A traditional piece of reassurance is that this shakeup offers advertisers new avenues to be creative. Do you agree, or not?
I do. But it’s not just new avenues. I think it is a business imperative. All these new platforms are cumulatively creating a level of noise and economy of abundance that is unprecedented. In the past, you could, in theory, buy attention, but it’s just not possible anymore. So, the only thing that gets attention is that which is good.
It’s not about hugging trees. It’s not just about doing good. It’s not a corporate social responsibility message, although that’s one form of adding value. It’s just about trying a little harder and being entertaining, adding utility and providing a service. This idea that you can just bombard people with pollution is no longer tenable.
Can you talk about some examples that have managed to push that envelope?
The examples I always go back to are the Lego movie, which was essentially the greatest commercial ever made. A film that people were willing to pay to see which also sold a lot of merch. And then Citi Bike, which was the creation of a new channel that helped people get from one place to the other but also served as an incredible media channel, and an out-of-home channel that never existed before.
I like [Oscar Mayer’s] alarm clock that smells like bacon. It’s a great way to sell a product by reminding people how good it smells, and a way to get them out of bed. There are examples that are high budget and incredibly low budget, and it doesn’t require a big budget to think creatively or add value to people’s lives. It just requires a big imagination.
In the book’s introduction, you explain how the ad industry was slow initially to accept that ad blocking. Where does the ad world stand currently?
Between finishing and publishing the book, Google and Apple both announced that they were putting ad-blocking software into their respective browsers, into Chrome and Safari. That is just another moment that signals that this is here to stay. I think it’s sinking in in the ad buying and selling business that has tried to block blocking: That is like sticking your finger into a dike that is about to collapse. It is penalizing consumers for wanting to express their displeasure.
So, there has been a tendency to hope that it will go away, the way we hoped the remote control would not have a catastrophic effect on TV advertising. But you can’t hold back progress and change, so you had better adapt to it instead.
Why would Google introduce ad blocking, as a company that also sells a lot of ads?
There is an inherent conflict, but it seems like it’s more along the lines of the values that were created when the company was founded: do no harm, do no evil. There’s a notion that if the experience is not better that they may actually be risking their own long-term viability. YouTube has traditionally been home to some of the world’s worst and least native pre-roll. So if they are encouraging advertisers, as Larry Page did, to be less annoying, they’re trying to essentially educate the industry and serve a proverbial rising tide. It’s probably long-term thinking winning over short-term thinking, which is of course to be applauded.
Another topic you discussed in the book was generation Z. How do you see gen Z changing the advertising landscape as they grow up?
I think they’re not going to put up with anything they don’t have to watch. They’re rebels; they’re the revolutionaries. They are the ones saying, “Why does it have to be this way?” You can’t get someone to accept interruption if they’ve been raised in an interruption-free environment. It’s completely incomprehensible to them, and they will not tolerate it. So, good luck trying to tame them.
Since it looks like ad-blocking and cord cutting are going to continue relatively unabated, what are some other options available to advertisers?
The question becomes one of receptivity. What are the new channels that exist? One thing I’m bullish on is the idea that infrastructure is a media channel. I use the example of the plight of the L train. Do you live in Williamsburg or Brooklyn?
Yeah, I live off the L train.
So you know what’s going to happen to your train. Pretty soon, because the state is broke and you’re powerless, you will lose your form of transportation. You’re a millennial; you live in one of the hippest places on the planet. Why the f*** is a brand not providing some kind of transportation for you? I just don’t understand why that connection is not being made. Working with municipal governments to provide the resources, and the channel, to create the ultimate user experience.
A 30-second spot is no longer available in many of the places where you watch TV (or what we used to call “TV”). But that spend is not going away. So, here’s a place where innovative companies could add value to your lives. Do it, please.
Did you intend this book to scare advertisers, or just to make them think?
I don’t think we’ll be scaring anyone. But hopefully to get them to think. It’s more about the people that are constructing and controlling these agencies continuing to disrupt, and whether it’s time to rethink. Or to consider that this was a 50-year anomaly and a complete historic mistake, and that we might want to go back to the drawing board.