Ad-blockers must become a catalyst for change

A lot has been written about ad-blockers over the last couple of weeks.

We all now know that Peace came from nowhere to top the iTunes charts for 36 hours, and was then just as quickly pulled by its creator, Marco Arment.

The end of Peace promptly turned the ad-blocking debate into a discussion about internet morality.  (Surely an oxymoron, if ever there was one?!)

Is it immoral to view content for free knowing that you’re stopping the creator and publisher of that content being recompensed for their endeavours?  Probably.

Are we going to stop people doing it?  Hell, no.  Not unless all ad-blocking products are purged from the market.

So here’s my take on it.  Ad-blockers are a form of consumer feedback.

And the feedback consumers are giving the marketing industry is loud and clear.  Collectively, our work simply isn’t good enough.

Yes, there are exceptions.  I’m sure you can think of a few right now.  But that’s what they are – exceptions.

The majority of online advertising is actually pretty terrible.  Low cost, high volume banners are endlessly churned out, because as long as a tiny fraction of the public click through and buy, the cost-per-acquisition stays low and the agency creates profit for the advertiser.

But what about all the other people, the ones who don’t click, and won’t buy, but are still constantly targeted with irrelevant and intrusive advertising?

What’s the cost of each failed interaction?

When talking about the success of Breaking Bad, Walter White actor Bryan Cranston explains what drove the cast and crew to ensure that every detail of every scene was as perfect as they could make it.

He talks about each little continuity error, each little out of place gesture, each piece of dialogue that a character just wouldn’t say in a particular situation, as a ‘little drop of poison’.

Individually, a little drop of poison is nothing; the audience will accept it and get over it.  But pretty soon, repeated doses of poison will make you sick.  And in TV terms that means you’ll switch over, or switch off.

Well, we poisoned the internet with our cheap advertising, and the public got heartily sick of it.

The rise of ad-blockers is therefore a good time to pause and reflect on where we are as a marketing community, and where we’d like to be in future.

In defining our future we would be well-served to remember the mantra: “brands should serve people, not just serve ads to people”.

It strikes me that in this world of big data and amazing content opportunities, too many advertisers and agencies still seem to be making binary decisions in developing their online ad campaigns..

They either use really smart data-led targeting but deliver woeful creative, or produce wonderful idea-led creative that broadcasts the same experience to everybody, regardless of who they are or what is most likely to appeal to them.

There are very few agencies or advertisers that seem genuinely to be using data to inform the content experience they deliver to people.  Again, there are exceptions.  But they are too few and far between.

With the wealth of data available, and some of the greatest creative talent on the planet, the marketing community should be rising to the challenge so clearly laid down by consumers.

We should be constantly pushing to break down the silos, and finding ways to deliver genuinely engaging, valuable experiences to people, not just lamenting the fact that we can’t spam people to death until they either submit and buy our product or throw their phone at the wall in frustration.

So the question shouldn’t be ‘how do we get around the ad blockers?’

The question shouldn’t even necessarily be ‘what does the rise of ad blockers tell us about the state of people’s relationship with marketing?’

The question we should really be asking ourselves is ‘how can we ally both data-led insight and idea-led content to create meaningful brand experiences people will value?’

Because if we can create meaningful experiences that people will value, we will ultimately build greater value for brands.


Artificial intelligence: a real concern?

In December last year Professor Stephen Hawking upgraded his communication software system, allowing him to connect more easily with others.  This event was remarkable for three reasons:

Firstly, we found out the new technology is so good he could have had a more realistic ‘human’ voice, including a British accent, but Professor Hawking chose to keep his ‘speak and spell’ voice because he considers it his trademark.

Secondly, Professor Hawking used the publicity around the new software launch to predict that artificial intelligence could spell the end for the human race!

That comment inspired me to write this hilarious joke on twitter, which was criminally ignored at the time:

Stephen Hawking Tweet

I really am wasted on you lot.

It wasn’t just me that was ignored, though.  Because the third reason the launch event was remarkable, is that nobody paid the slightest bit of attention to what Professor Hawking said.

Here’s a clip of the BBC News interview Professor Hawking gave last December:

At the time of writing it’s got just over 170,000 views.  A paltry 170,000 people could be bothered to watch a five minute interview where one of the most famous and celebrated scientists in the world explains how the whole of human civilisation could come to an end within our lifetimes!

Honestly, you should be ashamed of yourself…

It’s not entirely your fault though.  You see our feeble human minds simply aren’t capable of understanding the huge potential of artificial intelligence.

This is you:

Distorted View of Intelligence - 1

And this is you in about 25 years:

Distorted View of Intelligence - 2

All the cleverest people in the world are pretty much agreed that the exponential growth of computing power means artificial intelligence will supersede the human brain well within our lifetime.

The only real questions are when it will happen, and whether this new superintelligence will be good or bad for humankind.  Will it find a way to eradicate disease and hunger?  Will it even deliver human immortality?

“…there is nothing in biology yet found that indicates the inevitability of death. This suggests to me that it is not at all inevitable” – Richard Feynman.

Or will it race straight past us on the evolutionary path, rendering us extinct in the process?

These aren’t, as you might imagine, theoretical questions posed by conspiracy theorists, lunatics and science fiction nerds.  They’re the subject of heated – but entirely well-reasoned – debate amongst the greatest thinkers of our time.

If you’re interested to learn more about Artificial Intelligence I urge you to read the rather wonderful 2-part Artificial Intelligence essay on

Part 1 is here, and part 2 is here.

Go on, increase your intelligence.  You’re going to need it.

Why I value randomness over relevance on Twitter

Twitter went into meltdown recently over rumours it is looking to replace the current chronological timeline with an algorithmically driven content feed.

(If you didn’t see this news, you obviously weren’t logging into your Twitter account at the right time…)

These rumours were driven by Twitter’s CFO Anthony Noto stating publicly that the current method of organising the newsfeed “isn’t the most relevant experience for a user”.

I worry that Mr Noto understands the technology, but doesn’t understand his users.

I love Twitter precisely because it doesn’t give me ‘the most relevant experience’.  I love the random waterfall of tweets tumbling through my timeline in completely unstructured fashion; the juxtaposition of serious political arguments with silly jokes, news with opinion.

I make a point of following people I don’t necessarily agree with, just to get an alternative perspective on things (much like a fiercely liberal ex-colleague who would religiously read the Daily Mail every day, because it’s important to “know your enemy”).

I would hate to lose that.

This article in Medium does a great job of articulating the concerns of Twitter users.

For me the key element is this:

“An algorithm can perhaps surface guaranteed content, but it cannot surface unexpected, diverse and sometimes weird content exactly because of how algorithms work: they know what they already know.”

Algorithms already have enormous influence on all aspects of our lives.

If you’re in any doubt as to the importance of ‘big data’ in monitoring and predicting human behaviour, take a few minutes to watch this fascinating Ted talk by Christopher Steiner, author of Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World:

Never mind that the bots control the financial markets and know more about our personalities than we do though, they already control the Top 40 goddamit!

In 2011 scientists (I would call them boffins if I worked for one of the red-tops) claim to have found the ‘Hit Potential Equation’ that can determine if a song will reach the top of the charts.

And it was an algorithm that identified the hit making potential of Maroon 5 and Norah Jones, by analysing the musical structure and patterns of their albums.

But as Christopher Steiner puts it in his Ted talk, “would the algorithms find Nirvana?  Would they find the Beatles?”

Please Twitter, let me control my own feed.

I’ll happily wade through the crap in the hope of unearthing the next Nirvana or Beatles.

I’ve already got Facebook if I want a sea of mediocrity soundtracked by Maroon 5 and Norah Jones.

Is social currency greater than live experience?

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve noticed a few interesting stories relating to the use of smartphones and tablets at live events.

When we talk about convergence between the physical and digital worlds it’s normally in the context of changes to the retail industry, or new technology revolutionising the way we access a particular product or service (think taxi apps), but it seems there is an equally interesting dynamic playing out at gigs and football matches.

First was the news that Manchester United has banned fans from taking tablets and laptops into Old Trafford, citing “security intelligence”.

That was followed a couple of days later by the Premier League warning fans against posting videos of goals on social media, as they seek to protect the rights holders who paid billions for the privilege of showing the games exclusively.

It will be interesting to see whether the threat of breaking copyright law reduces the number of Vines being posted to Twitter every Saturday afternoon.

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, PSV Eindhoven fans have been protesting at the club’s plans to introduce Wi-Fi at their stadium, worrying that it will dampen the atmosphere.

The gloriously prosaic banner at PSV’s first match of the season simply said ‘FUCK WI-FI, SUPPORT THE TEAM’.

Musicians are also concerned about the effect that fans’ use of smartphones and tablets will have on the live experience.

Kate Bush has gone as far as to post a personal message on her website to fans who have bought tickets for her long-awaited forthcoming shows, specifically asking them to refrain from taking photos or filming during the performance.

“I very much want to have contact with you as an audience, not with iphones, ipads or cameras. I know it’s a lot to ask but it would allow us to all share in the experience together.”


So where does this leave us?  Well just to recap, using tablets and laptops at live events is potentially:

  • A security risk
  • In breach of copyright law
  • Damaging to the crowd atmosphere
  • Upsetting to the performer

Personally I’d add a fifth item to that list, which is ‘unwatchable’. 

That great concert footage you just have to record invariably ends up being shaky and out of focus, nothing more than a kaleidoscope of unrecognisable bright colours, with sound quality worse than the antiquated PA system at a non-league football ground.

So why is the sight of phones and tablets being held aloft such a familiar picture at every gig, and increasingly at football matches?

To many people, the chance to show off to all your friends just how close you were to the stage at that Beyonce gig, or being the first fan to post your team’s goal on Vine is worth more than the value of the experience itself.

The quality of the footage isn’t the issue.  It doesn’t really matter what it looks like, it’s just proof you were there.

Social currency > Live experience?

I find that concept quite dispiriting.