Show Notes: The Machine In Don Draper's Garden

At this week’s Mediapost events during Advertising  Week, I was stuck by a number of persistent themes, many of which had to do with the tension among humans, data, technology and the enormously complex media and ad ecosystems we have built. I am not myself sure yet how all of them hang together, but they seem of a piece in their engaging the problem of the technological and the personal.

To wit: I was astonished by the degree to which many in the ad technology industry are now willing to concede that large shares of media buying and selling will be consigned to automation at some point in the coming years. At the end of one panel at the OMMA Display show, the panelists were asked to speculate what share of digital display would got to RTB-like systems of exchange in coming years. One executive said 100% -- and others partially agreed, saying that direct sales between humans would become more the exception than the rule.

This was a fairly common theme even among the top agency execs who were on the main stage panels at OMMA Global. It was mentioned more than a few times that the atomization of media was becoming so extreme it would be truly impossible for buyers to deal with all of the individual platforms. The rapid acceleration of RTB in display seemed to have a persuasive effect on many in the industry. Digitization tends towards automation, one exec argued. It has a momentum all its own.

To put on my historian’s hat for a second, this rush towards mechanization recalls a similar era in American culture of the '20s and '30s that some labeled “The Machine Age.” Automation was penetrating everyday American life (appliances) and the workplace (assembly lines) at such a pace it raised serious questions about what defined the human element. Not coincidentally, it was during this same era that American popular literature and culture fixated on terms like “the human spirit” and “personality.” One of the cultural responses to automation is the compulsion to redefine what constitutes the human.

According to literary historian Leo Marx in his classic book "The Machine in The Garden," the dialectic goes back further than that. The tension between natural bucolic visions of ourselves and mechanization was a defining feature of American 19th-century literature. Negotiating the conflicts between the human and the mechanical is a centerpiece of the national culture. If American culture is grounded in notions of individuality and self-reliance, then mechanization in all its forms and in all areas of our lives represents a challenge to a core value. To be sure, the machine is never truly turned out of the garden. Instead we rationalize new human relationships with it. We continually reimagine what the human is as we see the machine take on more of our earlier tasks.  

This impulse can be seen playing out today in the ad technology industries. Some speakers this week welcomed the prospect of relegating a mass of tasks to machine. They saw automation opening up a new era of creativity, in which agencies could focus on crafting better campaigns and restore greater focus on creative. This may be so in the end, but in some ways it mimics the response to a former machine age, romanticizing and celebrating the uniquely “human.”

The machine vs. man meme surfaced again in the Future of Media Forum when Arianna Huffington promoted her favorite topic: unplugging. The ubiquity of connectivity, now made personal by mobile technologies (the machine in or pockets), was putting a premium on the value of disconnecting. Others including Facebook’s David Fischer concurred, pointing out that the rise of social networking underscored how technology was really serving very human ends: one-to-one connections.

All this talk of mechanization made me flash back and romanticize my own roots in the ad world of the late '60s and early '70s, when my father ran a small agency in northern New Jersey. A creative through and through, he was shackled to his drawing board. His was adept at turning car dealers’ chubby mugs into cartoon kings and super-heroes in the back pages of the sports section of the Bergen Record, Herald News and Star-Ledger. It was cheesy, aimed more at stroking the client than actually selling to consumers. But in the midst of algorithm-driven “calls to action” and dynamically created ad units, fat salesmen in cartoon hero tights seem like a kind of comfortable folk art.   

All this may or may not be true. Again, our tendency is to react to the prospect of mechanization by asserting the “human” in many different forms, perhaps reimagining our superiority to the very machines we designed and built. If nothing else, the themes of unplugging from the great media machines, of asserting our human identities outside of it, will be one that marketers, culture critics, self-help gurus and all the usual wagon-riding suspects will exploit.

But for people in the media industries, the processes of automated content aggregation (even creation), targeting, ad buying and even planning, inevitably raise the question: What are the unique domains of human agency here?  

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3 comments about "Show Notes: The Machine In Don Draper's Garden ".
  1. David Hawthorne from HCI LearningWorks , October 5, 2012 at 5:57 p.m.
    Mechanism vs. vitalism always ends in asking the wrong questions. Humans simply aren’t mechanisms –not as individuals or as cultures. The great fallacy of the Enlightenment was how easily humans were seduced into believing that mechanism was a serviceable allegory for life. We’re not machines and never will be. We use machines, and machines keep getting better at what they do (which, for the most part, is what we want them to do). Our problem is we just don’t think very deeply about the consequences of getting what we want (most children will eat more ice cream and candy than they should). At the end of the day (not literally, please) machines are closed systems, while humans and other living systems are open systems. Machines equal the sum of their parts; their inputs equal their outputs. That description can only be applied to humans to the extent that lousy allegories can be useful in the short-term. The advertising/marketing business has always been tempted by “mechanistic” claims. Clients would love to be sure of what they would get on the output side before they have to commit to actions on the input side. Well, it never works that way. It is a convenient lie/delusion we are willing to go along with because we operate in clockwork enterprises. ‘Big Data’ will ultimately disappoint. But like other mechanistic innovations it will be an improvement over current practice for a time. Fortunately, humans do learn (openly). We will know much more in a few years than we know now. Hopefully, we’ll know enough to shift from selling on predictive analytics (guesswork a.k.a. bs) and become adept enough and agile enough to do what we are reasonably good at –act, sense, respond, adapt. In a few years we will all be wondering how it is possible that economic cycles seem to run their course in a few weeks rather than a few years, which is about where we’re at now. Welcome to impermanence. You’ll like it.
  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , October 5, 2012 at 6:59 p.m.
    HAL, HAL, HAL, HAL, HAL, HAL
  3. Hafez Adel from ReTargeter , October 29, 2012 at 9:53 p.m.
    Great post Steve--this topic is both timely and under-addressed in the advertising technology space. While I am a big advocate of programmatic buying and real-time bidding, I also believe that the human element of online advertising is irreplaceable. As you pointed out, however, many of the roles that were traditionally filled by people may be eliminated as media buying move towards a more automated model. I think that agencies and technology companies alike need to rethink the "unique domains of human agency", as you put it. Here are my suggestions for how the human element can survive the rising tide of programmatic buying: *Focus on consultation, not on implementation -- the actual act of media buying has never been easier thanks to DSPs, agency trading desks, and other buy-side tools, but good tools do not a good campaign make. Companies that offer in-depth consultation before campaign launch can maintain a competitive advantage by educating clients about the technology at their disposal and making custom-tailored recommendations that speak directly to their campaign objectives. *High-touch account management -- the increasing fragmentation of the ad tech landscape has created a serious headache for marketers. It's not rare for a media buyer to have to deal with half a dozen dashboards, reporting interfaces, and account managers in the course of executing a single buy. While well-designed self-service tools are helpful, ultimately most marketers are looking for a solution that will make their lives easier, not add to their already formidable workloads. This presents an opportunity for companies to add serious value by providing dedicated account managers who will provide on-going reporting and optimization. While it's nice to have access to an advanced technology stack, some would argue that it's even nicer to have a single point of contact whom you can call on the phone whenever you like to check in on your campaign. The companies that realize that service innovation is just as important, if not more important, than technological innovation will be the ones that will endure the "march of mechanization" and come out stronger on the other side.