Ads vs. Creativity: A WhatsApp Story

By: Sean Mott

It’s a story we can recite in our sleep at this point. Company barges on the scene with a hot app. They build up a massive customer base built on the strength of the platform and a promise. Company is bought out (usually by Facebook). Company makes decision that betrays its original promise. Angry customers grabs their virtual pitchforks and berate the company until the next online outrage.

Facebook bought WhatsApp, the popular messaging platform, two years ago. Recently, they announced they’ll be inundating users with advertisements, something WhatsApp originally avoided. The company will use client data to target customers with specific, tailor-made ads.

This announcement was followed by critiques from the public and the press. Some people called it a betrayal of WhatsApp’s mandate, while others were disturbed by its invasion of privacy. Defenders of the plan noted that you can opt out of the data sharing, which is true, although it’s buried in the Terms and Conditions page. All around, there’s discontent and division.

Lost in all the hubbub is a teachable moment. The WhatsApp controversy obscures a regrettable and oft repeated mistake: The domination of ads over innovation.

Facebook, using WhatsApp, is a data juggernaut. They have huge swaths of information on their users, from general notions to miniscule details. Adding WhatsApp to their arsenal only increased their power. With their money, resources, and data, Facebook and WhatsApp had a real opportunity to do something special.

So what did they do? They started pushing ads. They fell back on the same old tricks. They took their data empire and forced it through the small keyhole of advertising. It’s refined advertising, to be sure, focused on getting the right information to the right people, but it’s advertising all the same. It’s a regurgitated idea.

This critique is not meant to completely devalue ads. They can be a solid source of revenue, after all. They’re a tool, and a useful tool at that. But when it’s the only tool on your workbench, it stifles creativity. Companies, too often, force their innovations to adapt to ads.

Imagine what Facebook and WhatsApp could have done if they resisted the advertising allure. They could have revamped their services, created a new customer-centric service, and galvanized their consumer base. They could have built their technology and knowledge around the customer experience. Their resources could have given the consumer useful, pertinent information. They could have actually given users something valuable, instead of flooding them with ads.

A Facebook/WhatsApp-powered service would be beyond useful for consumers. It could guide them to exciting products and experiences, offering informed selections based on their preferences. Instead of passively presenting ads, Facebook/WhatsApp could actively guide users to the hottest trends and content. This mentality would also benefit brands, as they would attract more engaged clients. Creativity can satisfy the needs of customers and companies alike.

Advertisements have their place, but not at center stage. Creativity should be companies’ ambition. Ads can’t be the sole focus; otherwise, you’re a snake eating its own tail.