January 29, 2018

The Problem Isn't Technology. It's Us.

A few years ago we entered what might be termed the “technological” era of advertising. In this era, machines and software took a lot of the tasks that used to be done by people and started to do them quicker, and in some cases better.

Recently, we have thought of ad technology mostly in terms of media. But technology has influenced the advertising business in many other ways including film production, computer design, data collection and analysis, etc.

Technology, in fact, has influenced all aspects of the advertising business. In many instances for the better, in some, for the worse.

The problem we have yet to come to terms with is that there is a difference between technology and science. We view our modern technological tools as giving us a scientific way of doing advertising. Before technology we were mostly guessing at what was working and what wasn’t. Today we believe that technology gives us a much truer picture of advertising reality.

I am not convinced.

The essence of science lays in honesty. Scientists must approach their activities with the greatest skepticism. They must be doubtful. If they are approaching a problem - an experiment, if you will - and have already decided what the outcome must be, they are not doing science. They are doing advocacy.

Our boosterism about technology does not have the integrity of science because it has lacked skepticism and doubt. Ten years ago we decided what the technological revolution in advertising was going to deliver. We decided this with great anticipation but no facts. All we had were the assertions and promises of experts, and a set of outcomes we were aggressively anticipating.

Let’s review a few examples of what experts promised us about advertising technology and what has actually occurred.
1. We were told that technology - in particular the collection and analysis of online data — would allow us to produce advertising that was tailored to the personal interests and behaviors of individuals and would make advertising more relevant, more welcome, and more effective.

2.  We were told that technology would allow us to engage consumers as never before through digital social channels which would open up lines of communication that consumers would find compelling and lead them to “join the conversation” with us, and with each other, about our brands.

3. We were told that digital media buying technology - what we now call programmatic buying - would enable us to spend our media dollars in a far more efficient manner.
These are just a few of the many promises that experts assured us would be the benchmarks of the era of advertising technology.

It is not my intention in this piece to undertake a dismantling of these promises (I seem to have spent the last five years attempting that.) But I do want to be sure my point is clear, so let me state a few facts for the record:
1. Virtually every independent study I have seen on consumer attitudes about online advertising indicate that they are exactly the opposite of what we were told to anticipate. Online advertising is generally seen as the least trustworthy, the least liked, the least relevant and the most annoying.

2. The idea that consumers would be enthusiastic about “joining the conversation” about brands has turned out to be a fantasy. One look at a Facebook page and you can see there is not a conversation about brands to be found. In fact Facebook has essentially given up on providing brands with anything like significant organic social reach. According to most sources, the Facebook algorithm now delivers a brand’s page organically to about 1% of its followers. It has instead become the world’s leading distributor and beneficiary of paid display advertising -- the very thing it was supposed to replace.

3.  The waste in online advertising is beyond comprehension. Reliable estimates are that over $16 billion in online ad dollars will be stolen by fraud this year; ad tech middlemen are scraping about 75% of online ad dollars even when there is no fraud; of the 25% of non-fraud ads that actually “appear” only about 50% are visible to consumers.
In fairness to the early champions of advertising technology and the experts that waxed eloquently about its promise, they probably could not have foreseen any of these unintended effects of ad technology.

And here’s where science steps in. To a scientist with integrity, honesty is more important than ego. A scientist is out to discover the truth, not to prove himself right. If ad technology - and our industry - were being led by people of integrity instead of boosters and hustlers, we would have corrected the record long ago. We would have buried the many misconceptions about ad technology that are currently enormously influential in marketing circles.

I want to quote to you something from Richard Feynman, one of the most brilliant men of the 20th century.

“There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods and so forth, but if you notice, you’ll see the reading scores keep going down or hardly going up in spite of the fact that we continually use these same people to improve the methods. Another example is how we treat criminals. We obviously have made no progress — lots of theory but no progress — in decreasing the amount of crime by the methods we use to handle criminals.

Yet these things are said to be scientific. We study them. And I think ordinary people with commonsense ideas are intimidated by them. A teacher who has some good idea of how to teach her children to read is forced by a school system to do it some other way - or even fooled by a school system into thinking that her method is not necessarily a good one. Or a parent of “bad boys” after disciplining them in one way or another, feels guilty for the rest of her life because she didn’t do “the right thing” according to the experts.”

I’m sure by now you’re seeing where I'm going with this. It is my contention that with a few rare exceptions, we in the ad industry, despite our addiction to technology, are not practicing science.

If our commitment to technology is based on scientific principles about the efficacy of our technologies, why are we so confused? Why are we still so lost in our search for finding out what really works? Why is there so much disagreement? Why do we hear so often that marketing isn’t as effective as it once was? And that advertising isn’t as effective as it once was? Why are we chasing every shiny thing that comes around in the hope we can find a magic button? Aren't we exactly like the experts on reading and criminal reform that Feynman describes?

How did it reach the point that the brand leader of the largest advertiser on the planet had to characterize the online advertising ecosystem as “murky at best and fraudulent at worst" and threaten to withdraw all their support? How did it reach the point at which social media fraud is the lead story on the front page of The New York Times? It's simple -- years of obfuscation, misrepresentation, and flat-out lies by the "leaders" of our industry.

Technology has enchanted us but we have chosen to ignore its lessons because they have not confirmed our expectations. We pick and choose our examples to prove our points. We have acted like cheerleaders, not scientists.

We have experts coming around telling us that virtual reality is the answer, or QR codes, or “voice,” or AI, or content, or emojis, or Pokemon Go, or social media, or blockchain or...what will it be next week?

And where is the science to prove any of this? Well it turns out the science is usually just case histories and anecdotes. Sadly, these pseudo-scientific devices are convincing enough to fool most people. Just attend any marketing conference.

Feynman says about scientific inquiry, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

In my mind, advertising technology has lost its credibility for two reasons. First, we haven’t acknowledged the unanticipated consequences of what has ensued. Second, we have refused to act honestly and correct the errors of our expectations. Instead we have created an ongoing crisis of credibility with a constant stream of half-truths, lame excuses, and public scandals.

We have refused to admit that a great deal of what we promised has turned out to be wrong. We continue to behave as if the predictions and promises of years ago are still relevant. We continue to make excuses. When we are confronted with real world contradictions to our predictions we kick the can down the road, “just wait, you’ll see.”

Ad tech is now sounding an awful lot like religion. It’s always going to bring great things some day. Just not today.

Does this mean that technology has nothing to offer us? Of course not. But as Feynman would say, technology doesn't come with instructions. Until the ad tech industry and those who have been protecting and defending it in the agency world start to be truthful about what we have learned, our business will continue to be poisoned by a most dishonest and wasteful disease — technology without science.

It's not the technology that's the problem. It's us.

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