Should we start thinking about ‘a world with no ads’?

Ogilvy's Nicholas Cocks ponders over how the ad industry can prepare for or guard against a future in which advertising as we know it has given way to automation, nudging and surreptitious behavioural management

Outgunned and outnumbered, advertising is in a fight for its life as companies not only lose profits but go out of business. The money isn’t leaking out, it’s rushing in uncontrollable torrents straight into the coffers of the surveillance data giants – Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft.

These are the same forces that have ravaged the media sector as a whole. Debates about what makes advertising useful and existential questions surrounding it are forcing many to look at the future, which for those inside and outside of the industry, ain’t pretty.

I have worked as a copywriter for the past 20 years in Australia, the UK and in Singapore where I am currently an associate creative director. So, does my industry have a future, and in what form? 

To be clear, there has been a change because the writing has been on the wall for years.

To maintain profitability in the early days of the digital revolution (mid 2000s), the smarter agencies and holding companies went all in and acquired or created vertically integrated media buying models that attempted to maintain a traditional media buying role for agencies in spite of a completely new system.

Digital audiences were bought, sliced and diced, then resold to clients who didn’t know any better. It was an end-to-end process that made agencies the vendor at the beginning, selling digital eyeballs and agency at the end, buying them.

This ensured as much of the money as possible was kept in house. It wasn’t an entirely new idea but it worked very nicely as long as people didn’t ask too many questions about online ad fraud and how much of their media budget was actually reaching their audience.

But times change. Thanks to the brilliant work of people like Bob Hoffman (@AdContrarian), everyone’s wiser to the online tricks. Clients know they don’t need media agencies to execute transactions like they used to. They can just as easily go direct.

And, not unreasonably, they want to make sure their messages are reaching real people. Consequently, they’ve demanded accountability and much more value. They’re getting it too. All of which has made a tough situation even tougher for agencies. Numbers continue to flatline or worse.

In the face of this backlash, not to mention the ever-expanding “martech” or marketing technology, mind-blowing numbers and incredibly deep data served up by the big four – Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft  – the advertising business has simply doubled down on its commitment to online targeting. In the process, it has continued to feed the surveillance crocodile in the hope it will be eaten last.

Yes, there have been doughty efforts to explain the value of the one trump card agencies still retain: creative. But the more immediately lucrative play has been to transform into fast-paced production houses delivering creative components for hyper-targeted ads. Anyone who works in what remains of creative departments will tell you that the pace of work has increased markedly over the last few years.

But is it enough to save the farm? These responses assume there is a future for advertising, that there will still be a need for overt messaging designed to influence individual choice. 

But what if the future isn’t about disruptive, persuasive or just plain programmatic ads? What if it’s about automation, conditioning, nudging, herding and surreptitious behavioural management?

PGs Marc Pritchard

Mark Pritchard seems to think that might be the kind of future we’re facing. At CES this year, he told his audience to “…start thinking about a world with no ads.” That’s a pretty big call from the chief brand officer of P&G. You can be sure people took note.

Pritchard was opining about the Internet of Things – products and devices installed with artificial intelligence that are linked to each other, to the cloud and to the consumer that automatically take care of ordering day-to-day products. In other words, market certainty.

Does he see any downside? Not that he mentioned. He seems to be looking forward to a time when he doesn’t have to worry about the messy, expensive, human task of persuading people to buy his products.

Shoshana Zuboff, author of ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ sees a future without ads as well. But she does see a downside. A big one.

In her meticulously researched book, Zuboff warns of an age of expanding surveillance, in which privacy doesn’t exist and humans no longer have agency over their inner lives but are efficiently managed by the great data aggregators and their clients.

The groundwork has been done. The system is now being perfected. If no action is taken, Zuboff argues, humans are destined to become unconscious sources of endless raw data and increasingly unwitting consumers. Hers is a dystopian vision in which choice is managed, certainty can be bought and free will is obsolete. And she has a lot of evidence to back it up.

I suspect if you took a poll, very few people would mourn the end of advertising, even though they’d probably miss it. The bigger question is, what would it really mean?

If personal choice is eroded, independent thought and moral judgement is compromised. That makes a lot of the stuff many of us take for granted difficult. Functioning democracy, a competitive economy, they all rely on individual will.

Even if Pritchard and Zuboff are wrong and advertising does survive, there’s no denying the seismic shifts taking place. Timing, targeting and placement are more valued than the quality of the message itself. What we still call advertising is turning into well-placed prompts. It’s arguably closer to fulfillment. Our discretion is waning. Our choice is being messed with.

Something’s happening. The question is, how far do we let it go?

The past might give us a few clues.

Back at the start of the last century US President Teddy Roosevelt railed against “…malefactors of great wealth…and plutocracy”. He was concerned with the effect of large corporations and trusts on small farmers, shop owners and notions of equality. But his solution was not to outlaw or break up corporate behemoths. It was to regulate them.

In his annual address to Congress in 1902, he wrote: ‘These big aggregations are an inevitable development of modern industrialism, and the effort to destroy them would be futile. The line of demarcation we draw must always be on conduct, not on wealth; our objection to any given corporation must be, not that it is big, but that it behaves badly.’

Similarly today, breaking up Google, Facebook and others will not address the core issue. However, regulation by legal means, along the lines of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, is a good start. It’s probably our best chance to prevent the loss of choice and, if you believe Zuboff, preserve what it means to be human.

This is no easy task. Apart from the legions of lawyers that will be deployed to prevent or avoid any restrictive legislation, surveillance technology is already so embedded in our lives that the current quid pro quo – day to day convenience and entertainment for personal data extraction on an epic scale – will be hard to contain. But not impossible.

In the West at least, the system of surveillance is owned and run by corporations that, in theory, can be regulated. For our friends in China things are a little different. Their behaviour modification project based on social credits has well and truly begun. It’s under the tight control of government and any unwinding is very unlikely.

Of course, regulation is only effective when it’s activated. That requires the concerted effort of large groups of people. Privacy advocacy groups like None of Your Business (NYOB) and La Quadrature du Net in Europe, are already enabling this. Their activities have resulted in some of the largest fines for data privacy breaches in European history. It’s one way forward.

So if regulation is the goal, the advertising industry needs to respond differently to its existential threat. Defending and championing creativity is not wrong, neither is changing the method and style of output, it’s just not going to be effective in the long term.

With the few weapons it has left, and for its own preservation, advertising needs to mobilise public opinion to rail against the excesses of the data extractors and make the status quo unacceptable. Then hope like hell legislators do their job.

Because an unimpeded universal system that envelops the consumer 24/7, that is fundamental to getting through the day, that knows everything, that uses conditioning, emotional transference, nudging and any number of hidden tactics to guarantee behavioural outcomes will swat away the quaint, clumsy idea of advertising. And much else besides.

Laws need to change in order to preserve some slack and some inaccuracy in the system. Market certainty might be the goal of professionals like Pritchard, and that’s fair enough, but it’s the enemy of just about everybody else, including advertising.Nicholas Cocks is associate creative director at Ogilvy. He lives in Singapore


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