Thursday, March 9, 2023

Stats. And Obfuscation.

When I was a boy, many things were simpler.

Let me start with something that was always meant to be simple: Baseball.

For as long as people were playing baseball, we evaluated players in roughly the same way. Below are some stats of the great Roberto Clemente.

Maybe we were painting with a broad stroke, but by looking at batting average, home runs, runs batted in and a few other bits of data, a fan could swipe right or swipe left on a player.

Today, things aren't so simple to evaluate. 

I took a look at Aaron Judge, the mammoth Yankee's right fielder and the data used to evaluate his career. It's a much more complicated picture. I don't understand 78% of them and I've ardently followed baseball for most of my 65 years.

Maybe this is my fault. 

Because I'm not willing to make following sports a full-time job. But I recall some words from Proverbs, that for years Forbes magazine used for its inside back cover:

"...with all thy getting get understanding."

Understanding doesn't seem the point anymore. I understood the game just fine when I looked at Roberto Clemente's baseball card. Now I think the surfeit of data could render the biblical quote above as, "with all they getting get confusion."

In "When McKinsey Comes to Town," authors Walt Bogdanich and Michael Forsythe write on McKinsey's data infatuation when they worked for the Houston Astros and helped them cheat their way to a World Series championship. They write:

"A new generation of video equipment produced massive amounts of granular data on every pitch and every batted ball. As a result, some long-held assumptions about how to win games were challenged. 

"Now batters were instructed to pull the ball, to change their swing plane to produce more home runs, rather than line drives. Pitchers were told to throw more curves, fewer sinkers, and more four-seam fastballs high in the strike zone rather than at a batter’s knees. 

"The most extreme practitioners of baseball analytics believed that the entire game could be reduced to numbers, uncontaminated by human sentiment, emotions, or, as it would turn out, even ethics. The question lurking beneath all this was at what point does data analysis cross over from helping athletes perform better to dehumanizing their sport."

Now, here comes the advertising point of today's post.

Today it's easy for me to go one month, two months, half-a-year without seeing any marketing communication that makes me even grudgingly admit, "I wish I did that." Most of what I see is so remarkably bad, I believe it has a negative impact on the brands paying for it. I've always hated Verizon and Speculum cable. After repeated exposure to their anthrax-level ads, I hate them even more.

Meanwhile, in an alternate universe, every day in the trade press we read (and then we see the 'news' amplified on social media) about someone being ranked 'the world's top this,' or the 'world's top that.'

We have holding companies that have shed tens of thousands of employees over the last half decade as well as one-third of their revenue being named 'network of the year,' 'international network of the year,' 'global network of the year' and 'globular network of the year.' 

However, all those networks and agencies and C-suiters have a smaller and less-consequential seat at Fortune 500 tables. It's no mere coincidence that agencies used to be located on Madison Avenue, Fifth Avenue, Lex, Park and Third, have since moved to the nether-regions of American capitalism. Eastern New Jersey, as I called Ogilvy's former 11th Avenue exile.

We do work around the fringes. So we're located around the fringes. 

The accolades, the awards and the data we create around ourselves are a modern-day binary replica of the empty villages Grigory Potemkin built for the Czarina.

As Gertrude Stein said about Oakland, CA: There's no there there.

Before I'd call myself "Blank of the Blank," I'd show some real data. Not my performance at a variety of spuriously authentic award shows.

Is my business growing?
Are my clients growing?
Are current clients giving me more business?
Are current clients recommending me?
Do people like my spots?
Why is my employee attrition still around 40%?

And so on.

I remember a client telling me that based on some ads I wrote, he told his boss sales had doubled.

His boss said, yeah. "From two units to four."

I'll happily trade you a liter bottle of Coca-Cola for two half-liters. 

Soda, like a lot of things in the world, is fungible. 

Truth is not.

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