LiC Pt.3: Can Web3 Save Advertising?
Lost in Crypto: Part 3 – Can Web3 Save Advertising
This is the third in a series of posts I’m writing to digest and reflect on what I learnt in the Blockchain and Cryptocurrency space where I spent a large chunk of my time professionally last year
I started my career in advertising, in June 2008; almost 12 months out of university and following on from a year of jobs and internships in e-commerce, publishing, and a soft drinks start up as well as intermittent stints on building sites to be able to afford the unpaid internships I finally felt. after a very listless year, that I was getting somewhere. That September, on the same night as Damien Hirst’s fire sale at Sotheby’s (appropriately named Beautiful Inside My Head Forever) became the highest grossing auction ever of new work offered by a living artist and exactly a year and a day after Northern Rock sounded the first clarion blast of the crisis, Lehman Brothers tanked. We’d climbed the lift hill and crested the trick drop, the real roller-coaster of the Financial Crisis was under way.
But this is not a post about my time in advertising during the Great Recession – nor my love of roller coasters. This isn’t really even about what happened around this same time, when Social Networking metastasised into Social Media, and brands, looking for greater efficiency in a downturn made a midnight deal with the adtech devil. The story of surveillance capitalism has been told by many better writers; The commentariat are well honed in ‘admiring the problem’. For well over a decade we have been tracked by tech firms who have been recycling the waste gasses of our digital exhaust and applying algorithmic pressure and heat to make digital diamonds. It’s a well worn cliche now, but we have become the product. We all know we’re being sold. But what about the buyers? The reality is, that whilst we’re being exploited, advertisers are being duped. The only ones really benefiting from this trade are the middlemen.
I joined advertising because I grew up watching the classics of late 20th century Ad-land. In the late 90s, works such as Tango’s St George, an epic absurdity of self-deprecating British bombast were frankly better than the TV that they were there to interrupt. Even the ads from a half generation before, such as Heineken’s ‘Water’ from 1985, the year before my birth, were infused in the popular consciousness. A decade or more after it aired, during my time working in market research, 1999’s Guinness ‘Surfer’ was still one of the most cited ads when I asked a focus group for their favourites. If I played any Brit the Flower Duet from Lakme, it would probably trigger a Proustian recollection of packed suitcases, suntan lotion and the smell of Jet-A.
Digital Performance Advertising changed all that. Though digital display ads had since the first banner ad in 1994, data from social media marked a new phase. Coupled with a climate of Austerity, only what could be measured mattered. Ad tech promised scientific efficiency by packaging up our behaviours and serving them up to advertisers so they could change our behaviours in each perfect micro moment.
The reality instead has been a dumpster fire that has neither delighted consumers or delivered for brands. In the process, core skills such as storytelling and creativity have been relegated by efficiency. But as Field and Binet have demonstrated time and again, efficiency is not necessarily effective. And the industry has suffered. Losing the smartest and most innovative thinkers, ironically, to places like Tech. It’s been a long time since I met a really inspirational big-idea Ad Strategist.
Talent in the industry is collateral damage compared to the great brand robbery carried out by adtech. Ex-Madison Avenue contrarian Bob Hoffman, who recently shut down his newsletter on the topic, has been a vocal critic of ad-fraud, highlighting the mounting evidence for the inaccurate, fraudy reality of the scalpel-like efficiency the big platforms have claimed. The ANA reported that ad fraud was costing US brands $120 billion in 2022. That’s more than 4x the 30ish billion spent on market research in the US. Big marketers are spending four times more trying to sell to the wrong people or people that don’t exist than they are on understanding the right people so they can swerve them better.
So advertisers are getting fleeced and we are getting flogged. What’s to be done?
As you might have guessed because this post sits in a series on Web3, I believe that this really is a case where “Web3 fixes this.” Blockchain offers the genuine possibility of redemption for advertising, impact for brands and fairness and transparency for users and consumers, specifically Self Sovereign Reputation and Self Sovereign Identities.
Put simply (by the internet’s very own talking parrot, chatGPT)
Self-sovereign identity refers to a system where individuals have full control over their own digital identities, rather than relying on centralised organisations to manage and verify them. This means that individuals can create, manage, and store their own digital identities, and share them with others as they see fit. It also means that individuals can retain control over their personal information and how it is used. This is different from traditional systems where organisations such as governments or corporations hold and control personal information. Self-sovereign identity is a way to empower individuals and give them more control and privacy over their own identity information.
Self-sovereign reputation builds upon the idea of self-sovereign identity by giving individuals control over their reputation information as well. Conventionally, information such as credit scores or more pertinently, browser and cookie data, social posts and interactions and online shopping and purchases are centrally held by big platforms or data brokers. Self-sovereign reputation lets users create, manage and control their own reputation information, and share it with who they want to, when they want to.
Allowing users and consumers to have absolute control over who knows what about them has huge implications for debiasing anything from loans to hiring processes. The two together offer total autonomy and agency for the individual both online and potentially in the physical world too depending on its implementation.
There are a number of interesting companies in this space already, such as Permission.io and the privacy-focused Brave browser includes a surf-to-earn 1st party advertising model that users can opt into. Protocols like Lens or the Farcaster ecosystem that are setting up infrastructure that is designed to allow users to maintain their reputational sovereignty and could form the foundation for better advertising for consumers.
This level of privacy and control, ironically, could also be the savior of digital ads and the advertising industry more broadly:
Being able to guarantee real human viewers could massively reduce the adtech fraud, plugging some of that 120 billion dollar hole. Trustless verification could push back on bots and spoofing and increase efficiency and effectiveness.
SSI and SSR could also be used to ‘opt in’ to more accurate targeted advertising, with the potential to even revenue share when combined with tokens and wallets between media owners and users. In theory you could be paid to watch ads that are either more informative, more useful or more entertaining for you personally. And if you didn’t like it or you changed your mind you could opt out, withdrawing your data and your consent without leaving a trace.
Lastly, there is also a potential boon for creativity. Less targeting means there would be a greater need for seduction and better upper funnel comms. AirBnB has already proved the power of brand; many others would be forced to follow suit.
This outcome is by no means inevitable and there is a big question over whether anyone cares enough to move away from our seamless, centralised, shitty solutions; but decentralised technology has created the opportunity to deliver a fairer, more equitable internet for consumers and brands. I say we take it.
Data as Creativity
Recently, I saw a banner online for a debate at last weeks Cannes Lions titled ‘Is Data Killing Creativity?’. Reading the tweets and the blog posts following it, it seems there was a lot of ‘its great because it pisses me off’ and ‘I grudgingly accept it because it gives me the terms of engagement’. Looking at the arguments though, it seems that they all miss the flaw in the question.
Data is creativity, certainly for business. Perhaps there are a few too many frustrated artists in the ad industry (though personally this is something I have never come across…) but unless you are a lone wolf, out there, trying to substantiate the Vasarian myth (in which case you may want to hand back the 6-figure salary, Mister Chief Creative Officer), you ‘art’ is that of selling. And no matter how many Lions you may tame, the real measure is ROI, however indirect, long-term or circuitous. The best way to do this is very often through something art-like, and creativity often aligns closely with effectiveness. But lose sight of that effectiveness comms becomes and indulged art-student on an executives wage, leaving itself justly open to all the criticism it receives.
So how is data creativity? Data- be in quant, qual, cultural, psychological or commercial- is the map of the emotional and rational pressure points, a marketers reflexology diagram of where to push and it is also the ‘how’. In the numbers, or the verbatims or sector reports are the real building blocks for insight. Data is creativity as wine is grapes. The idea that data could kill creativity, to pose the two in opposition to each other is absurd
An Open Letter to Damien Hirst
Dear Damien Hirst
Could you please start an advertising agency?
Art has such a fundamental role in defining how people interpret society, in establishing norms, in tearing down idols and reinforcing status quos, an Ad agency wouldn’t even be something new. at the very moment when the idea of artist as lone genius was invented, the renaissance master was the head, the Creative Director, of great studios working on epic commissions – briefs – for their key clients. Think about Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. ‘So Mike, could you throw something together that reinforces the power of the Papacy against internal threats within the priesthood and Vatican, that glorifies God while terrifying the lay populace, and delivers verifiable ROI in the collection plates.’
More chillingly of course could be the Neo-Classical modernist architecture of Otto March’s Berlin Olympiastadion, or the films of Leni Riefehnstahl, or the sculpture of Arno Brecker, which embodied the classical yet timeless, powerful and pure ethos that the Third Reich was trying to spread. So much art is created to an agenda. Jumping back to the renaissance we can see it even in some of the more humble Florentine family portraits where contracts were drawn up to specify the exact amount of gld to be used and how much of which grades of blue were to be used in which areas and also what the purpose of the painting was- its audience and its use.
Why you, Mr. Hirst? Because better than any current artist, you understand this, and you use this. Many ‘get it’, but at the same time cling to the Vasarian myth around their creations. Your own factory set-up picks up from Warhol’s one good idea, playing with the nature of creation and celebrity, and crafts a far more fascinating, nuanced argument. You use your own brand, what people will pay for what they believe is created by you, at least conceptually. You elevate objects created by your army of assistants to high art from near-commodity, through the personal mythos in which you wrap them. It’s Warhol spliced with the renaissance for a post-Thatcher/Reagan world.
And just as the unipolar moment of the 90s and 00s begins to unravel, just as people start to question the value of things which you had been undermining with the sheer amount that you had people pay for you own work, as you took the money that through this strange personality cult you had created, as you managed to defy economics increasing the price and the value, giving an impression of scarcity as you flooded the market and washed away the very foundations that supported the fallacy, you sold out. And I don’t meant that in a bad way, I mean that in such a prescient fashion you cashed out the chips from that table, and sold the lot. New work at an auction. On the day that Lehman bros crashed. Now I don’t think you’re good enough to have got that down to the day, but that is a poetic piece of timing on your part that underlines how in touch you were with what was happening.
So you were quoted as saying you wanted to move to something more introspective. Why not apply your natural talent as an Executive Creative Director to advertising. People give you large cheques for you to tell them what to do to sell their brands. You want something a little more grown up, quieter. It’s so brilliantly subversive and would be yet another twist in the game of slight of hand that you have been playing with the art world, value and the market. You go from false prophet to Shamen.
Its genius, and For the Love of God, let me know where to send my CV….
Hamstrung by Language
I have been thinking about words recently. I have been thinking in words. Some people are visual thinkers, and I can visually sketch a conceptual, but the machines moving parts are always words. Verb-pistons heft adverbs onto a conveyor of nouns, carrying passive voices into hoppers of articles shifted by whirring cogs of participles.
I recently read an essay by Tony Judt titled If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have. Judt was a historian I read a lot at university. Lucid, intelligent and never overwrought. It is the kind of writing that I wish I could execute. ( In a vain attempt to do so I have just bought The Economist Style Guide and have been recommended by a Philosophy doctoral student The Elements of Style) His analysis of 20th century Europe was consistently engaging and I recommend picking up anything with his name on the cover if you have an excuse to do so.
What jumped out from this essay, though was the key thesis- that ‘when words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express’.
Ideas are bound to the language in which they are expressed. Working on a global piece of advertising business this becomes vastly apparent. Judt was writing about English as a language losing its ability to do this, its nebulous yet incisive nature, its ability to obfuscate and elucidate. The way people express themselves is becoming ever more sledgehammer-like, when to wield a complex idea it needs to be universally held as a scalpel so that we can all understand each incision. However, when you try and take a headline for a print ad crafted to those specification and take it into another language- a different yet equally precision engineered tool, we are working to another set of nuances, completely unrelated, generated by a separate culture and built upon further by the language itself. Languages catalyse the development of their own idiosyncrasies.
So it is hard to take a double meaning for a certain phrase in English and turn it into another language. In German, there are far fewer of those subtle plays on words available. It has the smallest, yet also probably best defined vocabulary of any European language. Unsurprisingly most of their popular comedy is physical, slapstick, rather than the verbal contortionists and bleak humorists we have in the UK. As a result though, German philosophy is generally much better at making you feel less confused about life than when you started it. English Philosophers often have the opposite result….
I would draw out a difference between American and English- people divided by a common language. They are two different languages, with a divergent development. One wrung dry of much of its joy- rich veins of irony, understatement and bleak, black humour- by puritan exiles and earnest Scandinavian settlers. It would be an overstatement to say this was a universal rule, but when you see any of this kind of comedy in the American media, it is counter-cultural rather than the engrained culture.
Language is both a prism and prison, it is how we deal with the world, but it is also the only world (or worlds for the lucky multilingual out there) that we know.
This can create problems when we try to create global campaigns. The worst become lowest common denominators- bland, idea free wallpaper. The best take a global insight and roll it out as a local brief – Toyata’s latest campaign, post auto-reversing cars debacle, the ‘My Toyota, Your Toyota’ stuff has manifested itself in two very different ways in the US and Uk, but are clearly part of the same idea, or HSBC which has made a campaign out of the same crevasses between cultures that many try to traverse.
I quoted a popular modern commentator in an essay I wrote way back at university on Foucault and the Linguistic turn and what it meant for historians. Having not read the reading list, I wrote 1200 words of polemic on why Foucault was the thin end of the wedge for history ( a view which I have subsequently withdrawn, having actually read him, and about him). My tutor gave me a low 2.2 for the essay and also the best feedback I have ever had ‘Great journalism, but a poor academic effort’ I will close with the same quote I opened that essay with.
“It’s only words, and words are are I have to take your heart away”