Monday, December 2, 2019

A Century of Magical Thinking.

I've spent virtually all of my 62 years on this dying planet in the advertising industry, or close to it.

My Uncle Sid formed an ad agency in Philadelphia in the 1940s called Weightman that grew to be Philadelphia's largest. And my old man started his career in-house across the river from Philadelphia, at RCA's in-house agency in Camden, New Jersey. From there he made it to a New York agency called Kenyon & Eckhardt. He joined there in 1954 and stayed there for 24 years. At that point, he was tossed out but landed a job teaching "marketing communications"  at Northwestern University in Chicago. He stayed there until he died in 2001.

I began my career writing catalog copy for the Montgomery Ward catalog in 1980. Then I went to work for Bloomingdale's in-house agency. In 1984, I landed my first agency job for an agency called Marschalk. Later it became Lowe-Marschalk. Then Lowe SMS. Then Lowe & Partners. Then Lowe-Lintas. But all that to-ing and Lowe-ing is besides the point.

For much of my last 20 years in the ad business, I have worked on technology accounts.

Through my life in advertising and my association with technology, I have learned some things that people might not like to hear because it's so much more convenient to ignore them.

1. There's a huge gap between promise and performance. 

2. People buy promise because they essentially want to believe in modern-day alchemy. That science--whether it's artificial intelligence, quantum computing or big data--can produce magic. 

3. The promise of technology is pumped up and promulgated by true believers.

4. True believers, whether they're in technology, advertising or even investing, never really look under the hood of what they're promulgating. It's much more exciting to sell magic, and it's easier, too.

I have a simple test for the trumped-up claims of most technologies. I'm sure smarter people than I can shoot holes through it and that's fine. My test makes sense to me and I'm sticking to it.

I call it the EZ-Pass test. Will your new technology change my life as much as EZ-Pass has? I've yet to see my life change for the better through AI. If it has, no one's told me how. To me the world seems to be getting worse, not better. And programmatic advertising--driven ostensibly by AI and big data, sucks. I've yet, not even once, gotten the right offer at the right time. And seldom have I found an ad insightful and propitious. 99.999% are annoying.

You can't spit without hearing something about 5G. I guarantee you, when 5G arrives, 2/3rds of Manhattan will still be a dead-zone as well at 9/10ths of New Jersey. Maybe YouTube videos with Cardi B will download faster, but I hardly think of that as an advance on the order of indoor plumbing.

The other test I have is The New York Times test. The market cap of the world's most important and influential newspaper is about $5 billion. Rovio, the company that makes the kids' game Angry Birds has a market cap of $325 billion. Does anyone really think Angry Birds is 65-times as important and valuable as The Times?

People want to believe in magic.

They always have.

Our hairy ancestors thought they could speak to the gods by cooking the entrails of white bulls. Our high-collared forerunners thought we'd have unlimited freedom thanks to the gasoline engine. Our black-turtlenecked age-peers promised a flowering of democracy via email and the world wide web.

Just as every action has an equal and opposite reaction, every advance, it seems to me, has an almost equal and almost opposite setback.

Nothing is magic. 

And nothing is without a price.

There's only one thing that advances your fortunes or the fortunes of the companies we work for.


Whatever you're selling, even if it's only a new ad campaign, it's much more honest to say, "this will cost money and it will take work."

Anyone who promises anything other than that is a scoundrel at best and a liar at worst.

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