Is Data Killing Advertising?

Thanks to our era of endless facts, “big data” , fancy modeling and poor statistical literacy, it’s pretty easy to draw any conclusion you wish and write robust pieces that reflect an agenda.

Today’s narrative appears to be the looming death of all things Advertising. P&G proudly proclaims that there were no immediate detrimental effects from a $100m cut. The rational brains of Silicon Valley see the Amazon Echo and “Voice Commerce” (didn’t we used to speak to sales assistants?) as an existential threat to branding. Everything from Native Advertising to Influencer Marketing becomes the new thing to replace “Traditional Advertising” because we like to think that now that we have smartphones & some people buy some things online, everything in human nature has been radically reprogrammed.

I’d love to see a slightly more informed debate.

Most people these days — like every generation — are very proud not only to not watch advertising, but to actively avoid it. Speak to anyone of any age, and they boast about how they like to make up their own mind. Young folk are the most proud. They are independently-minded people — who just really often seem to like the same things as everyone else.

I’m different. While I absolutely loathe every single form of advertising I see on the Internet — especially on a phone — I like ads a lot.

In fact, I absolutely love good ads.

I like branding too, and brands.

Despite what people instinctively assume, branding isn’t wastage. It’s a remarkably effective placebo effect that makes people feel better about what they’ve bought, often with no added cost to the world in material depletion. In a world where a billionaire can only wear so many socks or drive so many cars, it’s a pretty smart way to save the planet in order to get him or her to spend $100 on a pair of silk socks, or $5m on one car that that gives them great pleasure than to either keep the money in a bank account or spank it up the wall on a vast private jet.

Today, most people “a bit like us” have a remarkable abundance of “stuff”, and are entirely burdened with choice, stress and a lack of time. Brands are vital navigational devices. Faced with seemingly endless shitty content and brands (from movie stars to newspaper masts to TV channel logos) help us establish what’s likely to not be crap, or fake or a total or waste of time. If they afforded Brad Pitt, we can presume they could afford a decent screenwriter . Similarly, brands in grocery stores allow us to stop being paralyzed by fear of poor choices we could otherwise make searching for a drink or butter at the zero moment of truth.

Brands are good. It sounds sad but it’s true that Brands give people pleasure and meaning, and technology won’t ever change this. In a world of change and new stuff and chatbots and 3D printers and drones, they become more — not less — useful as abundance gets worse and meaning gets harder to find. You won’t see many obnoxious Instagram feeds without some pointlessly expensive brand of drink or sneaker somewhere in it.

Anyway, back to the ads

So I love ads. I love luxury magazines with wonderfully shot and incredibly well conceived images. If they had no ads I’d complain. I like watching a lot of TV in England: the ads make me laugh, as do those in Australia. In the US, I like them during the Superbowl, the only time ad makers have the audacity to think people may watch them. The ad break before movies in the cinema is also great, because you get to hear how others react.

I love outdoor ads immensely. From the ones walking through Times Square, to the big ones for airlines as you enter a city, to the ads you see on the London Underground for companies that have no help in hell of making through the next VC round. The ads in Newspapers have been great for me, a TV on a special offer, maybe I do need a new TV.

And maybe, just maybe, they work.

The stuff I surround myself with, as someone quite lucky with income, but unfortunate with time is inextricably linked to both the art (yes, art) of branding & advertising.

I’ve never seen an ad for Tide Pods (I obviously have, probably 100 times over, I just have no idea what it said) but I know they are going to get shit done. I’ve got Finish dishwasher stuff; Charmin toilet roll for the same reasons. I’ve got Method soap because it’s my way of being a bit crazy and expressing who I am through cleaning fluids… that appear to be terrible at cleaning.

I’ve got an old BMW 6 Series because over 10,000 ads and one billion other data points (that I can’t for the life of me describe) have made me think I’m the sort of dickish, insensitive, but demanding type that wants to wear that badge. The car is very nice too. I bought it on eBay, in the back of a taxi one night on the app, because I trusted the site, probably because of some ads.

I’ve got Rag and Bone shoes because I like them, but I also know they are a bit fancy from some ads somewhere. I bank with Chase because subconsciously I know they must be big and confident about their future because of all the ads I see. Verizon is my mobile network for the same reason.

When I look around me, about 50% of the things I own are probably fairly directly due to some form of advertising and brand building and 90% of things I own have had some reassurance from advertising in the process.

Have a look around and think about it now for yourself. I’m serious.

No Engagement

Yet, for all the unnecessarily expensive things I own and buy, from the Burberry bag to the Nivea deodorant, my growing dumb need to buy a Tesla (despite not wanting a car) and despite my love of advertising, I’ve only twice intentionally clicked on an ad.

I’ve never retweeted or liked a brand message on Twitter. I’ve not uploaded my swish to a hair brand. I’ve not pressed the red button to interact. I’ve never once clicked on any form of banner ad.

I’ve never even considered buying something that’s been retargeted to me (apart from something I was buying that day in-store anyway) . I’ve not played with a branded game, I’ve not liked an influencer’s paid post on Instagram. I’ve not downloaded a coupon, I’ve not shared to win, I’ve never once — deliberately — engaged with an ad in my entire life.

I’ve loved, I’ve remembered, I’ve been affected by, I’ve made decisions because of ads. I’ve found them engaging, but in the modern sense of the word, I’ve not once engaged with them in a way that could be measured.

And yet, the way advertising has about turned into the moronic chase of the most futile metrics, it appears that these brands I love, and buy from and define myself with, have all failed. What?

For 150 years, the biggest and best brands the world have ever known were built in a world of zero engagement. It was only ever the Internet that created the opportunity to measure engagement. Brands used to be able to tell what worked in only three ways: what felt right, what seemed to build brands, and what appeared to boost sales. Two of these were slow to change and hard to attribute and one was impossibly vague to explain, but often deadly accurate.

Yet, from the moment the first banner came out it changed, we could see in precise detail how many times they appeared, who saw them, and who clicked on them. We could make changes and see how things changed. We fell in love with data.

And then, advertising went very strange. For 17 (ish) years now, we’ve slowly become obsessed with the metrics that matter least — that had no effect on what people did and that represented incredibly unrepresentative behavior, because they were hard metrics and we saw them change fast and precisely.

We moved money away from brand building to performance, because we thought that it worked harder there. We’ve learned to drain every single drop of brand equity and never replenish it, because in the world of short termism and frighteningly short CMO tenure, that’s someone else’s problem.

The world of retargeting, attribution modeling, and performance marketing is obsessed with what we can measure most easily, what we can change most quickly and what we can most directly show success from. It has nothing do with what matters.

We have to get a lot better at balancing the wonder of data and for it to know its place. It’s our servant, not our master. At the very least, we need to get a lot bloody smarter at using it. We keep making extremely dumb mistakes… like the following.

A failure in attribution

As a wanky, slightly aggressive, bit-boastful 38-year-old male, I’d be a very good person to show BMW 6 Series ads to. I probably have some on my phone right now, but they are awful banner ads that I can’t read. I won’t be buying a car soon, but if I wandered into a dealership, handed over my personal details and signed up for a nice new car, it would be likely that a company that served me mobile ads would take credit for the sale. I hope I don’t need to explain how insane that is, and how attribution modeling often merely ratifies targeting.

As a result of attribution modeling, and their better ability to claim — not create — success than any other form of advertising, we endlessly see money shift to the lower funnel. Who needs to see a nice new print ad for the new Business Class seat on an airline, when someone can serve me a retargeted ad for a flight I was planning on buying and take $6,000 of sale all to themselves?

Attribution should be about establishing success and growing the business. However, the entire practice has become about capturing — not creating — success.

We may have to be open to the idea that attribution isn’t actually possible. If we were to upload every number one single ever made, it may tell us that songs with note C in the middle perform best. If we were to upload image scans of the most valuable art, it could establish that blue, chairs, and ponds do well. These may be statically robust but also entirely the wrong way to create success. We judge campaigns like art work or songs. We only see them in their entire and in the context of a billion other things we know.

A total inability to understand causation

Causation is really hard. It’s very easy not to understand that it’s a dark art.

Ever since I signed up to Amazon Prime, I spend more on Amazon. The act of my taking up Prime caused it. But it’s also true that those who consider Amazon Prime are likely to be far more wealthy, far bigger Amazon fans than those who don’t buy it. It’s hard to know how much Amazon Prime creates success, against reflecting a different audience.

But, as a fan of Method detergents, If I become a Facebook friend of the brand today, I will not suddenly start buying more overpriced and not-very-effective Method cleaning products. I will have always been someone who was a heavy user. Their data won’t show this.

We don’t need as much data as we think

Agencies are very proud of their ability to do very complex, incredibly sophisticated things that don’t create much value.

With advanced techniques, we can establish people who visit bars from their phone signals. We can then plot where these people live, and can start placing outdoor ads in locations where alcohol drinkers go. That’s all very nice, but is it worth it?

We can use local weather data and some basic AI to establish when it’s going to be cold in Dayton, Ohio, and buy media moments in that Zipcode at the time it first gets cold and serve them an ad for hot soup. Do we need to be this specific? Maybe we should just be making better ads for soup… or just better soup.

Just because we can, it doesn’t mean that we should.

The bifurcation of ads into performance and brand

We’d see stunning large format brand ads… perhaps even ads that you can’t click on. They would take up the whole screen with stunning car pictures, or that Gucci dress, or the W hotel in Wall Street. They would then vanish politely within a second. I’d never click on one, but it would remind me that these companies are amazing and they have confidence in their future and brand.

I’d like to see performance ads get more performance-y. It’s great you’re telling me about this new fabric softener on TV, but can I yell at my TV to add it to my Fresh Direct order? It’s great that leasing starts at $500 per month, but can I use my phone to book a test drive? I have bought a new Watch, so why not show me wallets that go with it, not watches I decided against…? You get the idea.

Targeting done better

Data can, of course, help to target. But, maybe we don’t need to be so precise. As TV becomes digital and as all buying becomes addressable, we can now see niche audiences reached and thus see the economics for niche brands make incredible sense. I can’t wait to see the end of ads for medical conditions that I can’t possibly have, and instead to see stunning videos for cars that only idiots like me want to buy. I want to see ads inserted in real time, personalized. I want them to have better calls to action and to let me buy direct.

Data and technology will make advertising better, but only if we start to use the right data in the right way and to better serve people. I no longer want the most stupid metrics possible.

This is the most exciting time ever to work in advertising, we’ve more data than ever to help support feelings we have, we’ve more knowledge about how people behave, but above all else, we’ve the most personal screens, the most intimate data, the most interactivity we’ve ever known.

Let’s bring data and creativity together to make new forms of advertising, let’s explore what’s now possible, not reuse what we’ve done before.

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