Does ad tech dream of electric sheep?

Programmatic advertising has lowered costs for advertisers, improved data targeting and even perhaps saved an industry. But what has it done for consumers, exactly?

Does ad tech dream of electric sheep?

Ad tech’s dream was to nail the “right message, right person, right time” equation, and so, we thought, the consumer would appreciate the ad, see it as a gift, engaging with it as a helping hand. Digital ads could be less Big Brother and more Really Helpful Older Brother.

But in practice, what we got was same message, same person, on infinite repeat. And the consumer said to herself, “I wonder how hard it would be to install an ad blocker?” (Not hard, it turned out.) And mind-numbing repetition comes in at the benign end of the spectrum of possibilities, if you can believe it. At the other, we have Cambridge Analytica.

From the start, a pretty fundamental flaw was that programmatic only ever concerned itself with delivery, leaving the nature and impact of the message (apart from measuring clicks) outside of its remit. Effectively, we were talking about the right person and time – with the message stripped out completely.

If you don’t believe me, or assume that just because it’s 2018 this must be changing, consider the following. Two of the very few ad tech companies that did focus on the message rather than delivery – Flashtalking and Spongecell – merged earlier this year. Despite there being so few companies of their type, it indicates that the industry still focuses overwhelmingly on trading and delivery, rather than craft and true impact.

The industry loves to think in machine-like terms, but when it comes to the human – interaction, emotions, impact – it runs (robotically, of course) for the hills.

Some might say the very idea that you can deliver the “perfect’” placement based on the past behavior of a “target” is a delusion. Or rather, maybe it only really starts to make sense if you first reduce your customer to a disembodied pair of eyeballs.

Is it any accident “user”, “target” and “eyeballs” have all become part of the ad industry lingua franca? Whatever happened to people, in all their complexity, with all their needs and wants and dislikes? But a mechanical solution requires a mechanical problem, so we lowered our goals (and ultimately ourselves) to machine level. To little more than a series of zeros and ones – the clicker and the not-yet-clicked.

Emotion AI

Does ad tech dream of electric sheep?

This is part of a wider problem in tech, way beyond the confines of advertising. We have built AI that can defeat the best human chess or Go players. But with the evidence that growing device usage in younger people is causing depression, and even affecting their ability to empathize with their peers, is tech enhancing us or making us less human?

Alexa can tell you any number of useful facts, but can it detect and assist a human in the throes of a crisis? And if it could, wouldn’t that also present some frightening questions around privacy? Just as elsewhere in the world of business, there is a growing antipathy to tech encroaching into our daily lives –- think of the typical snags you see in self-checkout lines as one extreme, with the other being fake or inappropriate content worming its way up feeds and recommendation engines.

Certainly, AI in many of its current forms is not all that smart. At the very least, it lacks emotional intelligence. Some say part of the solution might be emotion AI: tech and devices with empathy built in.

Rise of the machines?

Over the years, the industry has gotten a lot of mileage out of scare stories we were on the verge of some kind of Blade Runner-like dystopia. They had alarming titles like “Rise of the Machines.” Funnily enough, the machines did take over – sooner, in fact, than many expected, and in ways we’re only just starting to fully understand.

The speed of change goes some way toward explaining the hostility to programmatic in some corners. But there’s also resentment around the way it seems to dominate all conversations. For every article on machines taking over, there’s a “programmatic is killing creativity” one, too.

The old complaints went “creativity goes out the window when you’re talking 300×250 boxes.” But the reality is that programmatic now encompasses outdoor and radio, as well as a large chunk of TV and video.

For creative options around media buying, some say we’re living in a Golden Age. But the tech we see also reflects the split between media buying and creative within the agency world. And that is also its downfall – especially where so many buyers, empowered by tech but deprived of creative options, have focused on third-party data and microtargeting to the exclusion of all else.

Despite major advances in ad delivery, we’re arguably no closer to the true promise of the marriage of ad and tech: more meaningful communication with people.

For that to come about, creative and media need to be reunited. Ad tech needs to stop dreaming of electric sheep and start building for actual living, breathing humans.

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