April 27, 2016

Can The Ad Industry Save Itself?

I am still hopeful that we can save ourselves.

We are in very deep trouble, but there may be a strategy to rescue ourselves from the hole we have dug.

Let's start by defining the problem. The problem is that everyone seems to have lost confidence in us.

Our clients don't trust us. In fact, the Association of National Advertisers is conducting 2 investigations into our practices. Additionally, many clients are leaving and doing their advertising work in-house.

Consumers don't trust us. 200 million people worldwide are actively engaged in not allowing us to reach them.

Our most important human resource - talent - is fleeing at frightening velocity.

Why is all this happening? There are several reasons:

First, online advertising has turned us into liars. We pretend that we don't know about the astounding amount of fraud and irregularities. We pretend that the numbers we present to our clients are reliable. Constant lying -- either by commission or omission -- eats away at our fiber.

Next is the rancid quality of online advertising. The aesthetic lineage of online advertising is not "Madison Avenue," it is the maddening tackiness of junk mail direct response.

Third, we have become crime enablers. Very large and malignant crime networks are built on the skeleton of online advertising and marketing.

Perhaps most appalling of all, by our constant surveillance of consumers (we call it "tracking" but let's not shit ourselves) we are undermining personal privacy -- one of the principles that is foundational to a democracy.

The sad part of all this is that the problem is not actually advertising.

The problem resides in what we call "ad tech" -- the tracking and hounding of consumers and the warehousing and selling of information about consumers to third parties.

There is no reason why advertising cannot be successful online. There is no reason why people should hate online advertising as much as they do. There is no reason for us to be liars and crime enablers.

None of this is necessary. All other forms of advertising succeeded for decades without tracking and so can online advertising. It simply is not necessary. We just have to get rid of tracking and use the web like we use all other advertising media.

If tracking had proven to be exceptionally effective maybe we could justify it on an "end justifies the means" argument.  But it has not. As I wrote recently...
So far this has been a spectacular failure. Each of us is currently inundated with dozens, if not hundreds, of online messages a day -- banner ads, emails, social messages, etc -- that are assumed by  marketers to be particularly relevant to us and reflective of our individual purchasing needs and behaviors. We pay almost no attention to any of them.
The big picture is this. Most people have no love for advertising. They are willing to tolerate it because of the free entertainment and information it provides them. But online advertising has crossed a line. It has dismantled an edifice of reasonable trust between us and the rest of the world.

There is no reason for us to continue to allow ad tech to pollute the soil of our business. If we get rid of it, we will be happier, consumers will be happier, and, in the fullness of time, our clients will be happier.

Facebook and Google may not be happier, but you know what? I'll worry about them some other time.

April 25, 2016

Let's Call Content "Shit"

Here at the Ketel One Conference Center on the California Campus of The Ad Contrarian Global Headquarters we are unnaturally obsessed with the meaning of words.

This probably stems from spending too much time doing crossword puzzles when we should be working on the book we are supposedly writing. But let's not dwell on unpleasantries.

Today let's talk about one of our favorite topics -- content.

Content is the grand obsession of the advertising industry these days. Although, frankly, the obsessions come and go so fast that if you miss three days of LinkedIn you may not even know that last week's obsession is now officially dead and something else has come along to change everything.

Today I want to propose that we replace the word "content" with "shit." This idea came to me after reading a piece in the Harvard Business Review by Greg Satell. I want to expand on Greg's idea, and I think I can make a pretty compelling case for this recommendation.

Here's the logic.

Everything meaningful has a specific designation. So if you write something with meaning and value it's called a book, or a play, or a poem, or an essay.

But if you write something that does not have a specific designation -- if it is not a book, or a play, or a poem, or an essay --  if it's just a cluster of words you have gathered to "engage" an unsuspecting reader with your brand or your persona, it's almost certainly a piece of shit.

If it just stayed put it would remain a piece of shit. But when you upload it to the web, it automatically gets promoted to content.

The same is true of a film or video recording. If it's good, it's a movie, or a program, or a video. But if it's, say, a recording of your client's manifesto about how he's going to disrupt the frozen chicken industry then it's content. And it's almost certainly, shit.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that your client is shit or that your directorial skills are shit, or that the frozen chicken is shit. I'm just saying that as an undertaking the aesthetic essence of the project is likely to be shit, and we should acknowledge it as such rather than hide it behind the polite term "content." Let's be proud of our shit!

You would never call a sonnet, or a ballet, or a movie "content." They have specific identities and formal designations because they require talent and skill. But stuff that doesn't require talent and skill? It's shit by any name.

Like those pictures you take. The good ones are either art, or portraits, or, at worst, photography. But the really awful ones you put on Facebook -- that picture of the tunafish sandwich you had for lunch, or your dog licking himself, or the adoring selfie -- that shit is content. And that content is shit!

I hope I have convinced you because it is now time for me to get back to working on my book and stop wasting my time on this, um, content.

April 20, 2016

What Is Your Objective?

I was sitting in a client meeting.

The client was talking to us about doing a new campaign.

One of the agency MBA geniuses asked the client the question they always ask when they have nothing to contribute and want to sound engaged, "What is your objective for this campaign?"

I passed him a note: "Please see me after the meeting."

An hour later he was sitting in my office.

"Did you ever hear one of those spots for investment houses where they say 'we'll review your investment goals with you and design a plan?' " I said.

"Yes," he said.

"Well, here's a secret. Everyone in the world has the same investment goal - make more money. There's never been an investor who didn't have that goal. You see what I'm saying?"

"Um...I guess so."

"Let me clarify." I said. "Telling people that you will review their investment goals, is the same as saying 'I'm a fucking idiot' because if you don't understand that everyone's investment goal is to make more money you have to be a fucking idiot. Do you understand now?"

"Oh, okay, yes."

"Now, how does that relate to our meeting this morning?"

"I don't know."

"Okay, I'm going to reveal to you now the amazing secret of advertising and marketing. Every client in the world has the same objective  -- sell more shit. There's never been a client who didn't have that goal. Repeat after me -- their objective is to sell more shit."

"Their objective is to sell more shit."

"Good. Now, if I ever hear you ask a client what her objective is again, I will fire you. Every client and every campaign in the world has the same objective. The objective is to... you tell me....

"Sell more shit."

"Bingo! Meeting over."

April 18, 2016

We All Need A Reality Check

Sometimes being a skeptical bastard is difficult.

You start to think that maybe the Pollyannas have it right and you're just a stupid fool who's missing something.

You begin to question your ability to process the reality of what's happening around you.

You think, "maybe people really are using QR codes and wearing Google glasses."

And then one day all your amusement at the gullibility, Machiavellianism, and silliness of your industry is rewarded. That day happened last week when I bought and read Disrupted by Dan Lyons.

Disrupted is a wonderful confirmation that all the bullshit and nonsense that we sense swirling around us really is bullshit and nonsense.

In case you haven't read about it, Disrupted is Lyons' account of his experience at a marketing software start-up. Lyons had been the technology editor for Newsweek magazine when at the age of 52 he suddenly found himself out of work, with a sick wife and two young kids.

He decided to try his hand at the very thing he had been reporting on for years -- a tech start-up.

Lyons tries his best to overcome the misgivings he has accumulated after years on the tech beat. But the absurdity and idiocy of life in the company he joins -- Hubspot -- is beyond anything he could have imagined.

What makes the book so enjoyable is the fortunate convergence of three wonderfully loathesome subjects: marketing bullshit, Wall Street voodoo, and the insufferable arrogance of the young and gullible.

At times during his tenure at Hubspot Lyons, too, starts to think that maybe the Pollyannas have it right and he's just a stupid fool who's missing something.

But, to his credit, he ultimately goes all-in on his contempt for the con men, liars, crackpots, and bozos who inhabit his world and ours.

If you work in marketing, and specifically online marketing, and you don't read Disrupted, you really don't understand what business you're in.

... Full disclosure: I once gave Hubspot permission to publish a post of mine.
... Like every non-fiction book I've ever read, Disrupted would have benefited from a much more ruthless editor.
... From the great John Crawford,  "behind all the nonsense about new paradigms, etc., it all came down to salesmen selling other salesmen bad sales leads, with a lot of low-tech partying, gambling, drinking, big rock acts, etc. under a veneer of high-tech.  Not that different from a car dealer's convention.  However, if you plant these enterprises in the shadow of MIT (or Stanford) they take on a certain aura."  
... Lyons goes on to be a writer on the successful HBO series "Silicon Valley," and the detestable creeps running Hubspot go on to become zillionaires, even while being investigated by the FBI.

April 13, 2016

Nothing's Older Than An Ignorant Young Person

One of the most startling demographic shifts in human history is under way, and marketers -- completely obsessed with millennials -- are paying no attention to it.

In just 100 years, the shift in global population from young to old has been astonishing.

In the mid 1950's there were about 3 times as many people under 5 as over 65. By 2050 there will be twice as many people over 65 as there will be under 5.

The chart below comes from U.N. data via Business Insider.

The marketing implications of this are a little too esoteric for a dumbass blogger to decipher. But one thing is for sure. Marketers who don't wake up soon and figure out how to sell stuff to people over 50 -- "the most valuable generation in the history of marketing" (Nielsen) -- are going to be in deep doo-doo.

The idiotic 30-years-out-of-date legends about mature people (they don't spend much; they want to be like young people; they won't change brands; they're dying off) are already costing marketers zillions.

A friend wrote to me recently about a client of his who wants to target 50-year-old women and thinks they're grey-haired grannies sitting in rocking chairs knitting. Here's what I wrote to him:
"50-year-old women are pot-head, rock blasting, sex fiends...
As a matter of fact, 65-year-old-women grew up with the Rolling Stones, smoke weed and watch porn. They ain’t grandma anymore."
The inhabitants of the marketing industry are astoundingly out of touch with anyone not like them.

As I have said many times: Our industry's obsession with millennials is nothing but narcissism disguised as strategy. It is marketing by selfie-stick.

April 11, 2016

Confucius Was An Adman

We have been browbeaten into the belief that the key to happiness and success is to find our “authentic self” and follow the path our “authentic self" leads us to.

This is the mantra of every self-help guru, unemployed “life coach,” and public broadcasting blowhard.

Ancient Chinese philosophers weren’t so sure. Confucius and other Chinese thinkers, who lived over 2,000 years ago, believed life was a disorderly mess, always changing, and that each of us was an untidy shambles always changing along with it. They weren't convinced that there really was an "authentic" self.

An interesting article in The Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago by Dr. Michael Puett of Harvard and Dr. Christine Gross-Loh, authors of a new book “The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life,” presents us with a whole different view of how happiness and success may be achieved.
“...we shouldn’t be looking for our essential self, let alone seeking to embrace it, because there is no true, unified self to begin with. As Confucius understood, human beings are messy, multidimensional creatures, a jumble of conflicting emotions and capabilities living in a messy, ever-changing world… Looking within is dangerous.”
There is an important lesson here for the advertising and marketing industries.

Like humans, brands are living things in an impossibly messy world. The idea that there is one “authentic” or “essential” nature that a brand must forever live by, and that this nature is best described by a set of words written by largely unimaginative people is a pernicious disease in our industry.

In a post several years ago I wrote:
"Avoid the tyranny of strategy. Strategies are not written by God. They are written by planners, researchers, account execs, clients and other mildly retarded mortals. Good creative people often have a better feel for the problem than the committee that wrote the strategy."
By the time our creative people have received an assignment, 90% of the potential for truly imaginative thinking has been beaten out of it by a brief that imposes deadly drivel about the “authentic, essential” nature of the brand.

As the article in question states:
"...consider these subversive lessons of Chinese philosophy: Don’t try to discover your authentic self; don’t be confined by what you are good at or what you love. And do a lot of pretending."
Brands that die are not brands that refuse to jump on every new technology and marketing gimmick. They are brands that steadfastly refuse to entertain the idea that they might be something else. 

April 06, 2016

Dear Kevin

Dear Kevin,

I know we've written some unpleasant things about each other recently. But I think it's time to bury the hatchet.

I mean, we're both grown-ups (well, you are, anyway) and we shouldn't be quarreling like this.

As a token of my sincerity, I'm going to offer you some tips about your blog.

It's got to be a little embarrassing for a guy like you who is an expert on communication and social media and marketing and all that stuff to have a blog that is... how should I put this?... would 'underachieving' be harsh? (Here's a joke I thought of -- I can almost hear the wind whistling through your stat counter. What do you think? Funny?)

I think it's fair to say that your blog has some "issues." (You say "issues" instead of "problems," right? I bet you also say "reach out" instead of "call," right? No judgement, just sayin'.) I was looking at it and your last 25 posts have a total of zero comments, except for the one where you wrote about me. Weird, huh?

Well, as you probably know, I have a pretty popular blog.

So I see this as a great opportunity to seal our friendship by helping you with your blog (we have something in common -- I'm a "marketing expert" too!)

My theory is this. The key to a successful blog is to write stuff that people are interested in. You might say it's having a product that people like.

On the other hand, if you don't have stuff people like they will not visit your blog.

You with me so far? Good. Here comes the cool part.

Your blog has a great brand. It says Saatchi & Saatchi right there in big letters on the top. It's one of those amazing "Lovemarks" that everyone "just can't live without."

On the other hand, my blog has one of the dumbest brands ever ("The Ad Contrarian" -- I made that up one night in Sedona after way too much Sangria.) I'm pretty sure people can live nicely without my brand.

But the funny thing is my blog gets like 10,000 times as many "customers" as your blog. I have the stupidest brand in the world and you have an amazing Lovemark and yet... go figure, huh?

Kev (now that we're friends I hope you don't mind me calling you Kev. You can call me Bobby) I know you made a film once called Your Brand Is More Important Than Your Product (by the way, what's that weird thing you're doing with your hand in that film???) But, darn it, I think you may have got it wrong.

I guess what I'm saying is that if you want more customers coming to your blog I would recommend not relying too heavily on your Lovemark. It doesn't seem to be doing the trick.

I think what you need is a better product.

What do you think, Kev?

Hope this helps.

Your new friend,


April 05, 2016

Opening Day

I was on an airplane yesterday and neglected to post my traditional Opening Day post. Here it is a day late.

The world is a complete fucking mess. Somewhere, an asteroid is heading toward Earth. Web pornography is warping the minds of our children. Grown men and women are relentlessly tweeting each other. Yes, my friend, the end is near.

But who gives a damn?

It's Opening Day. I'm going to have a hot dog and a beer. I'm going to sit in the sunshine till the back of my neck is red and raw and my ass stings like a shot of tequila on a bad patch of strep throat.

What the hell, I'm having two hot dogs.

Once a year, every aspect of life should have an Opening Day. Every business should have one. Every friendship should have one. Every family should have one.

A day when everything starts over. When all of last year's successes and failures go into the record book, no longer a matter of life and death, just a matter of history. A day when the slate is clean and the possibilities are unlimited. A day when you call in sick-and-tired; when you leave the iPhone in the glove compartment; when you go somewhere where the grass is perfect and the people are unaccountably cheerful.

It's Opening Day. Let's play some fucking ball.

April 04, 2016

Apple Falling Far From Tree

It's been almost 5 years since an ailing Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO of Apple.

At the time, I wrote a couple of pieces about his departure from the company and the likely outcomes.

Despite Apple's sales success and market leadership, I don't think there's much doubt that the thrill is gone. It has been a very long 5-year drought of innovation and imagination in Apple products.

Walking through an Apple retail store today what we see are mostly line extensions of products developed years ago. The loneliest table in the store is the Watch table.

Here are excerpts from a few pieces I wrote almost 5 years ago:
After Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO of Apple last week, speculation about the company's future began immediately.
The story line went like this-- while Jobs will be missed, he is no longer essential to the future of the company and it will go on brilliantly without him.
I don't buy this for a second. Genius is non-transferable.
The most likely scenario is that Apple will continue to shine for a few years while the initiatives that Jobs started are still in the pipeline, and then slowly the company's radiance will start to dim... 
They will be successful and will continue to produce excellent products for a long time -- but the startling brilliance will slowly fade.
I can't help but feel that I actually got something right there. The "introduction" of the smaller iPhone SE recently was a very bad sign. If Apple was amazing at something it was keeping us from yawning. This was a major yawn.

Apple seems to be headed in the direction it was in in the late-90's when Jobs re-took the reins  and eliminated a confusing, unnecessary disarray of products.

Tom Goodwin put it nicely last week...
"From a company obsessed with reductivism, we saw an event with little actual news and zero unexpected surprises — just simple linear iterations of devices we’ve seen countless time before...we now have 77 SKU’s of iPad to chase ever dwindling sales."
In many ways, Apple is starting to look and feel like a traditional marketing company. I'd like to think that Jobs would not have let that happen.