Systems in extremis often delude themselves into believing they are something they are not.
Our educational system has convinced itself that it's not really in the education business. It's in the "self-discovery" business or the business of "celebrating diversity" or other such nonsense. The result is that it is very successful at not educating our kids.
Pepsi decided a few years ago that it was no longer in the business of selling soda. It was in the social responsibility business. The result was years of disastrous sales.
The advertising business is currently going through such a cycle. We are no longer about making advertising. In fact, making ads is looked down upon as a quaint, out-of-date notion.
Unfortunately, we can't quite decide what business we are in.
For a few years we were in the "branding" business. The "branding" business posited that consumers had deep connections to brands, and that sales results were in direct proportion to brand "meanings." The result was the marketing equivalent of empty suits -- mundane products with silly, high-minded philosophies and vacuous advertising.
Then we were in the "conversation" business. This meant that instead of making ads, our primary purpose was to generate "conversations" between buyers and sellers. The rationale behind this fantasy took the aforementioned belief that consumers care deeply about brands to a new level. Now they wanted to interact and have relationships with us.
Our newest delusion is that we're in the data business. "Big data" is the big thing. The theory behind this latest dead end is the hypothesis that the key to marketing success is precision targeting. In fact, precision targeting has thus far proven to be a dispiriting bust. The poster child for precision targeting is Facebook, which has more data and knows more about us than we know about ourselves.
And yet advertising on Facebook has been uniquely ineffective. An astounding experiment done several months ago showed that ads with no content and no targeting performed 60% better than "precision targeted" Facebook ads. Major brands have stayed away in droves.
So what is all this confusion and misdirection in the advertising business about?
The answer is quite simple. About 15 years ago our industry decided that traditional advertising had run its course. We had run out of steam and were searching for new ideas. The web was the perfect solution. It was a brand new medium in which anything was possible.
It represented everything we were searching for -- new technologies, new creative possibilities, and a youthful new "branding" opportunity for the tired old ad business.
There's only one little problem: it ain't workin' very well.
No one pays any attention to the ads. No one wants to have conversations with us or read our self-serving content. But we are ideologically committed to the web. It is still our precious baby -- regardless of the discouraging facts.
Our latest web pipe dream is data. But data is a solution looking for a problem. The fact is, we now have more data about consumers than we ever dreamed possible. We know where everyone is every minute of the day. We have no trouble reaching people efficiently. Our problem is not lack of information. If anything, we are overloaded with information.
Our problem is finding something interesting to say to people that will get their attention.
As John Hegarty, founder of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, said recently,
"I've spent my life dealing with people who've got all the data in the world and yet they can't invent anything."We will continue to imagine new varieties of web magic until such time as our clients' need for results catches up to our industry's ideological commitment to chasing rainbows. Big data is just the latest rainbow.
As usual, the ad industry is focused on everything but the problem.