sales model. Then, the brand can support this relationship through better ads, loyalty, service and more.

Simple enough? What happened?

One could argue that consumers turned sour on advertising. One could argue that digital changed the kind of media that consumers now want. One could argue that digital doesn’t deliver media in the same way. One could argue a lot of other variables. The challenge from my perch — as the evolution unfolds before our eyes — is that the 800 pound gorillas of media in our current age (Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc…) may not, in fact, be media companies. Not a new narrative, but something to consider. Nothing makes a Facebook (or Google) executive turn pale, squirm in their seat or lose eye contact more than when they are asked if they are a media company. Don’t believe me? Troll through the myriad of conversations that took place at last week’s Recode Code Media event in Huntington Beach, California. It’s tough to watch. And, candidly, I don’t buy into the ideology that these Silicon Valley revenue juggernauts are not media companies. Just take a look at their revenues. They don’t come from selling a platform, enterprise solutions, or much else besides advertising. The problem, of course, is that if they admit that they are media companies, this puts them in the precarious position of having to change and shift and act like a media company (it’s easy to abdicate the problems of media, when you say that you’re just a platform, and not responsible for the content that flows through it). Plus, the public markets like technology companies much more than media plays, so there’s that too.

Taking a contrarian (but realistic) perspective.

As the Recode event was winding down, I recorded an upcoming episode of Six Pixels of Separation — The Mirum Pocast with Andrew Keen. On the harsher side of the spectrum, Andrew has been called the “anti-Christ of Silicon Valley.” He’s the author of the very contrarion books, Cult of the Amateur, Digital Vertigo, The Internet Is Not The Answer and, most recently, How To Fix The Future. Over the course of the past decade, I’ve had multiple opportunities to debate and converse with Andrew about the state of media and the Internet. I find myself being more optimist about media, social media and connectivity than pessimistic. Andrew would say that he’s not pessimistic but realistic about it. With that, maybe I’m more opportunistic about the current state, while Andrew is more realistic? There is one thing that we both definitely agree on: surveillance capitalism.

What is surveillance capitalism, and is that media’s true new business model.

What do Facebook, Google, and everyone else truly sell? You know the saying: “if you can’t see the product, you are the product.” Whether it’s access to information, access to individuals, or whatever. The culmination of our highly personalized searches, connections and commentary is the product. In fact, if media used to sell access to an audience that had a combined interest in a piece of media, then media today is selling access to highly personalized information that their consumers are generating to third parties to better target them. These companies don’t really sell content or advertising. They do really sell the surveillance of their consumers.

Maybe consumers are ok with that? I don’t think that they are.

After all, these are incredible services… and they’re free. With that, consumers are not fools. They know that these services were not created as social causes. These are businesses. They are here to generate income (more and more of it). Pushing this further, you could even question the business models that seem — on the surface — to not be based on surveillance capitalism. Take Amazon, as an example . Are we really just buying products and services online for a cheaper price, more convenience and speed of delivery? Think of how rich and valuable the data set is that Amazon has. Add in their Amazon Web Services (which powers a large chunk of our favourite Web services) and what Amazon has (and knows) about consumers, and they’re teetering into the surveillance capitalism model (or what now makes them a multi-billion dollar generating media juggernaut). Dive a little deeper into Amazon Marketing Services, if you’re struggling to see these connection points. What Amazon knows about the consumer is a much more valuable commodity than selling them smartphone chargers, diapers and books. Remember: “data is the new oil”. Nobody has ever said that ecommerce is the new oil, or that content is the new oil.

What does media solve for?

Programmatic technology, beacons, retargeting, a lack of visibility into how consumer data and usage moves through the pipes, where it stops, where it resides, and how it is really monetized, what ambient data is being sniffed up by wifi networks, bluetooth, mobile connectivity and beyond. It’s enough to make any consumer paranoid. Their information is the business. And, there’s a reason Unilever CMO, Keith Weed, recently stated:

“Consumers don’t care about third-party verification. They do care about fraudulent practice, fake news, and Russians influencing the US election. They don’t care about good value for advertisers. But they do care when they see their brands being placed next to ads funding terror, or exploiting children… They don’t care about sophisticated data usage or ad targeting via complex algorithms, but they do care about not seeing the same ad 100 times a day. They don’t care about ad fraud, but they do care about their data being misused and stolen.”

This is a company that lives and dies by the media model of paying for consumer’s attention, while consumers are engaged with media in the hopes that the consumer choose their consumer packaged goods. Why are they putting the brakes on? Media used to solve for audience and attention. Now, the companies with the biggest war chests don’t want to call themselves media companies, and they are all primarily driven by surveillance capitalism. Make money from watching what people do and sell that rich well of information to multiple highest bidders. This is not a business model based on a group of people gathered together by a shared interest in a topic, but it is about tracking individuals from websites, smartphones, emails, and more down to physical spaces and back, using sophisticated tracking technology, physical cameras in public (and private) spaces, using third party data assets, ambient video, facial recognition, and data sources… and now layering all of that on top of machine learning and artificial intelligence to make some very strong correlations.

Media is no longer about targeting your audience’s interests. Media looks like it’s much more about targeting consumers and selling their data… personally. Is that what consumers signed up for?

Mitch Joel is President of Mirum — a global digital marketing agency operating in close to 20 countries. His first book, Six Pixels of Separation, named after his successful blog and podcast is a business and marketing bestseller. His second book, CTRL ALT Delete, was named one of the best business books of 2013 by Amazon. Learn more at:

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