If you’re read my rants for long enough, you know I’m fond of programmatic advertising. I’ve called it the most important artifact in human history, replacing the Macintosh as the most significant tool ever created.
So yes, I think programmatic advertising is a big deal. As I wrote in the aforementioned post:
“I believe the very same technologies we’ve built to serve real time, data-driven advertising will soon be re-purposed across nearly every segment of our society. Programmatic adtech is the heir to the database of intentions – it’s that database turned real time and distributed far outside of search. And that’s a very, very big deal. (I just wish I had a cooler name for it than “adtech.”)”
Why would a god descend from the heavens to participate in the turmoil of politics? It wasn’t to ‘stand for something’ as a brand, it’s because large scale attention can no longer be bought.
Technology has made our attention discretionary and the world skippable. Brands can no longer just buy the massive amounts of cheap, forced attention they are used to. The effectiveness of controversy in gaining attention has changed the outcome of elections and it’s starting to change the nature of marketing too.
This is not how brands behave.
The Kaepernick campaign has been hailed as brave and a smart bet. The scale of their wager should not be underestimated. Doubling down on a growing customer segment while openly turning your back on less appealing one — is not just brave, it goes against the nature of brand building.
Brand building has its moments of bravery but much to the frustration of ad agencies everywhere, it’s largely about risk aversion and playing the long game. It’s Roger Federer not Colin Kaepernick.
Brands constantly have to balance growth and remaining relevant with protecting the $28 billion value of their brand. Brand managers lean to Warren Buffet’s advice, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” They are careful and calculated.
Nike has done such a great job of this over the decades that they have what most other brands can only dream of. They transcend politics and petty factions. They are for everyone. To be for everyone while managing to be cool is the unicorn status of brands.
Perhaps backing Kaepernick’s bold protest could have slid by in the past, but by taking a side in today’s toxic political climate, they have done what mega brands don’t do — they have said “we’re not for you” to a large portion of society. More people identify as conservative in the USA than any other political view. Nike has chosen to distance themselves to some degree from 100 million of the most valuable consumers in the world, Americans, and wagered their ‘for everyone’ status.
Nike’s own mission statement declares that they are for everyone: “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.”
What could be worth taking such a risk? Attention is the lifeblood of brands, and the traditional ways of getting it are in decline.
Earned attention is becoming the only attention and everything else is becoming wallpaper, thanks to a number of compounding factors.
The gearing of sharing
Social media loves to magnify what’s being magnified. This leaves less room for things that are not viral or at least topical. Winners win big and losers don’t even exist. Attention has transitioned from a sliding scale to being virtually binary.
The power of sharing is twofold. Firstly, it increases reach. This is the quantitative side of the equation. Secondly, it’s an endorsement. This is the qualitative and vastly overlooked side of the equation.
Sharing something online is often more about signaling than anything else. It means I approve of this and I think you should see it. It gives messages instant credibility within social networks, opposed receiving something cold. It’s especially true of controversial subject matter. Donald Trump’s election victory is less confounding when you consider the qualitative side of the massive media he earned.
The stopping power of controversy
What stops people from scrolling past? Mild issues aren’t particularly arresting. Traditional ads with memorable mnemonics and polite payoff lines are too easy to skip. They don’t work at scale on skippable media and the environment where they do work, linear tv, is losing its potency and cost effectiveness.
Two days ago the world marathon record was not just broken but smashed by Eliud Kipchoge. He’s a Nike sponsored Athlete and they are all over this.
Nike should take some of the credit for the record time too. Their Breaking2project set out to break the sub 2 hour marathon barrier, that many said is beyond what’s physically possible.
The huge margin Eliud shaved off the world record (1m17s) makes one feel that it is only a matter of time until the 2 hour barrier is broken. What could be more aligned to the essence of Nike than this belief? They developed a shoe specifically to achieve this feat. They have assembled the best experts to plan and coach the athletes. This is the perfect intersection of innovation and athletic performance. This is the god of victory.
On the other hand Colin Kaepernick is a good athlete but not the best. He’s definitely got an iron will but this is the muddy water of politics, not the god of victory.
Kipchoge’s world record is a feat so great, it deserves the world’s attention and should echo for years to come, yet it is overshadowed by the tail end of Nike’s Kaepernick campaign:
Similarly, Serena Williams’ controversy at the US open final will likely be a bigger media event than when she finally gets that 24th grand slam victory:
The interconnectedness and immediacy of technology has magnified our collective attention. It’s not just controversy that has become more captivating though.
Strong emotions, by definition, trump mild ones but the gearing of technology has exacerbated this to the point that mild emotions don’t get their fair share of attention, even if you pay for it.
This is why, through the lens of social media, the world appears to be constantly melting down and why issues are becoming so polarized.
Perhaps it’s because fear and anger are such visceral emotions that social media is better suited to politics than selling boxes of cereal.
Brands are slowly being suffocating by the new economics of media
The long term outlook for brands that rely on mild manners and traditional advertising is grim.
Firstly, attention is a zero sum game. People only have 24 hours a day. The three-plus hours of attention people give to their phones comes with a withdrawal from other areas where brands have traditionally bought media.
Secondly, even the media you buy now guarantees little. Skippable videos only work if they hook users from the outset. Fewer eyeballs are watching linear TV as viewing behavior shifts toward platforms like Netflix. The quality of attention TV ads get is also declining as viewers reach for their phones during ad breaks. While the quality of TV viewing is decreasing the price of TV ad real estate is increasing as desperate media owners try make their numbers with fewer buyers… in a kind of death roll.
The world has become skippable but most brands were brought up to be polite, and still make traditional ads that assume captive audiences. The entire advertising industry is wrestling with this change.
Nike wins this race.
To be swept up in the shared media psyche is to captivate the world’s imagination. While Nike is basking in a torrent of global attention, we have forgotten their competitors.
What prize could be worth a god’s fall from grace? When Nike tied themselves to the controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick they got the biggest hit of attention they have had since Google has been recording (2004), by a huge margin and possibly the biggest spotlight they have ever had:
There can be no bigger prize.
Nike are boldly blazing a trail that others will follow. Just as Donald Trump has shown how the momentum of controversy can steamroll the mildness of logic in politics today, Nike has shown how controversy can fuel brands.
The recent spike in online sales and the sneaker burning protests will probably cool off but a shift to bolder, more controversial brands and advertising is just beginning.
The Benioffs join Bezos, Jobs, and others who’ve turned to publishing to cement their legacies. But a hands off approach isn’t what journalism needs right now.
The Los Angeles Times was the first newspaper I ever read – I even attended a grammar school named for its founding family (the Chandlers). Later in life I worked at the Times for a summer – and found even back then, the great brand had begun to lose its way.
I began reading The Atlantic as a high schooler in the early 1980s, and in college I dreamt of writing long form narratives for its editors. In graduate school, I even started a publication modeled on The Atlantic‘s brand – I called it The Pacific. My big idea: The west coast was a huge story in desperate need of high-quality narrative journalism. (Yes, this was before Wired.)
Complex ideas take time — and we no longer have any. Shrinking attention is changing the kinds of stories we can tell. This has already dumbed down our entertainment. We could be next.
Deep thought may be our defining capacity as a species. Like any capacity, it can get stronger with practice or weaker with neglect. The stories we tell and ideas we give our attention to, shape our collective thoughts and minds.
Stories are the connective tissue of society.
Movies used to be central to our zeitgeist. They were the big stories that connected whole Generations. They struggle to claim that kind of cultural prominence now. People have less time. There are too many options at the box office and on other media.
The Godfather is one of the best films ever made. If you want to watch it, you need to set aside 3 hours. Many classics require a similar investment.
Social Media Amplification unites social with paid media. It’s crazy that we haven’t done this already.
For all its promise, digital marketing remains an unfortunately siloed business. Nearly every brand invests in both social media — teams of people who agonize about what content to place and promote on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms — as well as paid media — the ads you see across the “rest of the web.”
And here’s the crazy part: In most marketing departments, the teams who run social rarely, if ever work, closely with the teams who create traditional paid media. If that sounds crazy, well, you’re right. It is.
Although the metrics can be quite different, the goals of these tactics are essentially the same: Creating awareness and conversions against targeted audiences, building relationships with current and new customers, and driving engagement for the brand overall. Put another way, social media and paid media teams have the same goal: engaging customers and driving interest in purchase.
If brands and advertising have become less useful as tools to both companies and consumers, how can businesses grow?
Five factors are changing the types of products that succeed today and how they engage with their audiences.
Marketing has become an arms race that’s led to hollow value and stifled innovation. Bad products with lots of media muscle can steamroll good ones with less resources. The competition of overcrowded categories creates brands trying to outspend each other with ads that grow increasingly detached from reality.
Apple dropped a bomb at their global developer conference: It’s stepping in to curb phone addiction. This is a big blow to the ad-driven platforms that have hijacked our phones and our attention.
Right before Craig Federighi, Apple’s head of software, demonstrated the latest advancements in emojis, including tongue detection, he announced the release of “a comprehensive set of built in features to help you limit distraction.” This is a big deal, because until now, we have been fending for ourselves — and we’re totally outgunned in the war for attention.
Attention is the oxygen of advertising.
There’s a reason why phones are so addictive: ad money. You paid for your phone, but most of the things you do on it are powered by advertising. Google, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter all make their money from advertising.
The shift from brands and advertising to pipes and subscriptions is inevitable — and well underway. Want proof? Look to Disney.
Terms like ‘Disneyflix’ and ‘Apple Prime’ essentially describe how the most powerful global brand owners are coming to terms with the new rules of engagement. This is not just another story of new versus old, it’s a fundamental shift in the natural order of consumerism. Brands have traditionally been prized, while distribution has been more commoditized. The ‘must have’ things held the power. But if the pipes into people’s lives have become more powerful than the products that go through them, then we’re in the beginning of a new era. and the change is just beginning.
Brands to Pipes.
Why would the utility of pipes beat the romance of brands? It’s easy to misinterpret our love of convenience as love for brands. People are promiscuous, and even our favorite brands can be replaced if something better asserts itself.
Young adults are hungry for the ad industry to be better. They are right.
“I block ads because I believe ads can be so much better.”
This was a direct quote from an advertising student at the University of Texas. I visited campus recently and had the opportunity to talk informally with advertising students from the Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations. What I learned affirmed my faith in the future of advertising. I also walked away with a strong sense that these young students, if given the chance to practice the craft the way they see it, would upend the whole industry.
Facebook does not sell your data. It protects your data like Gollum holding the ring. Selling your data would not be nearly as profitable as leasing access to you, via advertising— over and over again.