Mark Ritson: In the AI era, it’s digital ads that face disruption

A new Forrester report claims consumers’ hatred of interruption is killing online advertising and brands should invest in AI instead. Are the digital disruptors about to be disrupted?

ritsonGiven my antipathy to the ‘death’ theme that haunts every possible marketing moment currently, the likelihood of my agreeing with a report entitled ‘The End of Advertising As We Know It’ was slim.

The fact that the report was written by Forrester, one of the few firms to understand properly and objectively the intersection of marketing and tech, did slightly re-balance things. But not enough to avoid the very loud “harrumph” I uttered as I read a precis of the report last week.

For as long as we have had advertising there has been an angry ex-agency bozo or half-arsed futurologist predicting the imminent demise of the ignoble profession. A zippy Google search for the “end of advertising as we know it” will reveal a best-selling book from 2000, a series of inane conference presentations from 1990s and, more recently, a whole raft of tech-based attacks that portay traditional communications as being a dead marketing man walking.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson – I long for the death of marketing clichés

I don’t know the name of the ancient Greek opportunist who first carved the name of a taverna on a wall with directions beneath it and invented the advertising industry. But I’ll bet there was some miserable prick stood next to him as he chipped away, shaking his head and telling everyone that it would not last. Such is advertising.

Quite clearly advertising has evolved tremendously in the past 20 years. A surprising amount of it also hasn’t changed at all by the way, but we don’t talk about these things in marketing lest we be seen as ‘old-school’ and not sufficiently au fait with the startling new world of digital marketing. But change is not what the Forrester report is about. The co-authors are truly dead-set on a prediction that the end is very much nigh.

Aversion to interruption

The big insight on which Forrester is basing its “declaration” that 2017 is the year that advertising as we know it comes to an end is the increasing intolerance we all have for interruptions. That is, after all, the name for the small uncomfortable corner of experience where advertising lives and occasionally emerges from to occupy your consciousness for a few tantalising moments of engagement.

There is something delicious in seeing Facebook and Google suddenly threatened with a digital disruption of their own.

Forrester point outs, not without accuracy, that consumers are spending less and less time “doing interruptible things on interruption-friendly devices”. Despite their current domination, Google and Facebook’s model for success is disarmingly old-fashioned. Google make billions interrupting your search with paid suggestions. Facebook interrupt your social interactions with paid messages. Clearly, once we navigate the issues of brand safety and measurement, the next big bump for digital media is the fact that this is a singularly inappropriate context to try and interrupt a user’s experience for even a second.

The active-finger, multi-screen, double-click world of your smartphone makes it just about the most impossible 10 square inches imaginable to break into and garner attention, let alone drive action. There is a reason that you need to show the average digital display ad to 2,000 people before one of them will click on it.

READ MORE: Humans evolve at a glacial pace but technology with value is always in demand

The great irony of Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for Facebook ads back in 2007 – in which he too claimed an end to advertising as we knew it and proposed engaging organically with consumers in conversation as equals – was that, although it did not actually work, it was the ideal approach to get past the always-on, never-interrupted digital audiences of the 21st century. It’s ironic because Zuckerberg quickly gave up on organic conversations and opted for an all too familiar model of display advertising, much like the one he had set out to disrupt a few years earlier.

And, of course, not only is the digital consumer pretty much out of bounds from an attention point of view, the device she is using is equally uncooperative. The advent of ad blockers, as Forrester notes, is increasing not because the ads suck but because any sane human being, given the option of free extinction, will click the ad blocker button in an instant. Whether we want to admit it or not, the ancient technology of interruption sits uncomfortably in the age of digital media.

AI could bypass brands

But before the guffaws of the so-called traditional media get too loud, it’s worth noting that the end of interruptions is by no means an exclusively digital phenomenon. As households grow used to smart TVs and DVR content their ability to zip through advertising with expert aplomb grows ever more concerning. Once again technology plays into the consumer’s hands too with an increasing proportion of DVR devices around the world now able to not only pre-record your favourite shows but also re-present them shorn of ads too.

For Forrester the only hope for advertisers is to see the end of interruptions as the end of advertising itself and ship money across town to artificial intelligence (AI) and smart assistants. It recommends that “marketers take billions of dollars out of digital display advertising to make this investment”.

The passivity of the TV audience ironically makes it far more immune to the interruption issue.

There is something delicious in seeing the big tech disruptors of the 21st century, Facebook and Google, suddenly threatened with a digital disruption of their own. But this recommendation to pull back from digital and go deep into AI seems a knee-jerk one to me – a bit like seeing a gust of wind then rushing off to the supermarket to panic buy tins of beans and water.

There is a fascinating future appearing on the horizon in which our smart personal assistants handle most of our purchases for us. It’s a scary world for marketers because those smart devices won’t be watching ads but rather using a complex array of calculations and predictive modelling to make the optimum purchase.

Low-involvement consumer decision-making will become a contradiction in terms and with it all the brands and campaigns that populated our early consumer consciousness will fall foul of evolution. If Amazon gets Alexa right the Andrex puppy will be left, forgotten and unwelcome, on the back step of every British household with only a bunch of soggy, squabbling meerkats for company.

It is brands as well as advertising we are talking about. As marketing professor Scott Galloway has recently noted, in the world of proper AI, basic categories could well replace brands in our verbal requests. Let the machine work out which one to get; I just need toothpaste.

And it’s not just ancient brands that lose out. Google, for all its power and heft, operates a two-step model of consumer information. I search for information on pen refills with Google, then I visit the site and make the purchase. That’s radically more efficient than having to piss off down to the pen shop and talk to an ancient old bloke about pens for an hour.

READ MORE: UK ad spend hits record £21.4bn as digital dominates again

But that farty old pen shop experience is exactly how our children will see our current use of Google. They will laugh as we talk to them about ‘typing’ a request into a ‘search engine’ to find possible pen retailers and ‘clicking’ on the best options. The little black disc on the bookshelf that orders stuff for my future 22-year-old daughter with one verbal command is where things are going.

Disruption is slower than you think

Before we get completely caught up in all of this, however, let us pause and consider what we know about marketing revolutions. Inevitably, we overestimate the impact of new technologies and we underestimate how long it will take for them to take hold. Forrester appears to be of the belief that it’s time to jump ship now, declare advertising dead and start working on an AI strategy. If we have learned anything thus far in marketing it’s that these revolutions occur with much slower speed than anyone expects.

While it’s headline-grabbing to declare all advertising is over, the truth is that the interruption extinction event only screws up certain media, not others. Yes, it’s a big fucking problem for the agile, mercurial audiences that populate digital media. But while TV is struggling with its own interruption issues the simple laziness and passivity of the TV audience ironically makes it far more immune to the interruption issue.

Advertising may be changing but it’s not dead or dying or about to be replaced by a black disc.

Many years ago I studied a bunch of families in their own homes and looked at why and how they actually viewed TV advertising. When I finished my research an army of agencies all asked me the same question; which ads pull best? My answer was a disappointment to them. It was clear from thousands of hours of watching families watching advertising that the ads themselves were a relatively tiny force in the overall advertising equation.

Only agencies would think their ads were somehow the main factor in driving attention. The real, ethnographic truth was that a host of more mundane factors explained why a family did or did not pay attention to ads. Where they with someone else they could chat to in the break? Did they want a piss? Were they exhausted? Could they find the remote to change channel?

All these years later, the fundamental quotidian exhaustion of a TV audience remains its biggest strength. It might look great to have young, eager audiences devouring digital at 400 clicks a second. But try getting them to watch a 15-second film.

When arses sink into couches across the UK and turn on a TV, however, they do so with an inbuilt ability to accept interruption. The slightly overweight, pissed and exhausted army that make up most TV audiences might not look good on a brochure for Thinkbox but they have one unerring advantage over the young, hip trendies whizzing through hyperspace: they can’t be fucked to change the channel because the remote is over there. So they endure.

And then there are all those other media that no-one mentions anymore. Both cinema advertising and outdoor are almost immune to the interruption issue because they intrude at such a gigantic, macro level they look set to avoid the issue almost entirely. It’s pretty hard to ignore a billboard when you are driving past it.

The more I think about outdoor advertising and the renewed lease of creative and client life it is getting from becoming digitised, the more bullish I become about this most ancient of advertising forms.

So is advertising as we know it about to end? No, it is surely not. What is going to happen is that all those hot little startups like Google and The Facebook that grew and came to enjoy the fruits of global success are now going to experience the other side of the sword. That’s the part where young, arrogant tech heads spy weakness and money in equal measure and spend the rest of their youth in a basement building something to disrupt the former disruptors.

But Google can rest easy for a while longer. Advertising as we know it may be changing – I’d argue it has not stopped changing since its invention – but it’s not dead or dying or about to be replaced by a black disc. And even if it is, how do consumers get to know about the AI in the first place? Surely someone will have to make an ad to start the revolution.



There are 10 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. MKTG101 16 May 2017

    Nice one.

    I thought you lost the plot for a moment and joined the rest of the industry on their new unicorn hunt until I read the ‘Disruption is slower than you think” part.

  2. Richard Stacy 17 May 2017

    The great thing about advertising is that nobody takes it personally. That is why it doesn’t sit easily in the digital space where people want to be treated as people, not members of an audience. To be a ‘brand’ you need to lay on a show for the whole audience and, for the time being, advertising is a good way of doing that so long as there continue to be audience-based channels for it to live in.

  3. Pete Austin 17 May 2017

    Exactly. As a rule of thumb, even successful new technologies take 20 years to become the new normal.

    And some take a lot longer. For example LED lightbulbs were invented in 1962 (55 years ago) and are just now becoming mainstream.

  4. John Robins 17 May 2017

    Outdoor, and drive-time radio, remain excellent advertising tools. I don’t see them disappearing anytime soon. I also have a lot of time for specialist consumer and B2B magazines, and while they may move from print to digital, it is still highly likely that advertisers will want to present their products somewhere alongside infotainment related to their product categories.

  5. Zbiggy Ucinek 17 May 2017

    Enjoyable post and good to hear the voice of reason. Too much next big thing, knee jerk reaction is sadly undermining the profession. Agree very few advertising mediums die out completely they just morph and improve or become more of an occasional tactical tool rather than a core communication strategy.

    Also re digital it makes me laugh, that a medium so young and based on banners, pop up’s etc which are so fundamentally crap, that it is quite clear it has a lot of leeway to evolve and with it unbelievable potential if utilised properly. But that only comes from people who truly understand marketing, not a bunch of tech geeks who only follow formulas and obsessed with reach, no nothing about truly building a brand. I believe you are absolutely right, some of these big tech players are in for a very, very, nasty shock.

  6. Thom Kennon 17 May 2017

    A trio of unhumble points from Stateside. First, a minor but important point – Google’s product that interrupts us is their display advertising network (GDN) not their AdWords product which is adjacent not interruptive. Secondly, you disappoint gravely with your smarmy love for the anachronistically enduring research sham, Forrester. Next you’ll be trying to convince us Nielsen has an insightful clue worth subscribing to. But lastly, bravo to you for even flirting with falling in love with conversational media (e.g. AI-enabled bots, agents, skills, APIs) as the welcome force already replacing “advertising” with value. Boy, do I have a deck for you.
    Thom Kennon

  7. Chris Worrell 18 May 2017

    A very smart chap giving a talk at Cannes last year (yes, some of Cannes is still useful for work!) forecast that 90% of Googles revenue would come from AI not ads by 2020. I think they’re safe.

    Also, it strikes me that ‘The death of (insert subject here)’ is perhaps an excellent example of traditional interruptive advertising by publisher/personal brands. It creates an impact, illicits a reaction and drives conversation. Not overly distinctive though!

  8. Jason Tropf 18 May 2017

    You’re uninformed about “who” is creating AI.
    All those basement AI developers you mention are using API’s developed by Google, Amazon, IBM and Microsoft. So maybe you’re right about Facebook ad revenue but do you really think that Google creates the AI that it will cause their own disruption? Doubtful. I’m sure it will morph…They’ll stay on top. Not to mention They’re globally launching tens of thousand of free wifi balloons to get the remaining 4 billion human online so they’ll own the airwaves

  9. Tim Parrack 19 May 2017

    There is , as you say, something delicious in seeing Facebook and Google suddenly threatened with a digital disruption of their own.
    Except that they aren’t. Google is the single largest investor in terms of AI acquisitions. In the last 4 years, they’ve bought up deep learning startup DNNresearch (from the computer science department at the University of Toronto), DeepMind Technologies for some $600M, and in the last , it’s acquired visual search startup Moodstock, bot platform and most recently predictive analytics platform Kaggle. Oh, and Facebook comes in third, having Facebook acquired Masquerade Technologies and Zurich Eye recently.
    If you can’t beat ’em, as they say, join ’em.
    Or better still, if you have the money, buy ’em. That’s how you stay ahead.

  10. Rui Almeida 22 May 2017

    I´m with Jason and Tim.
    Google, Facebook, Amazon and their likes, are developing AI for personal assistants. The “ads” are going to be more relevant and inserted in the conversation.
    Typical examples:
    1. Your assistant will inform you that your car need new brake pads, will inform you the nearest shops to do the replacement, give you their time availability, price, promotions, ask you if you want to book a rental car wile yours is in the shop, schedule everything for you.
    2. You are messaging with your friends deciding what to do friday night, your assistant, and their’s will suggest restaurants, based on preferences – food, location… – you will decide and the assistant will book it for you.
    Any of this businesses will have to pay to get more mentions on those conversations…
    I wouldn’t put much money on marketing agencies on the next cple of years

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