Advertising is broken and we in journalism and media must take responsibility for reinventing it — because advertisers and their agencies will not and because our very survival depends upon it.
The moral of the story of adblockers’ success is that the public has taken charge of its next industry — advertising. They have finally had it with irritating, irrelevant, invasive, repetitive, ugly, stupid, creepy, slow advertising and its threat to privacy. They now have the tools to fight back. Their allies are Apple, which wants to ruin the ad business for everyone else, and racketeering adblocking companies.
But nevermind whining about their moral hazards. The answer is not to block the blockers. The answer is to improve advertising, to make it consensual, and then to reconsider the fundamental business model of mass media. That’s what I will start to do here.
Advertisers and agencies are doing exactly what they inevitably do: cheat and sneak and try to get away with something as they convince and sometimes con customers into giving them money. We in media have been complicit in their crime of irritating our own users, the people whom we promise to serve and whose trust we rely upon. Shame on us.
Some have all but given up on advertising. I have not — not only because we cannot afford to lose its support and see journalism and other media shrink or retreat behind paywalls. I have not given up because I believe reform is possible and I even see a business opportunity in it, with decent advertising rising above the marketplace of drek. We can indeed create a new scarcity in advertising by accepting and thus anointing only the best — and having the courage at last to reject and fire the worst.
We in media and especially in journalism must define and demand quality in advertising.
Out with the bad air
What is quality? In his Advertising Age manifesto calling for reform, Interactive Advertising Bureau CEO Randall Rothenberg — like the heads of two other trade organizations in their own manifesto — begins by defining the negative, what advertising should not be: disruptive, irritating autoplay videos and blinking, flashing, intrusive units (and I will add once and for all popups of every possible sneaky, shitty variety). Fine. I would hope that is a only a starting point for this discussion. They define the crime of bad advertising, not the qualities of good advertising.
At a minimum, advertising must not annoy and must, must, must also be transparent. The reader can never be confused about the source of content. We cannot help advertisers convince the public that their content is the same as ours or else the public will see what we do through that lens: We become shills.
We cannot continue to delude ourselves into believing that readers understand our purposefully and conspiratorially obtuse labels: WTF is promoted, sponsored, native, brand voice? Let us stop trying to fool the people we serve. We must conduct serious research into when our users are confused about our labels and how to make absolutely sure they are never confused again. To do anything less is to prostitute ourselves. And for God’s sake, let us rise up as one and reject the heretical, oxymoronic, dangerous notion of “brand journalism.”
In with the good air
But let’s not dwell on the negative. Let us next define quality. In my view, quality advertising must exhibit at least two of these three characteristics. It must be:
- Relevant — Advertising like journalism itself need no longer simply issue messages that are intended for and are uninvited by the masses. The net enables media to directly serve individuals and communities, to be relevant not only to the media environment — car ads next to car news — but to the specific user and her needs and desires. That relevance cannot come at the price of privacy or creepy surveillance (more on the topic of data, below). In a transaction of mutual trust, advertising can actually suit a current need: I am looking for a car with Android Auto, so tell me what you have. But don’t overstay your welcome: When I’ve bought my car, go away. More relevance in advertising will mean less noise for the customer and less waste for the advertiser.
- Useful — A cousin of relevant. This might sound silly, but advertising is too often brand-centric when it should be customer-centric. It should think like the customer, be respectful of the customer, and try to deliver value to the customer. A commercial that tells me how nice your company is is of no use to me. Advertising should be informative. We now live in an information ecology in which original sources — from brands to government agencies — are expected to contribute complete and credible information. The link enables them to answer more questions. Back to my car: I’m driven nuts trying to find simple, essential information in this decision. The brands are doing a terrible job informing me. (Car salesman will only do worse.) Again, think like a customer: Have answers for every question a customer could have.
- Engaging — There is a place for entertaining advertising. The IAB’s Rothenberg laments the “grade-school creativity” of too much of his industry. It’s also true that — sad as it may be — some impressive creative minds work in advertising. They can and do earn our attention, just not often enough.
Relationships with data
Now let me address the critical matter of data and privacy. I have been arguing that journalism must shift to understand that it is in the relationship business, serving individuals and communities — no longer the mass — with relevance and value. That requires knowing people and knowing what they need and want. The path to do that is data.
News organizations must set the highest standards for gathering data consensually; for being clear and transparent about what we do with that information for the benefit of the user; for explaining the benefit to our news organizations, supporting our work; for giving users visibility into their own data; and for enabling users to correct that data (which, by the way, improves the data we have).
People will not and should not give us data because we ask for or require it. They will allow us to have it only if they know they receive value in return. Thus we must create new products and services that by their nature give people better, more targeted, and more valuable service — services for communities of people with cancer more than merely stories about cancer. I call that internally vs externally focused journalism. We must judge our success not by the attention we receive but by the value the public receives. These skills of service and relationship- and trust-building must become our core competence.
We must hold our advertisers to the same standards, verifying that they do all that I describe above and, what’s more, requiring that they not gather extraneous data for data’s sake. We should set a test of customer benefit: Is this data point one you can use to better serve the customer? If not, why gather it? Don’t gather it. Don’t creep out our people.
But wait … there’s more!
So far, I have described only ways to assure greater quality in advertising as it already exists: less irritating, more useful, more relevant, more respectful. But advertising, like media, must stop merely trying to transfer old models into a new reality. Both must fundamentally reinvent themselves. We must ask what each can and should be.
Seth Godin has for years been selling the idea of permission marketing. At its highest level, advertising isn’t advertising at all; it is a relationship of consent, trust, and value between a customer and a company built on quality. As I have been arguing that journalism must become a relationship business, so must marketing. Both must start with customers’ needs and desires and respect their limits. Both must deliver value. And that value will be judged by customers, not by us.
If brands ever succeeded at building their own true relationships with customers, I fear that media could be left out of the equation. But happily for media — if sadly for customers — we’re a long way from ever reaching a world without advertising. To paraphrase the old Woody Allen joke, they need the eggs; so do media. But advertising will not become effective by becoming ever worse: ever-more intrusive and awful. So can we in media say goodbye to the old ways and help raise advertising to new and better ways?
Advertising by consent
Imagine consensual advertising: “Listen,” the media company says, “unless you want to pay for what you’re now enjoying for free — and let’s both be honest, we know you won’t — we need to serve you advertising. Sorry about that. But we will give you considerable choice and control over that advertising so you can improve your experience and keep us and our advertisers honest. Willing to try?”
Imagine what such a system of customer control would do for the quality of advertising — if customers themselves fire bad advertisers and reward good ones with their consent and perhaps attention and business. Advertisers will be motivated to improve their quality and they will also know who is willing to connect with them. Media could enable that.
That would mean that media would have to have the cojones to tell, say, Volkswagen: “Our users reject your ads. They don’t believe your confessional cant. They want real information about what you’re doing to fix what you’ve done to the earth. You have to try again. We will show your next try to a jury of our users — and charge you for the privilege and give them benefits for the effort. They will decide whether you are good enough to show.”
Trust and quality become the new scarcity in media. It’s abundance that is killing the media business, creating no end of new competition, driving the price of both content and advertising toward zero, motivating ever-more-desperate advertisers and digital publishers into creating and serving ever-more-desperate and horrendous advertising. Media dreams of regaining a scarcity to control, of regaining pricing power. Media can do that if they make access to their users a privilege to earn.
So let’s say that quality publishers and platforms — from The New York Times to Google, from the Guardian to Facebook, from Vox to Mode — join together not to shut themselves behind a Trump-sized huuuuge paywall (good luck with that). Let’s say they join to set standards for quality advertising relating to experience, aesthetics, speed, privacy, credibility, and trust. They also establish procedures for reviewing ads and certifying advertisers.
This leads to an intriguing opportunity or perhaps a necessity: The quality publishers and platforms should establish their own independent ad blocker. Now Apple, Ad Block Plus, and their gang might argue they are doing this now; they say they set standards and they charge for access to their white lists and users, reputedly to cover the cost of reviewing ads. Yeah, and a horse head in the bed is a birthday present.
If there are to be ad blockers — and we now know that advertisers and media have made that an inevitability; they have made said bed and now must lie in it — then there should be an independent, not-for-profit ad-blocker and agency that does not suffer the conflicts of interest of the incumbents. Advertisers and media will need to endorse this and subsidize it and give up control of it. This ad-blocker and certifying agency needs to be run by representatives of users.
In short: The way to defeat the ad-blockers we have is not to create the blocker-blocker: to meet Imodium with Ex-lax. The answer, in the end, is first to invent better advertising and then to invent the better ad-blocker. Or to put it in the obverse: to invent quality advertising and the means to certify that quality.
Will some users continue to use ad-blockers of the old variety and block every ad everywhere? Yes. But today, we in media, advertising, and technology have no legs left on our high horse when we try to scold users or seek their empathy, explaining our need for advertising.
If, however, we finally — finally! — do what we in journalism are supposed to do and represent the public’s interests first, if we gain their trust and understanding, if we demonstrate our determination to fight for quality, then we can speak from higher ground. Then generous users will consider our pleas and our value and might just allow us to allow advertisers to speak to them.
And — here’s the beautiful part — we will then serve advertisers far better than we do today, as we heap their ads onto the junk piles we have made of our web pages. And let’s not even get started on click fraud.
Death to mass media — death to the mass
But all that won’t be enough. We will not fix advertising and media until we give up on the idea of the mass. So long as we sell volume over value; so long as we price advertising by the CPM — eyeballs sold by the ton and measured not as people but as anonymous abstractions of “reach” and “frequency;” so long as prices fall thanks to abundance and we try to make it up by manufacturing more pageviews with cats and Kardashians and headlines that manipulate and lie, then we will be doomed to a future of media and advertising that keep getting worse and worse until the public blocks not only advertising but the content it once wanted and helped to support.
We in media invented the mass. Aided by the steam-powered press and the advent of mass production and mass marketing, we made many a fortune with the mass. It was nice (for us) while it lasted. But the internet kills the mass and the business model of mass media. We must stop trying to save what we knew. That is what got us all into this mess.
When we begin to serve people as individuals and members of communities, not as a mass, when we deliver them relevance and utility, we can finally earn their trust. We will then have the courage to find out how much they truly value us and what we give them.
That is a new standard for journalism, for media, for marketing and advertising. It should be a new standard of relevance, trust, respect, and value for other institutions we helped ruin with our mass worldview: government, politics, education, culture, arts.
This is our mess to fix
It may be heretical (but it wouldn’t be my first heresy) to suggest that we in journalism schools should be the ones to start this process of fixing advertising. And no, I don’t mean we do that by teaching integrated mass marketing communications and other such abominations of the craft and the language — not advertising as story-telling, certainly not fucking “brand journalism.”
No, I mean that we in journalism schools should be the ones to stand up for quality and to convene the discussion of setting standards for what it means to truly serve our communities, not merely feed them messages, ours or advertisers’. It is our job to reconsider and reinvent the very business model of journalism and its support. For who else will do it? Advertisers and their agencies will not. Desperate-unto-dying media companies will not. Technology companies could — but beware, for then we’d only be ceding more of what we used to do to them.
No, if journalists are not going to stand up for serving the public with honest and quality, who will?
So, right here, I would like to begin to convene conversations with the interested parties: customers first, journalists, media proprietors, brands, media agencies, creative agencies, measurement companies, platforms, and academics. And then, if it will be useful, I will convene events on the topic at CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism.
What say you?