June 27, 2017

Who's Gonna Guard Marcel?


Publicis ceo Arthur Sadoun made big headlines last week with his announcement that he's taking the $20 million they piss away at Cannes every year and sinking it into an artificial intelligence gimmick called Marcel.

The goal of this AI system is to connect all 80,000 of Publicis' employees for the purpose of universal access to information and collaboration. You can learn about it on this video cliché-fest.

According to Chip Register, co-CEO of Publicis.Sapient...
"In a group of 80,000 people ... how can we assemble that team and allow that team to work and collaborate virtually to bring the best ideas and values we can to a client at a moment's notice?...The use of technology enables great creative work. It enables the connectivity of people... It enables teams to work and it enables ideas to generate, be shared globally and virtually, through the use of better insight in culture and the journey of human beings."
Let's forget the "human journey" horseshit for a minute and talk about the practical use of Marcel.

We know that digital security is a cruel joke. We know that hackers have gotten into White House systems, CIA systems, and just about any system they want to hack.

What I want to know is, how is Publicis going to protect the ideas and information accessible through Marcel from every hacker and every rival agency and marketing entity on the planet?

But let's give Publicis the benefit of the doubt and stipulate that they have better cyber security than the White House. How about the internal issues?

Let's say Publicis is pitching Coca-Cola or General Motors or Unilever or any large global brand. Do they really expect us to believe that they are going to put essential brand strategy, creative work, and media ideas into a system that can be accessed by 80,000 people all over the globe?

Do they really want to tempt some intern or junior planner with Marcel access to sell critical information to a rival agency?

If they're not going to put essential information into the Marcel system, what use is it? How can it enable "ideas to generate, be shared globally and virtually" if they're not, um, shared globally and virtually?

And how about their current clients? Do they really think their clients are going to want proprietary information they give to Publicis to be within reach of 80,000 employees, any one of whom may skip to a rival agency or rival brand tomorrow?

But if they don't put proprietary info into the system, how can they possibly "assemble that team and allow that team to work and collaborate virtually to bring the best ideas and values we can to a client at a moment's notice?"

No company in its right mind puts sensitive, critical, or proprietary information into an email. The same will be true of Marcel.

One of the key attributes clients expect from an agency is mature and discrete handling of confidential information. Not an 80,000 person circle jerk.

When the dual imperatives of protecting confidential information and providing essential security dawn on Publicis, they will discover that Marcel is destined to become not much more than a massively expensive and technologically elegant next gen version of a conference call.

June 22, 2017

Apple Treats The Disease. Google Treats The Symptoms.


Apple and Google both know there's a big problem. The problem is that online advertising is a shit show of unprecedented proportions.

In recent days, both Apple and Google have announced initiatives to deal with the problem. Google's solution is timid. Apple's solution is much better.

First let's define the problem. Essentially everyone who uses the web is fully fed-up with the horrifying state of online advertising. It is beyond annoying, beyond stupid, and beyond insufferable.

People have always viewed advertising as a minor annoyance. But online advertising and the imbeciles who create and propagate it are so far removed from reality that human beings are in revolt. Over 600 million web-enabled devices are currently running ad blockers.

The hidden hand behind the horror of online advertising is tracking. Tracking, and the collection of personal information, is in large part responsible for many of the worst aspects of online ads. Let's put aside for a moment the damage that tracking is doing to privacy, security, democracy, and journalism and just talk about two simple reasons why Apple's solution is much better than Google's.

- The personal data that is amassed by tracking has turned the web into a non-stop direct response ad machine. Direct response advertising (whether of the "junk mail", "800 number", or "click here" variety) has always been the ugliest and most annoying type of advertising. It is usually enabled by data bases.

- Tracking enables marketers to creepily follow us around the web and pester us everywhere we go with whatever ads their idiotic algorithms tell them we're interested in and would be delighted to see. Yes, they actually believe this horseshit.

Google's Chrome browser (the world's most popular with over 50% market share) will in the near future be loaded with a partial ad blocker that will block what Google considers the most annoying type of ads.

Google's ad blocker has been developed with a group called the CBA (Coalition for Better Ads). This is a bunch of advertisers, publishers, online media, and agencies whose stated objective is to force better online advertising. But whose hidden agenda is probably to protect tracking and surveillance marketing.

The Electronic Freedom Foundation has this to say about Google's plan...
“…While we welcome the willingness to tackle annoying ads, the CBA's criteria do not address a key reason many of us install ad blockers: to protect ourselves against the non-consensual tracking and surveillance that permeates the advertising ecosystem operated by the members of the CBA.”
I agree with the EFF. Any effort to fix the awfulness of online advertising is laudable, even if it ain't perfect and even if it is somewhat cynical.

But Apple's idea is much better. Apple's Safari browser will soon employ "Intelligent Tracking Prevention." This will keep marketers from tracking us across sites. Don Marti sums up the benefit of Safari's solution succinctly:

  • Nifty machine learning technology is coming in on the user’s side.
  • “Legitimate” uses do not include cross-site tracking.
  • Safari’s protection is automatic and client-side, so no blocklist politics.
The key difference in the way Apple and Google approach the problem can be found in the nature of the companies. Apple makes very little money from online advertising and has a self-interest in protecting their users' experiences.

Google, on the other hand, makes virtually all of its money from advertising and has a self-interest in protecting tracking and surveillance marketing. The key thing to remember is that most of the major players in online advertising have a big stake in surveillance marketing. They will fight like hell to protect tracking.

Google have proven to be geniuses at subtle misdirection. Their whole search engine business is founded on the idea of misdirection -- create a paid search result that seems to a consumer to be close enough to a natural search result to be believable. This is the essence of their business.

It is not surprising that Google's "Better Ads" solution would look like it's treating the disease while actually only treating symptoms.

Always keep in mind that Google, Facebook, the IAB, the ANA, and the 4A's will always fight to retain tracking. Why? They are now in the surveillance business. Their business is collecting, selling, and exploiting the details of our personal lives and our personal behavior.


June 13, 2017

Advertising And The Old-Guy Syndrome


The Golden State Warriors have been the best team in basketball for the past 3 years.

Two years ago they won the NBA championship. Last year they had the best win-loss record in the history of the league but lost the championship in the final game (their best player, Steph Curry, had 3 injuries; their center, Andrew Bogut, was hurt and not able to play; and their heartbeat, Draymond Green, was suspended for a critical game.) This year they had the best record in the league and last night they won the Championship again.

As a result, there are people who are proclaiming them one of the best basketball teams of all time.

But there are also a bunch of old players from years back -- some of them great, some of them mediocre -- who are mouthing-off saying their teams could have beaten the Warriors. They claim the Warriors are not really that good because the league is weaker, or the players aren't as talented, or the game isn't as competitive as it was in the old days.

This is a familiar refrain among old athletes. They always think that players or teams were better "back in the day" and that today's players don't match up. Of course, it's all nonsense. But it doesn't stop the old guys from blowing hot air.

Recently the coach of the Warriors, Steve Kerr, who was on 5 championship teams himself when he was a player, was asked to comment on the assertions of the old guy critics. His sardonic take down was brilliant.
"They're all right. They would all kill us. The game gets worse as time goes on. Players are less talented than they used to be. The guys in the '50s would've destroyed everybody. It's weird how human evolution goes reverse in sports. Players get weaker, smaller, less skilled. I don't know. I can't explain it."
Mr. Kerr's ridicule of the "old-guy syndrome" is easily supported empirically. Take a look at the results of Olympic Games over the years -- where the performances are quantified -- and it's clear that athletes have better training, better nutrition, and better technique as time goes on. The result is that with regularity old records are broken and new records are set. It's obvious that each Olympics contains some athletes who are the best ever at their sport.

Here’s where advertising comes in. Unlike sports, it's hard to make a quantifiable case that creativity increases with time. You'd have to be a remarkably good debater to convince sensible people that Warhol was a better artist than da Vinci. Or that Taylor Swift is more musically gifted than Gershwin.

In creative matters, it's usually more judicious to assume an evolution in tastes than an arrow of progress.

In the ad business we have our own "old-guy syndrome." Many believe that "back in the day" (when they were in the ad business) it was a "golden age." As an old guy myself, I don't have much patience for "golden age" baloney. I believe that creative people today are just as talented as ever.

And yet, it is widely believed that advertising itself isn't as creative as it once was. I do a lot of traveling around the world and I hear this all the time.

It doesn't seem to be just the whining of old advertising guys (by the way, I'm not being sexist here. It's almost always the guys who do the whining and for a long time the ad business was overwhelmingly a boys' club.) It seems to be a widely held belief by non-advertising people, too. So what's going on?

I have a few theories about this. First let's start with the positive stuff.

For one thing, the technology of creativity today is stunning. Special effects we take for granted in spots today would have been astounding 15 years ago

Next, delivery systems are amazing. "TV everywhere" delivered mainly through connected digital devices have made the web way more interesting and has given web-delivered materials far more avenues for creativity.

The same is true of "printed materials." Digital technology has made out-of-home media a lot more noticeable and impactful.

But while the technological aspects of advertising today can be stunning, is technology really what we're talking about when we talk about advertising creativity, or is it ideas? I think there's little doubt that it's the latter.

So why should it be that with so many new media types, so much technological brilliance and so many talented creative people, we're producing advertising that is widely believed to be inferior to past eras?

I have a few hypotheses. First is the ubiquity of online display advertising. It is not just the most annoying type of advertising we see, it is also the most inescapable. It leaves the false impression that advertising as a whole is relentlessly unimaginative.

Next is the nature of contemporary ad agencies. I guess there is no inexorable relationship between the size of agencies and the absence of quality. On the other hand, we have Jay Chiat who famously said, "We want to see how big we can get before we get bad."

Holding company culture, as it currently exists, might prove Jay right. I think there are a lot of creative people who are not comfortable sitting at what Rich Siegel calls "the long table of mediocrity." As a result, they are taking their talents to other industries.

Next is short-termism. Dashboards that show us instantaneous results are very addictive. But the kind of advertising that produces instantaneous results -- the direct response type -- has never been the kind of advertising people think of as creative. In fact, it has traditionally been thought of as among the least creative varieties.

The stature of highly talented creative people has been diminished. Sir Martin Sorrell is reported to have said the medium is more important than the message.

Lastly, we have created a litany of false advertising goals with horrifyingly clichéd and fuzzy definitions like "engagement, conversations, journeys, and storytelling." Highly creative people are skeptical of dreadful parameters like these and are resistant to working within them. While agency leaders can easily find plenty of compliant creatives to buy into this nonsense, it is probable that many of our most talented are not happy with this oppressively vapid terrain.

This could go two ways. First, and most likely, the big guys win. The focus on the false goals will continue and over time many of our best creatives will slowly ride off into the sunset.

The other possibility is that good creative people will take to the streets and try to explain to the brand masters that the true leverage in the advertising business resides in the power of exceptional ideas. It remains to be seen which way the agency business goes.

The problem is, while it would be comforting and convenient to attribute widespread dissatisfaction about the state of advertising to "old-guy syndrome," it may be a little more serious than that.

And Speaking Of Old Guys...
...last week Jack Trout died. Trout invented the concept of "positioning" which has become a basic principle of marketing. Several years ago I had the pleasure of spending a pleasant afternoon with Jack at his home in Connecticut. He was a gracious host and displayed none of the ego one sometimes encounters from people who have been so influential in our business.  RIP, Jack Trout.

And Speaking Of Ego...
...you have to marvel at the stunning self-regard that allows this guy to modestly put himself in the same bucket as Mark Zuckerberg and Mark Cuban.

June 06, 2017

Technology, Progress, And Irresponsible Stupidity


The world does not move in straight lines. We expect things to go one way, but they unexpectedly go another.

In 2000, when the Prius was introduced, most commentators saw a big future for hybrid vehicles.

In 2009, a study by JPMorgan confidently asserted "20% of all vehicles sold in U.S. to be hybrids by 2020."

In 2010, Consumer Reports said "39 percent are considering buying a hybrid or plug-in for their next car."

And yet, as of April 2016, hybrid cars represented less than 2% of car sales in the US. Their share of market has dropped by 50% since 2013. A car dealer I know told me "we can't give 'em away."

If you think the reason for this is the popularity of electric vehicles, think again. Electric vehicles represent less than 1% of car sales in the US.

In the early 1990's the Soviet Union collapsed. We thought "liberal democracy" had become triumphant and would be the model for world governance. Today "liberal democracy" is facing challenges we never imagined.

The point is this. We rarely know what we think we know.

Technologically we are very quickly entering terra incognita. The technological breakthroughs of the past two decades have been pretty mind-blowing. But the upcoming era of artificial intelligence and machine learning will make them seem timid.

Technology is neutral. It is neither good nor bad. It all depends on how we use it. Nuclear energy was an amazing technological achievement, but nuclear weapons are nothing but a danger. As Stephen Fry brilliantly points out in this piece, Gutenberg's printing press - a technological marvel of its day -  could produce Macbeth. But it could also produce Mein Kampf.

So far, our ability to manage advertising and marketing technology has not been encouraging. I'm referring, of course, to ad tech and tracking. While technology makes the tracking of individuals possible, the absence of reasonable managing principles for this technology has created nightmares for consumers over their security and privacy.

I recently took part in a debate about this issue. My partner and I were opposed to the use of tracking-based ad tech.

One of the positions our opponents in the debate took was that if we opposed ad tech we were standing in the way of progress. This was a clever but profoundly misguided argument.

Technology is not synonymous with progress. Our ability to manage technology wisely determines if technology is progress or not. Even a cursory knowledge of history teaches that we are at least as capable of turning technology to the bad as to the good.

The idea that all types of technology constitute "progress" is dangerously shallow. The idea that opposing malevolent uses of technology impedes "progress" is irresponsibly stupid.