Archive for April, 2016

Adblocking: A Darwin Wedge?

Friday, April 29th, 2016

monster bull2 535Economist Robert H. Frank coined the term Darwin’s Wedge to describe situations where stuff evolves to benefit the individual but actually is bad for the species overall.

Look for instance at the elephant seal.  Bull elephant seals are huge.  They can weigh as much as 6 thousand pounds.  They’re 5 times bigger than female seals.  They’re twice as heavy as the average car.  During the mating season this is to the individual’s advantage.  Mature bulls battle each other for hours.  The victorious bull claims exclusive access to the female harem of as many as 100 cows.

As a species this is a disadvantage.

As a species it makes them far more vulnerable to sharks.

The bull elk is another case in point.  Similarly the bull elk must battle against all other bull elks in his tribe to gain access to lady elks.  In the battle the size of the antler is key.  The bigger the better.  Furthermore, since the winning bull elk will be most likely to have bigger antlers, his descendants will acquire the big antler gene.  There’s a generational antler race (like an arms race).  The largest antlers of the North American bull elk measure over 4 feet and weigh more than 40 pounds.  Again, this is terrific for an individual, sex starved elk.  Not so terrific for the species because it makes it much harder to run away from wolves, especially through woods.

This situation is Frank’s Darwin’s Wedge.

If you judge success for online ads in a short term way then the better your ad is at generating clicks the better it is for you.  It doesn’t matter much that you’re annoying people.  You couldn’t care less if people are clicking on your ad by mistake when they really just wanted to check the weather, and end up instead on flappybird.  You’re counting clicks not sales and anyway a .0001% conversion might be your business model.

What’s great for the individual (the specific ad) is not so great for the species (ads in general).  Because if you get really annoyed with your inability to avoid ads on your mobile (because they’ve got better at tricking you into interacting with them whether you intended to or not), you might start to consider installing an adblocker.

Stats abound about how big the threat is from adblockers.  Deloitte’s TMT 2016 report is relatively relaxed about it.  Deloitte Global predict just 0.3% of all mobile device owners will use an ad-blocker this year.  At the recent Guardian conference on the other hand stats were quoted that over 80% of German millennial men used adblockers (provoking a huge gasp from the audience).  Many publishers are furious about the situation.

Most people may well not bother with adblockers.  But the better the algorithm performs or if you like in Darwinian terms evolves to deliver a short term metric like click through, the more annoying the website will seem.  Whilst few consumers ever openly admit to loving ads (though I still know loads of people who get to the cinema in time for the ads), most people don’t go out of their way to avoid them actively all the time.  They just don’t have the energy.  But point out to them that with an adblocker the page they want to read will load 5 times faster, or how much they’re paying for data that ads are eating……

Robert H. Frank’s solution to Darwin’s wedge problems in business is tax.  Tax annoying adverts?  Imposed perhaps by the IAB?  Can’t see that happening anytime soon, but the IAB’s LEAN initiative is to be encouraged.

“Juries don’t buy evidence they buy narrative… Our job is to tell the story better than the other guy”.

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

ojThis is Johnnie Cochrane on The people v OJ Simpson, American Crime Story.  The jury he’s talking about are of course those picked for the famous controversial murder trial in the 1990s.  But could he be talking about any jury?  Including those who are about to judge the awards for the upcoming, packed, 2016 awards season in media and advertising?

It’s been my honour to be in awards juries at several awards over the last 5 years.  First it is important to stress that results are always discussed and a lack of them, or a sense that they’re smoke and mirrors, is usually a deterrent to a win.. usually but not exactly always.

Starting with smoke and mirrors.  The number of times the word “engagement” is used in the results section of a paper is arguably in direct proportion to the robustness of actual outcomes in terms of the client’s objectives for their business.  Here’s one anonymous example that I remember from a recent paper: “we demonstrated significant engagement with the brand, all with a modest media budget”.  This kind of factoid is increasingly a rarity but definitely is to be avoided.

So assuming that a paper has proper results, a great insight and a good logic to the activity, surely it should be a winner.  Here’s where the other guy comes in.  The highly competitive nature of our industry means that you’re not just convincing the awards jury that your campaign was successful, you’re out to convince them that it was more successful than any of the others in the category.

In some instances this might be a very broad competitive framework.  So in 2015 Campaign Media Awards categories were divided largely by sector, and some sectors are very varied.  Fashion, healthcare and beauty as a category might pit Nike versus Rimmel versus Piriteze.  Media Week’s large medium and small categorisations obviously have other brands smashing up against each other – one category might include Clarins v Heinekin v Birds Eye.  Your entry has to cut through, and you don’t even know what the competition is that you are up against when you write it.

Here is Cochrane’s point then.  Your narrative needs to be compelling.  And to overcome the fatigue of the jury member (who might have read 23 entries before they get to yours) and any bias that they might not even be conscious of.

Daniel Kahneman, the nobel prize winning behavioural econometrician, writes about system 1 and system 2 thinking.  System 1 is gut instinct.  System 2 is logical thought.  In a fight for dominance system 1 wins every time.  We like to think that we are in control of our decision making, in fact we decide most things on instinct and then rationalise our decision.  Awards juries do not do this on purpose.  They are usually very diligent and conscientious.  Most have entered themselves over the years and really appreciate the effort that goes into crafting your award entry.  But there are a set of biases that are part of human nature that a winning entry has to overcome.  There’s the “cheerleader bias” where you are drawn to join in with one enthusiast on the jury even if you don’t agree in private.  There’s the “less is better bias” where one strong result will convince a juror more than a list of seven positive metrics can.  There’s the “rhyme as reason bias” which of course Cochrane exploited with “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit”.

Good luck with awards entries for this season.  The winners will have triumphed not just in the clarity of thought that went into the campaign but additionally in the story telling narrative of their entry.



Even if you have the right strategy, the wrong tactics will get you wet.

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

boatThe exciting part of the Oxford and Cambridge boat races this year was the women’s race.

(Yes that’s right, the section of the old established rowing competition that although it has been taking place alongside the men’s race since 1927, and annually since 1967, has only been televised since 2015).

It was a cox’s competition.  And it was a tactician’s race.

Coxing an eight is a heavy responsibility.  You’re the only person who can see where they’re going for a start, and the only chance of steering in the right direction.  In the race, you’re the only person who can speak to the rowers so you’re effectively the team coach too at this point.

Without a shadow of a doubt the best plan is to get off to a good start.  Oxford failed to do so.  Then, as the commentators made a point of telling the audience on TV, you need to navigate the fastest water from start to finish.

In this year’s boat race sticking to this plan without a change of tactics would have been a big mistake for Oxford’s women.  Although they had a disappointing start, a few seconds behind the competition, they had the advantage of the toss, which meant that they had chosen the side of the river that gave them a slight advantage because the bend of the Thames at that point was in their favour.

This allowed the crew to pull ahead slightly.  The obvious thing to do at this point was to continue to take advantage of the fastest path in the river.  Had cox Morgan Baynham-Williams stuck rigidly to the obvious path, she would have kept the boat in the centre of the river.  She didn’t do this.  She was pragmatic and decisive.  Not purist or textbook.  She steered, counter-intuitively, and to the obvious disparaging surprise of some of the commentators, over to slower water.  This meant a nearly 90 degree turn, in a live competitive race, over to the north bank.

Slower water, calmer water.

Cambridge, who perhaps had no choice in the matter at this point, ploughed on in the fast stream for a bit longer.  It must have seemed like a massive opportunity to get back into the race.  Instead, as any viewers will have seen, they nearly sank. And showed massive courage when the umpire offered to let them abandon the race.  They kept going, shifting over to the slower safer stream too, by which point Oxford had already won.

Oxford women won convincingly and beautifully demonstrated that in any live competitive situation you must always consider whether your tactics should shift in order to win.  And that an agile and decisive approach to this could be the key to the competition.

Baynham-Williams didn’t discuss her tactical shift with her colleagues, she didn’t put it to a research group.  She didn’t stick to the safe, textbook plan, she didn’t consider how popular her decision would be. She had the trust of her teammates and the courage to take a gamble, under enormous pressure, which at the time, according to the experts, was by no means a sure bet.

As well as an inspiration for decisive leadership and tactical agility the race is yet one more piece of proof that women’s sport can be as exciting and dramatic as any equivalent men’s event.  What a pity the coverage in media is still, for most events, a fraction of mens’ sports.


Art versus science?

Monday, April 11th, 2016

Pinky-and-BrainHave you heard the MediaCom Connected Podcast yet? One of the issues that ceo Josh Krichefski highlights is diversity.  This time not diversity of gender or ethnicity or socio-economic background, though all of this is close to his heart and on his agenda.  This time he talked about head versus heart, art versus science: “There are increasingly polarised specialists coming into the business. On the one hand art based creative content driven people.  On the other hand very scientific, mathematic data driven people.” Josh called for an environment where everybody thrives and is challenged and nurtured in the most positive way to get the best from each individual.

The idea that art and science are polarised is very widespread, and actually relatively new.  Look back a bit and there was not such a distinction.  One of the western world’s most famous artists is Leonardo da Vinci, as prolific for his inventions as for his portraits.  He is widely considered one of the greatest artists of all time.  He is also credited with the invention of the helicopter, the tank and the parachute – all of which would belong to the discipline of engineering these days not of drawing.

Isaac Newton is equally widely recognised as one of the greatest scientists of all time.  He was a master of cold logic and rational thought.  His theory of gravity (remember the apple), revolutionised thinking and dominated scientific thought for 3 centuries.  He also believed absolutely in alchemy (the transformation of base metals into gold) and was obsessed with biblical prophecy, souls burning in lakes of fire, based on the apocalyptic biblical book Revelation (also the source of much of The Omen).

It’s our education system that has driven the idea of a schism between art and science, until recently anyway.  Once specialisation in study at school is allowed, ie at A Level in sixth form, tradition and the limited capacity for schools to organise complicated time tables, meant that most people had to choose between art and science subjects.  This played to most students preferences perhaps, but it is much less widespread than it used to be.  Now there are computer programmes to design efficient timetables for sixth formers so the possibility of studying English and Mathematics, Chemistry and Theology is both easier to arrange and a more frequent occurrence.

The best media practitioners have capabilities across art and data and across creativity and mathematics.

There’s a divergence in language for certain, and the specialists may need to make some effort to explain themselves to each other clearly, but we are operating in a communications industry so the ability to explain things simply is a sine qua non of success. (That’s meant to be a joke, because I’ve explained myself in latin!).

Josh is right.  Art and science do not have to be enemies.  Some of the most creative people I know in the industry have titles that describe them as traders, programmers or tech heads – this is the source of much true inventiveness.  The best creative directors and originators of content and ideas are often ruled by a ruthless logic that any coder, programmer or developer would be proud to acknowledge.   The godfather of advertising, Sir John Hegarty, says selling is an art not a science.  It is the combination of art and science working together that drives the best results.


Binge viewing: good or bad for us?

Friday, April 1st, 2016

bingeAccording to a new study from the University of Toledo there is a new sickness putting the first world at peril: Binge Viewing

Their conclusion is that TV viewing is associated with poor mental and physical health outcomes. With the advent of novel media for viewing television, “binge-watching” is a growing public health concern that needs to be addressed.

Hands up if you love a bit of binge-viewing?  Surely we can agree that there are far worse addictions? It’s a slippery slope according to Yoon Hi Sung who worked on the research and says: “when binge watching becomes rampant, viewers may start to neglect their work and their relationships with others”.  The study concludes that binge-watching has a positive correlation with poor mental and physical wellbeing.

Well correlation and causation are not synonymous.  (Ie: the fact that the cock crows at sunrise everyday on your nearest farm is correlation.  But the cock crowing every morning does not cause the sun to rise so it is not causation).  The participants in the research were self-confessed binge watchers, and with due respect to the research it might be that it reveals couch potato health hazards rather than the outcomes from watching most of Mad Men in one sitting.

At Deloitte and Enders Media and Telecoms 2016 and Beyond Conference this year Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton also drew some conclusions from the advent of binge viewing.  He suggested that it has revolutionised the quality and brilliance of scripted entertainment.  In the past scripted episodes of a series were designed to stand alone.  You didn’t want to lose audience if they missed an episode of a long running series and so you made sure that, as far as possible, each episode was “close-ended” ie stand alone.  This had repercussions for the characters in such shows.  They couldn’t really change over time, it was hard for them to go on an emotional journey that lasted longer than 20 minutes.  If you wanted to write that kind of script, then movies were the only medium for you, and TV as a medium meant limited risk taking with the story arcs and with the characters.  Anything too complicated as a story arc over a number of episodes was rejected usually as it would result in viewers who missed episodes giving up and dropping out (certainly in TV commissioners’ minds according to Lynton).

On demand viewing changes all of this.  Now you can watch a season on demand, in your own time, and you can join a fan base in series 6 of Game of Thrones simply by binge viewing series 1-5.  This allows the writers more freedom.  To develop characters and stories in a much more complex way.  If you were a Mad Men fan then the complexity of Don Draper’s character development defied explanation, and certainly couldn’t be summed up in an elevator pitch.  Walter White took at least until series two to cross over to the dark side, an unfeasible pace of story for the old episodic TV world.

So on demand viewing may have exacerbated binge viewing for some people to an unhealthy extent (as they say moderation in everything is the best, including in being moderate).  Yet the amazing, unexpected consequence of on demand technology is the migration of amazing, brilliant, genius writers to the TV medium.  The movies are no longer the only medium for subtle and slow paced stories.  The latest series of Fargo was arguably as superb as the original movie, and effectively therefore a 10 hour film, which you could, at your convenience, watch once a week or in one weekend.

Is this the devil’s work?  Surely rather it is the invocation of the muse of creative genius.