November 14, 2019

Greg Stern Needs To Apologize

Greg Stern is chair of the 4As. Unfortunately for Stern, his chairmanship has coincided with the
most unsettling, corrupt, and damaging era in the history of the ad industry.

In recent years, we have assiduously cataloged the problems the ad industry is facing (here's a good place to start.)

Earlier this week, Stern wrote a piece for Campaign in which he tried to frame the confused and weakened state of the agency business as a hopeful jumping-off point for "positive change." That remains to be seen.

In the course of doing so, Stern took some ill-advised and unnecessary cheap shots at people who have done nothing but radiate credit on our industry.

Stern's article is framed as his reaction to presentations and comments he has heard recently at industry conferences. He starts out by saying that the "overriding messages have spanned from hopeful to dire." Fair enough. I attend lots of conferences, too, and I hear the same baloney.

Next he gives us his "real talk" outlook: Yeah, it's tough out there but this is no time for negativity. OK, if we were in his shoes we'd do the same.

Then we get the obligatory parade of clichés about "transformation,"  "disruption," and "collaboration." Once again, fair enough. In his position, I'd throw a coin in the jargon jukebox, too.

But then things go very wrong. Instead of honestly asserting that there are reasons to be concerned about the direction of the agency business -- which is shocking news to absolutely no one -- he looks for scapegoats.

He starts by planting the seed that conference organizers sometimes have unwholesome ulterior motives...
"a conference sponsor’s agenda will often come through, whether implicitly or overtly."
He follows it up one paragraph later with...
"I recently attended a small, private conference in San Francisco, where the tone wasn’t even cautiously optimistic."
This is patently false. I spoke at that conference. It included some of the most upbeat and inspirational speakers you could hope for. It including Margaret Johnson, Chief Creative Office and Partner at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, Sarah Mehler, CEO of Left Field Labs, and Mark Figliulo, founder of FIG. 

These are three amazing, talented, and cheerful people who made me, and I'm sure everyone else in the room, proud to be in the ad business. I don't know what presentations Stern was watching, but the assertions that the nature of these presentations "wasn't even cautiously optimistic" is beyond explanation.

The conference in question is nothing short of excellent. It has been so for 10 years in which time it has displayed the type of integrity that some of our advertising "leaders" could learn from.  The implication that it was influenced by some treacherous "sponsor's agenda" is, there's no other way to say this, simply truth challenged.

Another of Stern's cheap shots made me sick. Stern characterizes one of the talks as follows... "one industry big thinker phoned in a presentation (literally)"  

I'm not going to abuse anyone's privacy by naming names, but the speaker in question is a very brilliant person who's had a stellar career in advertising. He made a phenomenal presentation despite terrible hardships. He could not come to the conference because of a heartbreaking illness to one of his children. Instead he did his presentation over the phone from London. I just hope for Stern's sake that he never has to "phone in" a presentation for a similar reason.

Stern owes an apology to the organizers of the conference for implying that there was some kind of sinister "sponsor's agenda" lurking in the background. There most certainly was not.

He also owes an apology to the speakers mentioned above for the nasty and condescending characterizations of their excellent and inspiring talks as "not being even cautiously optimistic."


But of course, since I was on the agenda, it wasn't all lollipops and roses. Stern says...

"The Ad Contrarian delivered his usual rant, only somewhat paraphrased as 'no one in digital advertising has any idea what the hell they’re doing.' 
While I will gladly stipulate that no one in digital advertising knows what the hell they’re doing, this is a grossly inaccurate characterization of my talk. 

In fact the lead organizer of the event, one of the most highly respected advertising lawyers in the industry, wrote to me after the event to say...
"Several of my colleagues who dropped in....told me you were the best, most entertaining, and important speaker we’ve had at the firm in anyone’s memory."
But, as we all know, you can never trust a lawyer. So judge for yourself. I am posting my entire talk here. Read it and see if the distinguished 4As chair's characterization of my talk is fair. 

Make no mistake, I was highly highly critical of the industry and I could see how it would make Stern squirm. But if he wanted to counter my argument he had a perfect platform to do so in his article in Campaign. Instead he opted for an ad hominem cheapshot.

It's hardly fair to lay all the troubles of the ad industry at Stern's feet. I have no idea what the chair of the 4As is supposed to do other than go around mumbling platitudes about transformation, disruption and collaboration. I understand why Stern wrote what he wrote. He's in the wrong place at the wrong time and he's had a tough go.

However, mean-spirited, self-serving commentary should remain the purview of blogweasels like me. It doesn't reflect well on the chair of the 4As.

November 11, 2019

Upgrading From Email To Fmail

Email was fun, but we can do better.

It's time for us to disrupt the entire personal communication ecosystem. We need to upgrade to fmail.

Email was good for two types of things:
1. Receiving annoying messages from people we know who want something from us, and
2. Receiving annoying messages from people we don't know who want something from us.

The time has come for us to bifurcate. I love to say bifurcate.

Email can remain the system of choice to connect with the people we know. It would be made up primarily of messages concerning...

   - Meetings we don't want to go to
   - Dinners we don't want to eat
   - Parties we don't want to attend
   - Weddings taking place on days we were planning to play golf
   - People cancelling lunch plans
   - Naughty jokes that aren't funny
   - Political opinions that are hilariously funny

Then there's fmail.

First of all, let's not pretend we don't know what the f stands for. Fmail would constitute about 99% of what is currently called email. It would include...

   - Notifications that we have to update Flash
   - Invitations to attend the Double Secret Real-Time Programmatic Insider Summit
   - Amazing deals on airline flights to places we don't want to go
   - Amazing deals on hotel rooms we don't want to occupy
   - It's someone on LinkedIn's birthday!
   - How do rate our recent stay at St. Larry's Hospital?

There are other changes that need to be made to the messaging ecosystem. Just to get the ball rolling... If you're a male athlete, please don't text me pictures of your dick. Also, if you're a Russian female athlete, please don't text me pictures of your dick.

November 06, 2019

Making It Up On Volume

There's a very old business gag about losing money on every sale but making it up on volume.

While the premise of losing on every transaction but making up for it with lots of transactions may be ridiculous, in our confused world of marketing it has become a foundational principle.

Essentially what most brands are doing when they flood the web with idiotic social media posts and self-serving nonsense masquerading as "content" is hoping that their lack of ability to derive a cogent, commanding concept for their brand can be disguised and tarted up with a torrent of moronic bullshit.

They even teach this nonsense in marketing programs with concepts like "always-on" marketing, and denigrate the essence of marketing effectiveness by claiming that "the big idea" is dead.

Of course, when you don't have the talent to create something worthwhile the next best strategy is to declare it dead.

McDonald's former CMO claimed that in 2016 they would create 5,000 pieces of online content. That's one piece of shit content every 24 minutes of the work year. Since starting a Twitter feed, McDonald's have posted over half a million tweets.

Nothing very useful, but making it up on volume.

November 04, 2019

Our Principal Problem Is Principles

In most fields of endeavor progress is achieved by the accretion of knowledge over time.

In medicine, for example, we learned of the germ theory of disease. Then we learned that there were not just bacteria causing diseases, but other agents like viruses. Then we learned that parasites and fungi could also cause disease. But it all started with the basic knowledge that diseases weren't caused by frogs or witch's spells, but by germs.

In aeronautics, the materials we use to make airplanes are completely different from the ones used 100 years ago. But we still use the fundamental design of a fuselage and a pair of wings. The principles of lift and acceleration are still basic to airplane design and function.

Copernicus taught us that the universe did not revolve around the Earth, but that the Earth revolved around the sun. Then we discovered that there were other bodies revolving around the sun, called planets. Then we discovered that that there were stars that didn't revolve around the sun. And then we found there were things that we thought were stars that turned out to be galaxies comprised of hundreds of billions of stars. One thing lead to another.

Advertising is different. We respect no history. We observe no principles. We have no connective tissue.

Every generation tosses out what was learned before and declares it dead. Marketing is dead. The Big Idea is dead. Positioning is dead. Brands are dead. Traditional media are dead.

Every generation invents its own clichés that mean nothing, but for a brief time pass for principles -- likeanomics, engagement, conversations, storytelling, empowerment.

The absence of principles is the dirty little secret behind why we engender so little respect in the business world. A field of endeavor without principles is not a discipline -- it's a free for all.

What are the principles that everyone in advertising agrees on? In most disciplines there are unifying principles. Some examples: Physics has the law of conservation of energy. Biology has natural selection. Medicine has the germ theory of disease. Economics has the law of supply and demand. These are fundamental to the nature of the field. In  advertising, what are the proven unifying fundamental principles that we all accept? If there are any, I don’t know what they are.

We used to believe that creativity was the essence of successful advertising. No longer.
We used to believe that big ideas were the backbone of outstanding advertising. No more.
We used to believe that an agency's primary job was the delivery of outstanding ads to its clients. Not today.

What do we believe in now? Likeanomics, engagement, conversations, storytelling, and empowerment? These aren't principles. These are the tired clichés of a struggling industry.

October 15, 2019

Advertising's Decade Of Delusion

The ten years we have just experienced were expected to be some of the most fruitful and productive in the history of advertising.  We had amazing new tools and stunning new media that we never had before. The whole thing was head-spinning and certain to engender all kinds of remarkable opportunities for advertisers.

Our ability to reach consumers one-to-one with web-based platforms was sure to make advertising more personalized, more relevant, and more timely.

Brands' abilities to listen to consumer conversations through social media and react quickly couldn’t help but connect us more closely with our customers.

Consumers themselves would be one of our biggest assets by engendering conversations about our brands and helping us understand and define what our brands should represent.

Further, the web would have a democratizing effect on society and particularly in the business sphere where new brands could flourish without spending lavishly on marketing.

And yet, the past decade has been the most disappointing and disheartening period that I’ve experienced in my long advertising career.

It is widely believed inside and outside the ad industry that on the whole the state of advertising has gotten worse, not better.

Consumer research shows that regard for our industry is at a new low. It's gotten so bad that we have half the trustworthiness of lawyers.

Marketers are disillusioned. They don’t trust us. Their trade organization, the ANA, has officially stated that they believe corruption in our industry is “pervasive.”

Brands are facing strong headwinds. A recent study by Nielsen reported that consumers say they are 46% more likely to change brands than they were just 5 years ago, and only 8% say they are strongly brand loyal.

Regulators and governments are after us with a passion. They want to know what we are doing with data and whether we are acting illegally in collecting, trading and selling personal private information about consumers.

By steadfastly defending the abusive and creepy surveillance practices of our adtech ecosystem, the "leaders" of our industry are clearly on the wrong side of history.

As for consumers, one study showed that of all forms of advertising, the eight types rated the lowest by consumers were all forms of online advertising. Ad blocking apps are reportedly present on somewhere between one and two billion devices.

Meanwhile tens of billions of dollars are being stolen annually from our clients by online ad fraud.

Marketers are taking their advertising duties in-house and hiring consulting firms to do what we used to do.

As for the democratizing effect, it has been just the opposite. The web has produced advertising and marketing monopolies (Google, Facebook, Amazon, YouTube, etc) that would never be tolerated on dry land. Our industry has been right in the middle of scandals that have undermined our confidence in free and fair elections.

To say that the last decade has not lived up to expectations is like saying the Titanic was a boating mishap.

Our industry is in trouble. I believe we've had a lost decade. We have allowed ourselves to be bamboozled by the suspect assertions of articulate people -- and more than a few clowns -- masquerading as experts. We have lost any healthy degree of skepticism. It has cost us dearly.

Our industry needs to take a good hard look at our assumptions and where those assumptions have led us. It's time for the pretending to end.

September 19, 2019

Everything I Know About Advertising I Learned From A Blues Song

I was wasting time on the web the other day and I came upon an article from Medium called "Let’s Talk About How to Build a Brand." There was nothing actually wrong the piece if you're the kind of person who likes to read instruction manuals. It was kind of the 30-minute version of Marketing 101.

But, like so much of marketing thinking today, it was all brains and no guts.

It reminded me of my Aha! advertising moment when I realized how the whole thing works -- when I realized that it's not about how marketing works, it's about how people work. 

I was listening to an album by Ry Cooder called Paradise and Lunch, a monstrously great album. One of the tunes on the album is called Feelin' Good, which was written by a blues singer named J.B. Lenoir.

In two lines, Lenoir made me realize how simple the whole thing is and how stupid I'd been not to understand what was right in front of me. He tells us more about how marketing works than all the books in the worldwide marketing library...
"Feelin' good, feelin' good
All the money in the world spent on feelin' good"
And after years of working in advertising I finally understood how the whole thing works. People buy what they believe will make them feel good. 

Why do they buy an iPhone instead of a Samsung? Because they believe will make them feel good. A Ford instead of a Chevy? Because they believe it will make them feel good. A Bud versus a Coors? Because they believe it will make them feel good.

They don't buy to be part of a tribe, or to have a brand relationship, or to do any of the prodigiously analytical things our marketing prophets tell us. What our experts are seeing is what it looks like from the outside.

What people are actually doing is buy what they believe will make them feel good. 

Next time you sit down to create or evaluate an ad, remember this..."All the money in the world spent on feelin' good."

September 08, 2019

A Conspiracy Of Silence

For several years the advertising industry has been engaged in a conspiracy to deceive its clients and the public about online advertising.

It is not the kind of conspiracy you get when bad people get together to plot a crime. It is the kind of conspiracy you get when greedy, frightened people individually decide it is safer to keep their mouths shut than tell the truth.

For the last few years we have been flooded with scandals and revelations about corruption, fraud, and lies in the online advertising ecosystem. Here is just a partial list in no particular order:
The terribly damning part is that there are only two possibilities: Either agencies are remarkably stupid and don't know what is going on, or they know and are keeping their mouths shut. It's hard to decide which is worse.

I believe they have been engaged in an unspoken conspiracy.

Not a single one of the scandals involving online media were brought to light by a media agency. Not one. Let's put this another way -- not one of the scandals about online media were exposed by the people whose job it is to scrutinize online media.

Agencies, particularly media agencies, are as close to the online media industry as you can get. They are analyzing online media 24 hours a day. They are responsible for seeing to it that hundreds of billions of online advertising dollars are spent properly every year. They work very closely with media. They have the facts at their fingertips. They are assessing online media opportunities on behalf of their clients every day.

How can it be that reporters, who are not trained in media, have not nearly the resources to scrutinize media, and have no expertise in analyzing media, were able to sniff out scandal after scandal while the "experts" were not able to do so? It is not possible. It doesn't even pass the giggle test. As one very highly regarded media analyst commented to me recently, "agency bigwigs are notoriously paranoid and fearful. There's a strong code of silence..."

If it were left to the leaders of the ad industry, we would know nothing about any of the appalling stories listed above. By concealing their knowledge of deceit and dishonesty in online media, the ad industry has failed at one of their most consequential responsibilities - being trustworthy stewards of their clients' money. Instead, they have been responsible for wasting billions of client dollars. Why?

  • Because they're afraid to admit they've been played for fools by online media.
  • Because they get fees or commissions on most of the wasted billions.
Is it any wonder marketers are moving media functions in-house? One can only wonder what additional sleaze the media "experts" know of and are keeping quiet about.

The ad industry has allowed itself to crawl into bed with the squids at Facebook and Google and the rest of the devious adtech weasels. It makes us look like fools. Every week there are alarming reports of fraud, corruption, privacy abuse, and security failures in online media and we shrug our shoulders and duck for cover.

The ad industry, controlled by misguided and incompetent leadership at trade associations and holding companies, had better get its act together. By being lapdogs to the corrupt and dangerous online media we are quickly squandering what's left of our credibility.

We are on the wrong side of history and will continue to stay there until the silent conspiracy to protect online media ends.

July 24, 2019

Three Reasons To Like Gary Vee

If you ever tell anyone I said this I'll deny it, but I kinda like Gary Vee. I know he's full of shit but I can't help liking the guy.

Here are three reasons I like him:

1.  He gives hope to those suffering from DDD (Delusional Disrupter Disorder.) These meatballs think that Gary's "just a poor boy with a vision" hooey is a model for success. They don't understand probability. They have about as much likelihood of gaining success from Gary's homilies as I have of winning a hugging contest. Nonetheless, he gives them hope.

2. Our business has two kinds of bullshit - the cold bullshit of the data weasels and the hot bullshit of the Gary Vees. You can have your Powerpoint-addled jargon-spewing data-monkeys. I'll take Gary's hot bullshit any day.

3. He had to grow up in New Jersey with the name Vaynerchuk. You try it.

June 24, 2019

The Only Test Of Brand Purpose

The message from Cannes this year is very clear. Every brand in the world is now trying to woke-wash itself to appear more acceptable to socially conscious consumers. Much of it is cynical bullshit.

The key to understanding which companies are truly doing the right thing, and which ones are using token "brand purpose" as a PR gimmick is very easy. There is only one conclusive touchstone to knowing who is truly committed to social welfare and who is a cynical poseur...

To what lengths do they go to avoid paying taxes?

The most serious attempts to create a better society are substantially funded by tax dollars: education; affordable housing; civil and personal rights; job training; infrastructure; health care. Companies who take unusual and excessive measures to pay little or no taxes are depriving our citizens of the tools we need to improve our societies.

The hitching of a brand purpose initiative to a politically fashionable cause while behind the scenes going to great lengths to avoid paying a fair share of taxes is a deplorable and cynical manipulation of public perceptions.

The fact that these tax gimmicks may be technically legal does not impress me one bit. It is perfectly legal for me not to support charitable causes, but as a responsible citizen I choose to be better than the law requires.

As far as I'm concerned, corporations who use advertising and marketing dollars to pound their chests about their trendy brand purpose cause-du-jour, but employ legions of lawyers to avoid the true cost of improving society are nothing but scum.

June 19, 2019

Dying At Cannes

For the 100th consecutive year I did not go to Cannes. But the good thing is, I know exactly what happened and saved myself thousands of dollars. As a free service to you other losers who didn't attend, here's what you missed
  • A very casually dressed ceo from a very big holding company said that the consumer is changing and we have to change to keep up with the changing consumer. He said we have to evolve or die. 
  • A very rich and famous creative person gave a very stirring speech about how creativity is the heart and soul of our industry and we have to get back to celebrating creativity. Agencies that don't prioritize creativity won't be around long.
  • Another famous creative person with very expensive eye-wear said we need to be brave. Those that aren't brave won't last.
  • A very earnest female executive gave a talk about how we have to value all people regardless of sex, sexual orientation, race, religion, absence of religion, age, ability, body type or gluten sensitivity. Marketers that don't value diversity will soon be dead.
  • A very European planner gave a talk about how we have to stop thinking short-term and realize that brands are built by long-term strategy. Those who focus on the short-term will disappear in the long-term. (Then she hurried out to see how many tweets her talk got.)
  • A panel discussion was held to discuss the future of marketing. It was agreed that more personalization was necessary to make marketing more relevant to consumers. Brands that don't have better insights into individual consumer behavior don't have long to live.
  • A panel discussion was held to discuss the future of the agency business. It was agreed that the agency business must align its priorities to the evolving needs of our clients or we will fade away.  
  • A very famous celebrity from outside the advertising industry gave a talk on why he/she now pays as much attention to social media as he/she does to acting/singing/basketball. "You have to stay in touch to stay alive."
  • A very famous billionaire sent a very mid-level executive to explain how their company is committed to protecting consumer privacy by developing an AI process to screen out everything and everyone that is bad. "If we don't do that, we have no future."
  • A research expert said that in order to understand Gen Z we must forget everything we know about Millennials, who were digital natives, and start to understand Gen Z, who are "digital aboriginals." Ignoring the needs of Gen Z is a death sentence.
  • A panel of branding experts agreed that consumers now expect brands to be socially responsible and make the world a better place for all people regardless of sex, sexual orientation, race, religion, absence of religion, age, ability, body type or gluten sensitivity. Brands that don't do that will soon be extinct.
There is so much potential for death in the advertising business these days that there is only one responsible way to avoid marketing's grim reaper -- hang out on yachts and gulp putrid rosé.
Thank goodness there are thousands of men and women from around the world who are willing to do this on our behalf.

Otherwise, we'd be dead.

June 11, 2019

My B2B Dream

I had a B2B dream last night. I heard somebody say...
We want to become your customer experience partner. We'll help you architect cutting-edge systems, both human and virtual, from high-quality product provision to unique problem resolution through customized resource management solutions.

We are laser-focused on re-imaging customer experience and future-proofing your business. In doing so, we also provide hands-on training to keep your employees engaged, more productive, and up to date on all aspects of your integrated solution suite.

Regardless of what industry you're in, we have the answers for your resource and system needs. Our data-driven, turn-key deliverables protect your most valuable assets - your customer relationships! We have the ability to work with many different industries, quickly responding to changing applications and environments, while staying focused on quality and best-in-class performance.

We analyze your historical and forecasted needs to ensure high execution while reducing costs

Our experienced experts will visit your distributed work environments and evaluate your operating modalities to advise on enhancements that will improve your key measurables and create ongoing alignment with sales and engagement goals. They’ll deliver a detailed report and recommend solutions tailored to your toughest KPI challenges.

Here are some ways that our eBusiness solutions can benefit you:
    • Dynamic integration
    • Catalog extracts  
    • Process regeneration
We are committed to both innovation and speedy adoption of disruptive sales-side ecosystems.

Our highly-trained associates take your operating blueprint and provide you with a finished global solution. The final resource set will be of the highest quality and will be validated and delivered with robust support structures. Additionally, we will source and integrate these structures into your assembly per your stated requirements.

In short, we are inverting the traditional systems architecture and abandoning outmoded team structures in favor of high-octane solutions that supercharge opportunities for growth.

We want to be your total resource solutions partner!
I said, "Okay. But what the fuck do you DO?"

June 04, 2019

The Wrong Math

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner, says people don't believe facts. They believe experts.

In some fields experts have credibility. Mostly it is in fields of hard science like medicine, physics, and chemistry where expert opinions can be tested.

In soft science, like economics and sociology, where enormous variables exist and controls are hard to establish, experts have far less credibility. There is also far less agreement within these disciplines. A quote attributed to George Bernard Shaw goes like this, "If all the economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion." Not because they are any less serious, but because their theories are difficult to prove or disprove.

Sadly in the field of advertising and marketing, experts are not usually hatched based on their record of producing reliable results, but on their ability to attract attention. Consequently we should be highly dubious of their "expertise." But we're not. Because as Kahneman also says, "a reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition."

One of the most frequently repeated and, in my opinion, highly dubious tropes in our industry these days is the idea that the paragon of media strategy is "mass one-to-one" communication. In non-jargonista terms, this means reaching large numbers with individualized messages.

You would expect that this assertion would be met with skepticism. For one thing, there is no record of "mass one-to-one" communication achieving anything. You might argue that no one has yet been able to engineer "mass one-to-one" and that is why there is no record. Which is exactly my point. Shouldn't we exercise a little skepticism about a theory for which there are no examples?

All of our huge brands -- Apple, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Toyota, Budweiser, Tide, Crest, Nike -- (I could go on here all day but you have work to do) have been created by the supposedly wasteful and sub-optimal mass media.

The power of the marketing feedback loop seems to have caused our industry to lose its ability to be sober or skeptical. Or as Kahneman might put it, facts don't matter. Experts do.

The reason we accept the fairy tale of "mass one-to-one" with absolutely no evidence is that a) experts are talking about it, and b) our math experts (in media and data) say it's true. 

I don't believe the experts, but I do believe in math. I believe math can offer us insights into how advertising works and how consumers can be influenced. The only problem is, I think we're using the wrong math. If you'll pardon my cliché, we have the wrong algorithm.

I don't know what concept of math the data experts use to persuade marketers that "one-to-one" is the media model of choice, but I believe the math model we should be using to understand media effectiveness is probability. In other words, what media strategy is most likely to produce the desired result? For large consumer-facing brands, there is ample evidence that (the prudent use of) broad based media has the highest likelihood of achieving the desired result of building substantial brands, and almost no evidence of anything else doing so.

The mathematics-based rationale for the primacy of mass one-to-one advertising and its alter ego precision targeting seem to go something like this: a) you are not wasting money on people not interested in your product, and b) customized ads are more relevant and persuasive.

This may be true for certain types of B2B marketers and highly-specific brand categories, but I think both these rationales are wrong for mainstream brands. I think probability would tell us three reasons why they're wrong.

First, I believe brands are far more likely to achieve big success if they are well-known. Public media (broad based media) make you well-known. Private media (one-to-one) don't. Perhaps the best argument for this can be found outside the advertising industry. As many have noted, in their early stages Google, Facebook, and Amazon were brands that became successful without advertising. How did they become successful? One component was that news media fell in love with them and gave them zillions in free coverage. These companies became well-known without advertising, and being well-known helped them grow. The rules of probability don't just apply to advertising, they apply across the board.

Second, I believe people are more likely to accept the legitimacy of brands that advertise in public than brands that advertise in private

Third, except for sociopaths, we all (secretly) want to fit in. Understanding what products fit with our peer culture is part of fitting in. This is why goths wear black and golfers wear plaid. Consequently, we are more likely to buy a brand about which everyone in our group knows what the brand stands for. Public media provide the framework to believe that your group has the same understanding of what the brand is about as you do. Private media do not. When advertising is customized for individuals, we have no idea if others know what we know.

Byron Sharp tells us the key to growing a brand is acquiring new customers. I believe probability tells us that the more people we communicate with loudly and in public the more customers we are likely to acquire. 

Another way to look at this...

The great Rory Sutherland says that "A flower is just a weed with an advertising budget." His point is that flowers expend a lot of resources to look and/or smell pretty. And about 125 million years of evolution have shown that the expenditure pays off. 

If there was a superior way for a rose to attract bees by individually or precision targeting certain types of bees with certain types of attractiveness, one would assume it might have evolved by now. Instead, roses produce a lovely, fragrant flower and let probability do its work.

Only time will tell if "mass one-to-one" is the formula for building big brands. I'm betting the under.

May 28, 2019

The Stupidity Of Ignoring Older People

A few weeks ago I was invited to speak at the NextM conference in Copenhagen, hosted by Group M.

Here is a short excerpt from my talk. In this section I'm talking about the stupidity of marketers who are obsessed with millennials and ignore older people.

May 22, 2019

I Go To Conferenceland

One of the downsides of making your living as a loudmouth is that you have to do it in public. This means participating in conferences. As everyone knows, there's nothing in the world as dreary as a marketing conference, with the possible exception of a State of the Union address or lunch with a CMO.

It is my good fortune that when I speak at conferences I am usually billed as the keynote, which often means I get to speak first. Speaking first has one great advantage. After I speak I can wait until no one's looking then sneak out the back door and find a nice quiet bar.

I was at a conference a few months ago and I decided to be mature and hang around and listen to some speakers. I'll never make that mistake again. Here's what I learned:
  • The future is going to be amazing. No one's going to have to do anything. Everything will be done for us by AI, or robots, or Jeff Bezos. We won't have to work, rotate our tires, or chew our food.
  • Robots, by the way, will be stealing our jobs, our airline miles, and our children
  • Women will also be amazing. When they run everything there will be no poverty, or inequality, or wait times at the Genius Bar. Except that one from Theranos.
  • Advertising, on the other hand, is not amazing. In fact, it's dead. It's going to be replaced by Google glasses or flying cars or moving sidewalks or something.
  • Better expect the unexpected because if you expect the expected than your expectations will be unexpectedly... I don't know...something very scary.
  • China and India are going to have their own internets which will be better than ours because your password will be embedded in your brain or your kidneys and you won't have to update Flash every half hour.
  • Data is not only the secret to marketing success, it also makes your car's engine run smoother and -- something you probably didn't know -- it makes a great Father's Day gift!
  • Facebook is changing. No, really, they mean it this time! They're going to be double-extra careful with our data, our bank account numbers, and our drug bust records by taking all our files and putting them in Ziploc bags. And if anyone tries to break into them they will suspend them and not let them open another Facebook account for almost twenty minutes. Unless they use another name.
  • Consumers love your brand and want a relationship with it and want to join the conversation about it and share it with their tribe... or, wait a minute... (DISSOLVE TO 30 MINUTES LATER)... brands mean nothing to consumers. The internet has disintermediated everything and the whole idea of brands is totally stupid... (CUT TO PANEL DISCUSSION)
  • Gen Z is a whole new species of human that is even cooler than millennials. You have to get rid of all those clueless millennials you just hired because they are stupid dinosaurs. If you don't have a Gen Z strategy in place by tomorrow 9am you are already too late and you are dead. By the way, we are holding a 3-day Gen Z Insider Summit in Orlando next month...
  • Consumers will love your brand of orthotic shoe inserts even more if your brand purpose aligns with their values and they know you are committed to world peace and colonic cleansing.
  • And, by the way, everything is changing and if you don't change you will be left behind and die. It doesn't matter what you are, you have to change into something else. It doesn't matter what you change into as long as you stop doing whatever it is you are doing and start doing something else that requires AI, robots, or Jeff Bezos.
Bottom line: The only sensible reason for attending a marketing conference is to get as far away as possible from the dreary reality of marketing. Like Disneyland, marketing's conferenceland is so much cleaner, prettier, and safer than actual marketing.

My advice is stay the hell away from marketing conferences unless, of course, I'm speaking. In which case, bring the whole family.

April 30, 2019

Marketing And Modesty

Human beings have an annoying habit of thinking we know things we don't really know.

In “The Cooling World," April 28, 1975 Newsweek informed us that meteorologists "are almost unanimous" that “catastrophic famines might result from…global cooling

On Sept. 14, 1975 The New York Times told us that this global cooling "may mark the return to another ice age."

And on May 21, 1975 the Times said "a major cooling of the climate is widely considered inevitable" because it has been "well established" that the climate in the Northern Hemisphere "has been getting cooler since about 1950."

Seems they were wrong.

Up until a few years ago, we thought we knew what the universe was made of. There was matter, which was largely atoms composed of electrons, neutrons, and protons. And there were four forces - gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces.

It turns out we have no idea what the universe is made of. Science now believes 94% of the universe is "dark matter" and "dark energy." Which is another way of saying, we have no fucking clue what it is.

My psychiatrist friends often tell me how unfathomable a lot of human behavior is. And yet 27-year-old account planners seem to understand behavior so thoroughly.

If the A students who study physics, math, climate and medicine are so often misguided, do we really believe the C students who study advertising and marketing know anything?

I’ve been around advertising and marketing a long time, and I’ve noticed something. I’ve noticed that we have a lot of unreliable opinions.

I had a long and pleasant career in the advertising business. I’ve had the opportunity to create multi-million dollar campaigns for brands like McDonald’s and Toyota, and Bank of America and Chevrolet.

I’ve been invited to speak in dozens of countries.

My opinions and comments have been sought by organizations like the NY Times, the BBC, the Wall Street Journal and other substantial media groups around the world.

And I’ve written 4 books about advertising that were Amazon #1 sellers.

I don’t say any of this to brag. I say it for the exact opposite reason — to make an important point. The point is this - I don’t know anything. I am faking it. I always have been. I have no idea why anybody buys anything. I have no idea why you buy Coke instead of Pepsi, or Nike instead of Adidas. As a matter of fact, I have no idea why I buy Coke.

As we used to say back in Brooklyn, I don’t know shit.

In my career I’ve worked with hundreds, if not thousands, of marketing and advertising people. And I mean no disrespect, but I don’t think they knew shit either. Mostly what we do is precision guessing.

I think we would be wise to keep open minds and admit that a great deal of our understanding of consumer behavior is incomplete at best, and wrong at worst.

We would do ourselves and our industry a whole lot of good to exercise a little modesty and discretion when we claim to know things we don’t really know.

April 16, 2019


AI is now in the same fantasy phase that online advertising was in 20 years ago. We are being bombarded with horseshit about how AI has made everything so wonderful -- and in the future is going to make everything even wonderfuller.

Here are a couple of spots from AT&T and IBM going all goofy about AI.

And this...

As always with new technology, the benefits are easy to foresee and the dangers are either invisible or willfully ignored. Twenty years ago, when the ad world started to go all gaga over "interactive advertising," who could have foreseen...
The current mania for AI - and its relentless promotion as our fabulous future - ignores an enormous potential for mischief and danger. The brainless enthusiasm for every flavor of online advertising only cost us money (ok, and maybe a few elections, and our reputation as an industry, and our confidence in democratic institutions, and our privacy rights.) The same wide-eyed stampede into AI could be a lot more costly.

Stephen Hawking said, “Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.” Hawking went on to say that ignoring the dangers of AI “would be a mistake, and potentially our worst mistake ever." AI could "spell the end of the human race".
Hawking is not alone. Elon Musk, hardly a technophobe, says, “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that.” 

Bill Gates, another famous Luddite dinosaur, says, "I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don't understand why some people are not concerned."

Of course, the simple-minded marketing industry - armed with its usual obsessions and delusions - can't see anything in AI but 1) another miracle to promote, 2) a topic for dreadful gee-whiz "content", and 3) a great new jargon term to insert into every sentence.

This time around, can we please be a little more mature and thoughtful?

Us? Only kidding.

February 21, 2019

More Elephant Advertising

There is a cute little research trick that semi-clever operators use to con gullible rubes. I will give you a small, silly example of it which I hope will make it more understandable on a large, global scale. It goes like this.

Let's say you want to open a strip club in a residential neighborhood. Obviously, no one in the community in their right mind wants a strip club in their neighborhood. But as the potential owner of the strip club you have to make a case to the city council to try to get your permit.

You do a survey in your community. What you don't ask is a clear, direct question, "Do you want a strip club in your community?" because you'll get a resounding no and a few solid blows to the golden globes.

Instead, you ask a question that sounds kinda like a suitable question: "Do you think the residents of Smallville would benefit from more recreational and entertainment opportunities?" This question has a lot of benefits.
  • Who is going to say no to the vague notion of "more recreational and entertainment opportunities?"
  • The so-called "recreational and entertainment opportunities" are not defined
  • The social ramifications (cost/benefit relationship) of the so-called "recreational and entertainment opportunities" are not described
Once the survey is completed you go to the city council and show them your pitch slides:
  • 88% of people in our community are in favor of "more recreational and entertainment opportunities." That's what we provide!
  • If approved, revenue from our company will contribute over $1 million annually to the tax base in the community.
  • We understand that not everyone will be in favor of our business, but enjoying our shows is entirely voluntary and no one is forced to patronize our establishment.
Even a city council isn't dumb enough to swallow this bullshit. Even a city council isn't dumb enough to not understand when they're being conned. That's how they're different from us.

I would submit to you that this is exactly the type of specious rationale that underpins the entire online ad industry. The con goes like this: the reason that tracking and spyware are necessary is that consumers want "more relevant advertising." This claim is put forth virtually every time the spy masters are asked to justify their practices.

To quote a semi-clever operator named Zuckerberg, “People consistently tell us that if they’re going to see ads, they want them to be relevant.

Yeah, right. People are out in the streets marching for more relevant advertising.

A recent New York Times piece by a communications professor and a law professor exposed this bullshit for what it is. They reported on two large studies they did. Here are some of the results...
"Sixty-one percent of respondents said no, they did not want tailored ads for products and services, 56 percent said no to tailored news, 86 percent said no to tailored political ads, and 46 percent said no to tailored discounts. But when we added in the results of the second set of questions about tracking people (emphasis mine - BH) on that firm’s website, other websites and offline, the percentage that in the end decided they didn’t want tailoring ranged from 89 percent to 93 percent with political ads, 68 percent to 84 percent for commercial ads, 53 percent to 77 percent for discounts, and 64 percent to 83 percent for news."
By posing questions in manipulative ways that don't actually describe the issues in question, it is possible to use research to distort the truth. If you ask someone "do you prefer ads that are relevant?" of course they're going to say yes. Just like if you ask if they want more entertainment opportunities.

But if you're asking the appropriate question -- "Are you willing to trade private, personal information about yourself and your family, and have your movements tracked and catalogued both online and offline, and have your emails and texts read and archived, and have files about you sold to anyone who wants to buy them, in order to get more relevant advertising?"-- I don't think you need to be a Harvard-billionaire-semi-clever-operator to know that you better be wearing a cup.

February 14, 2019

True Detective: How Bullshit Becomes A Fact

There is so much bullshit in our business that sometimes you have to wonder where it all comes from. Yesterday I decided to "peel back the bullshit" and see if I could reconstruct how something that was completely wrong wound up being represented as a fact in reputable publications like Forbes and The Drum. Here's the story.

Yesterday Samuel Scott tweeted out a quote from an opinion piece in The Drum.

Anyone with half a brain knows that millennials are nowhere near having the most spending power. In fact, on a per capita basis they have the lowest spending power of any adult group. People over 50 control 70% of the wealth in the US, and are responsible for about half of all consumer spending.

So I decided to do a little detective work and try to figure out where this bullshit "fact" came from. In doing so, I got a nice close-up look at the astounding ignorance that is embedded in our industry and how bullshit, repeated with enough frequency, becomes a fact.

I started with the piece in The Drum. It was called "Why direct-to-consumer companies are using Influencer generated content to win over the market." It was a thinly disguised self-promotion piece full of the usual data hysteria. As noted above, the piece claimed that millennials "have the most spending power of any generation."

As justification for this claim, the article linked to this article in Forbes entitled "How To Tap Into The Millennial $200 Billion Buying Power With Social Media" which asserted that "By 2018, they will have the most spending power of any generation." 

The article offered no back-up for this claim other than a link to this thing called "41 Revealing Statistics About Millennials Every Marketer Should Know." This piece lived on an agency website, was written by someone who was two years out of college who called herself a "Marketing Strategist." The marketing strategist had this to say...
Once again, there was no back-up for this claim other than a reference to something called "Bazaar." Searching for this source lead me to a pdf from 2012 entitled "Talking To Strangers: Millennials Trust People Over Brands" by a company called Bazaarvoice that sells some kind of software for harnessing the power of "user generated content." (Remember that?)

Once again, there was no detail or proof, just this assertion...

The attribution for this claim was a footnote about a book...
1. Kit, Yarrow and O'Donnell, Jayne. Gen BuY: How Teens and Twenty-Somethings Are Revolutionizing Retail, 2009.
The book in question was published in 2009 and was one of those "millennials are a new species" things that were all the rage until it turned out that millennials were pretty much just like everyone else. I couldn't find a direct claim in the book (frankly, I didn't look very hard) that "millennials have the most spending power of any generation." The closest thing I found was this:
"Generation Y, (remember when millennials were called Gen Y?- BH) those born between 1978 and 2000 has overtaken baby boomers in sheer numbers and is poised to do the same with its incomes by 2017..." (Emphasis mine, BH)
Of course, this turned out to be completely wrong. Millennial income did not overtake baby boomers in 2017. According to Business Insider, in 2018 in the US baby boomers out-earned millennials in every state in the union. "In all 50 states and Washington, DC, the median millennial made less money than the median Gen Xer or baby boomer...The gap in median income between millennials and baby boomers ranged from the older generation making about 25% more than millennials in Iowa to 65% more than millennials in Alaska."

The average millennial income is about $35,000. The average baby boomer income is about $46,000. There are about 9% more millennials than baby boomers, but their income is about 24% less. So even though there are substantially more of them, in aggregate their income is way behind baby boomers.

Here's a graph that demonstrates that income per capita among baby boomers is far higher than millennials.

One more thing. Even if millennials had higher income than baby boomers, that still doesn't mean they would have "the most spending power." Spending power is not a function of income. It is a function of income plus accumulated wealth plus access to credit. According to the Federal Reserve, baby boomer wealth is more than 15 times greater than that of millennials (which means they also have way more access to credit.)

So let's recap the timeline.
- In 2009, a book incorrectly predicted that millennial income would surpass baby boomer income by 2017.

- In 2012, in a self-promotional pdf by a software company, this false prediction was misinterpreted to mean that millennials would have "more spending power than any other generation" by 2017.

- In 2017, a piece of "content" on an agency website, written by a "marketing strategist" two years out of college, used this quote from the software company to assert that millennials "will have the most spending power of any generation by 2018."

- Later that year, an article in Forbes used the assertion on that agency website to justify a claim that, "By 2018, they (millennials) will have the most spending power of any generation."

- And yesterday, in 2019, an article in The Drum leaning on the piece in Forbes, proclaimed that millennials "have the most spending power of any generation."
And that, my friend, is how in the slovenly and slipshod world of marketing, bullshit becomes a fact.

January 30, 2019

The High Cost Of Online Trash

The online advertising ecosystem is impossibly complex. Today, I will try to provide a highly simplified overview written for non-media-savvy, non-tech-savvy readers. The idea is to give civilians like copywriters, marketing managers, and auto dealers a big-picture view of the online display ad environment and a point of view on its pitfalls. I have tried my best to write it in plain English and make it so simple even a CEO can understand it.

As a copywriter, I am not an expert on media buying so be warned. To account for that, I have bounced this off some digital media experts who have assured me that it is as accurate as you can reasonably expect from a dumbass blogger. This is excerpted from my forthcoming book "Delusional: How Marketers Waste Billions on Fraud and Fairy Tales" which will be published later this year. Okay, here we go...

“...We keep feeding the beast by pouring incredible sums of money into this unproductive, unmanageable abyss. Remarkably, we keep doing so even though we know that only 25 percent of every digital dollar reaches the consumer. … [that] represents more than $20 billion in marketing waste, inefficiency and ineffectiveness.” Bob Liodice, CEO, Association of National Advertisers
There are basically two ways to buy online display advertising.
  • Contextually — Buying “contextually" means you buy the old-fashioned way. If you’re trying to reach golfers, you buy ads on the Golf Digest website. The context of the website determines the buying criteria.
  • Behaviorally  — Buying behaviorally means you don’t buy ads on a specific website, you follow presumed golfers wherever they go on the web and buy ads wherever they land e.g., a beer website or an airline website. The behavior of the target determines the buying criteria, not the nature of the website. 
The big difference between traditional advertising and online advertising is that previously we could never know the behavior of individuals. Now, with "tracking" we can follow people across the web as we were never able to do with TV, radio, or print and reach them wherever they go.
The advantages of buying behaviorally are presumed to be…

Economy: Behavioral targeting reduces costs by allowing you to find those who are presumed to be golfers at cheaper locations than Golf Digest. By following a golfer to you can show her the same ad you might have shown her on the Golf Digest website, but at a lower cost. This results in lower CPMs (costs-per-thousand.) Keep this in mind because it will become important later.
Precision: Adtech helps you identify not just golfers in general, but left-handed women golfers over 35. Presumably, this results in "more relevant" advertising.
The concept of behavioral targeting has been widely adopted by the advertising industry. As a general rule, behaviorally targeted ads are bought programmatically (by software.) Programmatic buying currently represents about 80% of online display advertising.

On the other hand, for the most part contextual advertising is bought directly from the publisher or the publisher’s network. While it may employ the use of some software, it is most often not bought programmatically.

The question for advertisers is this -- is it more efficient to buy behaviorally or contextually? Because of the complexity of the system, it is almost impossible to compare apples to apples. But let’s try our best.

There are at least four aspects of behavioral targeting that are problematic:
  • Accuracy: How accurate is the targeting data? Behavioral advertising is only as good as the data that informs it. There is troubling evidence that data residing in the adtech ecosystem -- particularly data bought from data brokers --- is not as accurate as might be hoped. We experience it every day when we get ads for stuff we bought three months ago and ads for products we have no interest in. In one test, targeting data bought from a data broker was able to correctly intuit the sex of an individual 43% of the time. A cat flipping a coin would be right 50% of the time.
  • The “tech tax:” According to the World Federation of Advertisers and others, adtech, the technology that drives behavioral buying, costs about 60% of every ad dollar. In other words, buying, managing, and verifying the data that is needed for a programmatic buy eats up about 60¢ of every ad dollar. This means that of every dollar spent on behaviorally targeted advertising, only 40% is “working media.” Said another way, every ad dollar buys 60¢ of technology and 40¢ of advertising.
  • The “fraud tax:” The web is riddled with ad fraud. The actual amount of fraud in the system is controversial, with estimates running from 5% to over 50%. Experts would agree that in open ad exchanges web fraud is probably at least 20% greater than it is when buying direct. Many would say it is far higher.
  • The "long tail" of trash: There are tens of millions of websites. Many of them are pure junk. Many of them buy fake traffic to appear successful. Many of them aren't even real but are software that mimics a website for the purpose of attracting ad dollars. But they all sell ad space very cheaply. Programmatic systems see low prices on these junk sites and fake sites and bid on the worthless ad space they are selling to meet CPM goals. A famous case history involves Chase bank. They were advertising on 400,000 sites every month. They reduced the number of monthly sites to 5,000 (a reduction of almost 99%) and saw no difference in performance. An astounding number of the sites they were buying from programmatically were worthless.
One of the big problems in marketing today is math illiteracy. Too many people in advertising simply don’t know how to “do the math.” Let’s do some simple math and see where it leads us.

- We know adtech eats 60¢ of every programmatic ad dollar. This means when we buy programmatically we have 40¢ left for working media.

- If fraud takes another 20% of our 40¢, it means we have 32¢ left for working media.

- So, if directly-bought (contextual) advertising delivers 100% working media, and programmatically-bought (behavioral) advertising delivers 32% working media, behavioral advertising has to perform at about three times the level of contextual advertising to be a break-even proposition.** Put another way, the technology we are paying for only pays out if the resulting media buy is three times as effective.

Experts I have spoken to tell me that it is highly unlikely that behavioral ads can perform at three times the level of contextual ads. In fact, it is not unusual for them to perform at a lower level.

There are other reasons why programmatically-bought behavioral advertising is questionable:
Brand safety: When you buy directly you know where your ad is going to run. When you buy programmatically it can run almost anywhere.
Data abuse: When you buy directly you greatly reduce the need for the adtech industry to collect the massive amount of data that drives behavioral targeting and leads to data abuse and privacy abuse.
 Additionally, the data you use to target and track your most likely customers programmatically are fed into the adtech system and become easily available to your biggest competitors. It's called "data leakage."
Fraud abatement: When you buy directly you greatly reduce the potential for fraud. You usually pay directly to a publisher which means there is much less opportunity for fraudsters to insert themselves into the complexity of the process.
Transparency: The complexity of the programmatic ad ecosystem makes the tracking of ad dollars grossly opaque. This has resulted in scandal after scandal and is now the central focus of an FBI investigation. Directly bought advertising is far more transparent. You know who and what you are paying for and you know what you’re getting.
Behavioral targeting and its cousin, programmatic buying, are flawed concepts that have been sold to the marketing industry by people who have invested billions in systems designed to extract money from the ad buying industry. The more these people can complicate the system and insert themselves between the advertiser and the publisher, the more money they can extract.

Why is 80% of online advertising now bought programmatically? One very simple reason -- the "extractors" have convinced marketers that lower CPMs equal better value. As we said earlier, behavioral targeting often results in lower CPMs. But credible studies on this subject show that lower CPMs are not necessarily the result of more efficient buying. They are often the result of bottom-feeding -- more trash, more waste, more bots, more fraud and less value.

In traditional media -- where you know exactly what you're buying and the ecosystem isn’t drowning in trash and fraud -- using CPMs to evaluate efficiency is sensible. But online, where tens of millions of worthless and imaginary websites compete for your ad dollars by offering very low costs, using CPMs as a measure of efficiency is a mistake. Low CPMs are a truer indication of how much trash you're buying than how much efficiency you’re getting.

As regular readers know, I believe the adtech ecosystem -- and its evil spawn of tracking and surveillance -- are a dangerous and corrupting influence on advertising and on society. I hope this piece has demonstrated to the uninitiated that it is also bad business.

* There are hybrid ways to buy (e.g., programmatic direct) but we're trying to keep things simple here.

** In an effort to compare apple-to-apples and keep the math simple, I have given programmatic a working media number of 40% and direct buying 100%. In reality, direct buying doesn't produce 100% working media and programmatic buying doesn't produce 40% working media. The Association of National Advertisers says that programmatic buying only produces 25% working media I don’t know where that other 15% of “waste” for programmatic goes, so to be fair I’m going to assume that it is applicable to both programmatic and direct buying methods. In other words, direct buying probably results in something like 85% working media and programmatic something like 25% working media. But to keep the math simple I have given them both a 15% percent promotion to 100% and 40%.