I originally wrote about the problems with modern advertising in 2015. What started as a manifesto of sorts turned into a resignation letter to the industry I had spent 20 years in.
The model was broken, it probably still is. Agencies are desperate to hold onto client retainers, endlessly churning out work that isn’t effective, endlessly reporting new engagement metrics to hide the underlying problem — the adverts aren’t driving sales.
As a digital agency, we could see exactly what was happening. Every week, a call would come from the client, the sales meeting was over, they hadn’t hit target, and we were told to pull the lever on the things that did work: Google ads and special offer emails. Despite our warnings that the Google ads were getting more expensive and constant emails would stress the customer database, failing creative campaigns continued. Hey, what did we know? We were just a little website company - we didn’t have an office on Charlotte Street and weren’t part of the conversation held in the agency box at Wembley.
Despite our experience, the advertising agencies and media planners were running the show. The channels that maintained the broken business model of Charlotte Street were king — brand led social media and banner campaigns.
I now see a new threat on the horizon, one which the advertising industry is woefully prepared for.
Since 2016, I've been going down the Bitcoin rabbit hole. For those with little exposure, Bitcoin is more than just "magic Internet money." It is representative of the decentralisation movement, one that's moving towards relinquishing control from governments and Silicon Valley behemoths who have monopolised the web and leveraged our data for their own commercial agenda.
Admen (and women) are vultures whose motivations are simple:
- Convince you to buy things you don’t need
- Keep their retainer
- Win an award
Forget the glamorous world portrayed by Don Draper, it doesn’t exist anymore. Advertising is a tough business, clients move multi-million dollar accounts on a whim, whole departments are closed and creative teams who have slaved night after night, weekend after weekend, are discarded. It is a brutal environment fueled by fear and greed.
There is little room for truth in advertising: a can of Coke will make you happy, a pair of Nikes will make you cool.
…but the Internet is a truth machine. We know that a can of Coke will make us unhealthy and those Nikes, made in a Vietnamese sweatshop are nothing more than a temporary high. Consumers are fighting back, and the response from business is transparent. You don’t want all that sugar? Here is our sugar-free Coke. You don’t want Coke? Here is our $3 bottle of tap water. There's no doubt the admen are behind this, presenting their research on changing consumer opinion while simultaneously devising a strategy to keep us buying.
The truth machine amplifies the problem. The vision of advertising we saw in The Minority Report is no longer the future, it is happening now. The dot-com mega corporations have enabled admen to track our every move, thought and like. The artistic beauty of the 60’s has been replaced by custom ad placements following our every move.
Privacy is not just under attack, it is being manipulated to feed the dark side of Silicon Valley. The philanthropy of these new billionaires is built through modern day sweatshops. While they strategise over burning effigies with their peers at Black Rock City, the consumer dollar is filtering itself to an ever decreasing number of people.
Where does it all end?
Marketing is neither good nor bad, marketing is a tool to match needs and wants, it helps companies grow, and despite my misgivings about these dot-com monopolies:
- Google’s ability to find exactly what I am looking for is helpful
- Facebook’s ability to create communities around interests is cool
- Amazon’s convenience is second to none
What isn’t cool is how these tech companies exploit data and privacy. The Cambridge Analytica scandal highlighted how insidious the business of data has become. Yes, I want to share my photos with my friends, no, I don’t want you using my data to influence elections. Yes, I want you to show me the nearest Chinese restaurant, no, I don’t you listening to my phone calls.
The problem is these companies can’t be trusted, and they will continue to collect our data and use it to appease Wall Street. But an alternative is coming, a new wave of decentralised and privacy-focused technologies which are taking power back.
With art imitating life, the vision of a decentralised Internet seen in the HBO's Silicon Valley is being built by the inventor of the Internet Tim Berners-Lee. Built off the decentralised web platform Solid, Inrupt puts the user in control of their data and who can access it.
“We are not talking to Facebook and Google about whether or not to introduce a complete change where all their business models are completely upended overnight. We are not asking their permission.” Tim Berners-Lee
The threat to these centralised data abusers is significant, Inrupt can upend their entire business model and, should it be successful, they won’t be able to do anything about it. Decentralisation is about taking power back from centralised entities, and is there a better proponent for such a project than the inventor of the Internet?
Berners-Lee isn’t the only person working on the problem:
- Numerous ad blockers have appeared which block those crappy banners and tracking scripts
- Brave has made private browsing default
- Cryptocurrencies have made ecommerce private
- DuckDuckGo has anonymised search
- Metamask has made user accounts anonymous
The message is clear, people want privacy, ironically, Silicon Valley is responding.
When I wrote about the advertising industry in 2015, my somewhat facetious article highlighted how much garbage the advertising industry was producing which didn’t work. Now there are new threats:
- Technology which blocks advertisers from promoting their lies
- Technology which prevents advertisers from customising their lies
- Technology which prevents advertisers from knowing who they are lying to
- Technology which blocks advertisers from tracking the performance of their lies
Companies will still want to market their products and services, and outside of the Coca-Cola example, there are honest organizations who need and deserve to be able to talk to customers.
What is required is a new model, a new framework of thinking. My expectation is the industry will respond with more ads, wherever media planners can find places to put them, and new metrics will be invented which allow large numbers to be sent to clients in Excel spreadsheets.
Some of us know what is coming. We are preparing for a future where the consumer holds power and permission-based communications is not just a checkbox and an email.
A civil war is underway in Silicon Valley, and the advertising industry is collateral damage.