May 02, 2016

The Existential Adman

Before we get started, let's acknowledge that "The Existential Adman" is the worst title for a blog post in the history of online jabbering. If this thing gets 5 hits it'll be a miracle. But we soldier on unafraid...

Why do we care about advertising? Is there anything in it worthy of our attention and concern? These are the existential questions that we hope to answer in today's post.

Let's start with a wide shot and then cut to the extreme close-up. The wide shot is this: Is there anything anywhere worth caring about?

To contemplate this we need to get a sense of our place in the universe. We hear a lot of awe-inspiring banalities from gasbags like Neil deGrasse Tyson about the 100's of billions of stars in a galaxy and the hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. This gives us the impression that the universe is teeming with stuff.

In fact, the universe is the emptiest thing you can imagine. Only 0.000000000000000000004 percent of the universe contains any matter. The universe has less actual substance to it than a social media pitch deck.

Our planet is not even a speck of dust on a galactic scale. On a universal scale it essentially doesn't exist. Still worried about whether your socks match?

The next depressing reality concerns our species. Our planet has been around for about 4 billion years. We humans have been here for only about 200,000 years. So what portion of the Earth's life have we been a part of? The answer again is a decimal point, a lot of zeroes, and a 4 -- .00004.

In other words, our stay here at the Planet Earth Inn and Suites has been quite a short one and, sadly,  promises not to last very much longer. The odds of us blowing ourselves up, melting ourselves, or poisoning ourselves seem to be shortening daily.

So the question is, if we are so insignificant and so temporary does anything really matter? This philosopher believes that no, nothing really matters. But in order to live an orderly life we have to pretend it matters. If we don't pretend things matter, we're all likely to wind up in the gutter drugged up and filthy. You remember college, right?

Next we get to advertising. In light of all this meaninglessness and nothingness how can anyone take advertising seriously?

Well first, of course, there's the money. We gotta pay for Netflix somehow.

But let's be honest. There's something fascinating about advertising that transcends payday.

Studying advertising helps us strip away some of the fanciful notions of human rectitude and more often than not exposes the depth of human vanity to those of us who are willing to recognize it.

Of course there are those in the advertising business who, despite all evidence to the contrary, believe that peoples' consuming habits are motivated by high-minded principles and not by self-interest.

But to those of us who accept humanity warts and all, advertising presents a unique lens through which we can view human behavior in a way that is not always evident in other lines of endeavor.

And now for the existential answers:

Does advertising mean anything? No.

Is it interesting? Yes.

April 27, 2016

Can The Ad Industry Save Itself?

I am still hopeful that we can save ourselves.

We are in very deep trouble, but there may be a strategy to rescue ourselves from the hole we have dug.

Let's start by defining the problem. The problem is that everyone seems to have lost confidence in us.

Our clients don't trust us. In fact, the Association of National Advertisers is conducting 2 investigations into our practices. Additionally, many clients are leaving and doing their advertising work in-house.

Consumers don't trust us. 200 million people worldwide are actively engaged in not allowing us to reach them.

Our most important human resource - talent - is fleeing at frightening velocity.

Why is all this happening? There are several reasons:

First, online advertising has turned us into liars. We pretend that we don't know about the astounding amount of fraud and irregularities. We pretend that the numbers we present to our clients are reliable. Constant lying -- either by commission or omission -- eats away at our fiber.

Next is the rancid quality of online advertising. The aesthetic lineage of online advertising is not "Madison Avenue," it is the maddening tackiness of junk mail direct response.

Third, we have become crime enablers. Very large and malignant crime networks are built on the skeleton of online advertising and marketing.

Perhaps most appalling of all, by our constant surveillance of consumers (we call it "tracking" but let's not shit ourselves) we are undermining personal privacy -- one of the principles that is foundational to a democracy.

The sad part of all this is that the problem is not actually advertising.

The problem resides in what we call "ad tech" -- the tracking and hounding of consumers and the warehousing and selling of information about consumers to third parties.

There is no reason why advertising cannot be successful online. There is no reason why people should hate online advertising as much as they do. There is no reason for us to be liars and crime enablers.

None of this is necessary. All other forms of advertising succeeded for decades without tracking and so can online advertising. It simply is not necessary. We just have to get rid of tracking and use the web like we use all other advertising media.

If tracking had proven to be exceptionally effective maybe we could justify it on an "end justifies the means" argument.  But it has not. As I wrote recently...
So far this has been a spectacular failure. Each of us is currently inundated with dozens, if not hundreds, of online messages a day -- banner ads, emails, social messages, etc -- that are assumed by  marketers to be particularly relevant to us and reflective of our individual purchasing needs and behaviors. We pay almost no attention to any of them.
The big picture is this. Most people have no love for advertising. They are willing to tolerate it because of the free entertainment and information it provides them. But online advertising has crossed a line. It has dismantled an edifice of reasonable trust between us and the rest of the world.

There is no reason for us to continue to allow ad tech to pollute the soil of our business. If we get rid of it, we will be happier, consumers will be happier, and, in the fullness of time, our clients will be happier.

Facebook and Google may not be happier, but you know what? I'll worry about them some other time.

April 25, 2016

Let's Call Content "Shit"

Here at the Ketel One Conference Center on the California Campus of The Ad Contrarian Global Headquarters we are unnaturally obsessed with the meaning of words.

This probably stems from spending too much time doing crossword puzzles when we should be working on the book we are supposedly writing. But let's not dwell on unpleasantries.

Today let's talk about one of our favorite topics -- content.

Content is the grand obsession of the advertising industry these days. Although, frankly, the obsessions come and go so fast that if you miss three days of LinkedIn you may not even know that last week's obsession is now officially dead and something else has come along to change everything.

Today I want to propose that we replace the word "content" with "shit." This idea came to me after reading a piece in the Harvard Business Review by Greg Satell. I want to expand on Greg's idea, and I think I can make a pretty compelling case for this recommendation.

Here's the logic.

Everything meaningful has a specific designation. So if you write something with meaning and value it's called a book, or a play, or a poem, or an essay.

But if you write something that does not have a specific designation -- if it is not a book, or a play, or a poem, or an essay --  if it's just a cluster of words you have gathered to "engage" an unsuspecting reader with your brand or your persona, it's almost certainly a piece of shit.

If it just stayed put it would remain a piece of shit. But when you upload it to the web, it automatically gets promoted to content.

The same is true of a film or video recording. If it's good, it's a movie, or a program, or a video. But if it's, say, a recording of your client's manifesto about how he's going to disrupt the frozen chicken industry then it's content. And it's almost certainly, shit.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that your client is shit or that your directorial skills are shit, or that the frozen chicken is shit. I'm just saying that as an undertaking the aesthetic essence of the project is likely to be shit, and we should acknowledge it as such rather than hide it behind the polite term "content." Let's be proud of our shit!

You would never call a sonnet, or a ballet, or a movie "content." They have specific identities and formal designations because they require talent and skill. But stuff that doesn't require talent and skill? It's shit by any name.

Like those pictures you take. The good ones are either art, or portraits, or, at worst, photography. But the really awful ones you put on Facebook -- that picture of the tunafish sandwich you had for lunch, or your dog licking himself, or the adoring selfie -- that shit is content. And that content is shit!

I hope I have convinced you because it is now time for me to get back to working on my book and stop wasting my time on this, um, content.