Has Technology Really Improved the Ad Business?

A marketing technology company fielded a study that — SURPRISE! — found that marketing technology has grown and impacted the lives of CMOs. Said a story on the study: "About half (49%) of respondents think that their responsibilities will continue to rely on marketing technology the same amount in the next five years, while 38% expect their role to depend more on the use of marketing technology in that span."

I know, I am supposed to smack my forehead and exclaim, "Wow, look at that! Technology is REALLY having an impact on marketing." But when a nine-year-old flying camera traveling at 28,000 mph can send pix back 3 billion miles that are better than the drunk selfies populating your Facebook page, it is hard to get excited about systems that let you bid 10 cents higher than the last guy for an ad impression.

In fact, if you look at the way technology has changed every other field -- from medicine to warfare, from farming to consumer electronics -- it is depressing how poorly marketing has embraced technology. We all email or text each other now instead of meeting face-to-face. But I am not so sure that is a net positive. We send our creative digitally instead of shipping film; that saves a fair amount of time, money and rants about how the postal system could possibly lose something that had to be signed for. We can generate virtual actors who get no residuals or greenscreen backgrounds and save a trip to the Alps (but where's the fun in that?).



There was a moment when we thought the Internet could deliver the right ad, at the right time, to the right person -- but the net result has been the massive use of ad blockers, federal investigations into breaches of privacy promises, international charges that your own technology gives your own advertisers an unfair edge in search, and banner blindness that renders the vast majority of online ads ineffective, with click-through rates averaging about 0.05%.

In an effort to eliminate the mistakes that humans make processing invoices and orders, we built ad-serving technology that became an arms race to see how fast someone could buy one of those ineffective online ad impressions. The net result was a drop of average display CPMs to under $2 (although at close to $25, video is seemingly doing OK). While it might make a difference to stock traders to gain an extra-100th-of-a-second advantage on the market, it seems a little silly in advertising. Perhaps when more precious inventory is available to RTB, like cable and network prime-time TV spots, speed will matter a little more.

We have misused advancing technology by projecting ads on the sides of buildings, using facial recognition to change ad content as viewers move in and out of range, cross-referenced online and offline data to make assumptions about consumers that are often not true, creeped people out with ads for things they looked at on the Internet months ago, built algorithms that can deliver 800,000 variations of an ad to make sure the one you see is as irresistible as possible, and used special effects to insert products into programming as if they were there all along. You probably have a far longer list of abuses you've observed.

While we all sit around waiting for algorithms that can write better ad copy than the folks hanging out in the creative department (and you know they are coming) -- and ponder if there is still a future in the media buying department -- it is comforting to know that technology has yet to overwhelm the ad business. And when it does, it will be your kids' problem, not yours.

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