Trust No One, Trust Nothing

In just one day last week, the headlines of two different MediaPost articles mentioned a lack of trust --  in both contextual ad placement and in audience measurement data.

But our industry's trust issues go far deeper than just those two instances. Article after article cites an erosion of trust and the spreading of relational fault lines in every aspect of the ad business.

The question of the day is “Where did the trust go?" The follow-up question then becomes “what do we mean by trust?”



That's difficult to answer. Trust is a word with many, many meanings. Over 20 years ago, University of Minnesota business professors D. Harrison McKnight and Norman L. Chervany wrote an extensive report to answer just that question. Across the many constructs of trust, they identified four dimensions: benevolence, integrity, competence and predictability. But not all these dimensions are required in all applications of trust.

First of all, there are two broad categories of trust: structural trust, trust in a system, and interpersonal trust, trust in a person. In their analysis, McKnight and Chervany looked at six constructs of trust that can apply in different situations. For the sake of this discussion, let’s focus on two of these:

“System trust: the extent to which one believes that proper impersonal structures are in place to enable one to anticipate a successful future endeavor.”


“Situational Trust -- meaning that one has decided to trust without regard to the specific persons involved, because the benefits of trusting in this situation outweigh the possible negative outcomes of trusting.”

What trust existed in marketing was an outcome of these two constructs -- and both tend to apply to the structure of, not the people in, marketing. The headlines I cited earlier both pointed to a breakdown of trust on the system level, not the personal level.  

Now let’s look at those four dimensions as they apply to structural trust in marketing. No one has ever accused marketers of being overly benevolent, so let’s set that one aside. Also, I would argue -- strenuously -- that marketers today, including those at agencies, are more competent than ever before. They have been mostly successful at turning marketing from an arcane guessing game that paraded as art to an empirically backed science. So a lack of competence can’t be blamed for this trust breakdown. That leaves integrity and predictability. I suspect there’s a compound relationship between these two things.

The reason we’re losing structural trust is that marketing is no longer predictable.  And this lack of predictability is triggering a suspicion that there has been a corresponding lack of integrity.

But the unpredictability of marketing is no one’s fault. Marketing today is analogous to physics at the turn of the last century. For 200 years, the universe had been neatly ruled by Newton’s Laws. Then physicists started discovering things that couldn’t be so neatly explained, and the universe became a place of Uncertainty Principles, Schrödinger’s Cat and Strange Attractors. Everything we thought was predictable in all situations suddenly became part of a much bigger -- and more complex -- mystery.

Similarly, mass marketing could run by Newton-like laws because we were dealing with mass and weren’t looking too closely. Apply enough marketing force to enough people with enough frequency and you could move the needle in what seemed like a predictable fashion.

Today, however, marketing is a vastly different beast. We market one-to-one, and those “ones” are all inter-connected, which creates all types of feedback loops and network effects. This creates complexity -- so predictability is as dead at the aforementioned Schrödinger’s Cat (or is it?)

I don’t think this comes as news to anyone reading this column. We all know we’re being disrupted. I think we’re all beginning to understand the challenges of complexity.

So why don’t we just accept it as the new normal and continue to work together? Why are clients feeling personally betrayed by their agencies, market research firms and ad -elivery platforms? It’s because our brains aren’t very nuanced when it comes to identifying trust and betrayal. Brains operate by the “when you’re a hammer – everything looks like a nail” principle.

Rationally, we understand the different between interpersonal trust and situational trust, but we have to remember that our rationality is reinforced by emotional rewards and cautions. When we’re in a trusting relationship or system, our ventrial striatum, medial prefrontal cortex and caudate nucleus all perk happily along, priming our brains with oxytocin and pushing all the right reward buttons.  But whether it’s a person or a situation that betrays our trust, the same neural mechanisms fire -- the insula and amygdala -- creating feelings of frustration, fear, anger and resentment.

Now, none of this is the fault of anyone in marketing. But humans work on cause and effect. If our marketing is not working, it’s easier to assign a human cause. And it’s much easier to feel betrayed by a human than by a system.

2 comments about "Trust No One, Trust Nothing ".
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  1. Mackenzie Knapp from Quigley Simpson, October 3, 2017 at 5:40 p.m.

    We audit financial data with specifics standards and practices.  Now we have come to trust and rely upon this financial data to help guide business and investment decisions.  Shouldn't we be auditing our marketing analytics data similarly so that we know to what degree the data is accurate?   John Pestana who co-founded Omniture, now Adobe Analytics, co-founded another company that audits digital analytics data.  Seems like their is certainly a need and companies are popping up to solve this problem.

  2. Craig Mcdaniel from Sweepstakes Today LLC, October 9, 2017 at 2:45 p.m.

    Trust? Trust was exchanged with algorithms, computer programs and automation. Trust was turned over to machines and computers. We were told by nearly everyone in the digital ad business to trust a man made creations instead of humans. Yes, the computer and the programs can work 24/7 and do things thousands of times faster than humans, but does that make things better?  No. I refuse to believe that a computer is better than I because I have a sole, humanity and I can care about treating real people with honesty. Something a computer can not do.

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