Better late than never
Adland still has huge issues and risks to be defused, but there's every reason to finally feel optimistic, writes Bob Wootton
My dear dad was born just over 100 years ago in Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar). His father was an early aviator and his grandfather the editor of the Rangoon Times, a good gig in expat days.
Dad became an engineer for the middle half of the 20th century. Held back from military service during WWII to keep the power going, he joined major heavy engineering firm Babcock & Wilcox.
He progressed quickly to design and implement systems that converted reactor heat to electricity in the new nuclear power plants which sprung out of the wartime weapons research that led to Hiroshima, Nagasaki and other unmentionables.
Thus he became one of a small coterie of British engineers and scientists who travelled the world lecturing and guiding Governments and companies on emerging energy infrastructure. (He rose to head R&D and joined the plc board and also oversaw the company’s tiny b2b advertising and publicity budget, which he rather enjoyed).
As political and social moods turned against nuclear power, it was sad to see him later became economical with the truth and describe himself merely as an ‘ex-engineer’.
His final wishes included a short recollection for me to deliver at his funeral. Reiterating his pride in his work, he expressed his wonder at its delivery and potential but voiced his grave concerns over leaving fallible people - notably politicians - in charge of such a powerful yet potentially dangerous thing.
He was a gifted, charming and urbane man with many friends and admirers. Some 30 years later I’m proud, not diffident, about what he did. And the education he gave me is why I still take a keen interest in what we loosely call science and tech.
What’s this got to do with you? Well, I fear history repeating itself.
I started my career in full-service agencies some 43 years ago when media was very much ‘below stairs’. Discussion of media was given five minutes before lunch, often while it was served. They don’t tell you ‘meeja’ was usually located in a broom cupboard too.
I worked my way to a level where I had some influence and was one of a small group of media directors who actively curried relationships with creative colleagues. Many were initially hostile, but persistence paid off.
The best were excellent, instinctive strategists. Meanwhile account planning was emerging from JWT and BMP and in these stirrings the seeds of comms planning were sown.
In parallel, more commercially-minded media guys lost patience with agency glass ceilings and left to found the first media independents. Hungry and focused, they did well, most eventually being reacquired by agency groups as the core of their own separated media offerings (Zenith, Mediacom, MEC...).
Many have now cashed in and gone fishing though some are still around, mostly in very senior positions. The UK remains the world’s biggest per capita exporter of top talent (Jerry Buhlmann, Andrew Robertson, Steve King...).
So I’m part of the generation that took media thus from the under-stairs subject of Oxbridge-educated suits’ scorn to the centre of the business in fifteen short years.
One positive is the great camaraderie that remains between otherwise mortal competitors as key personnel move companies.
Apart from that, however, I’m much less confident about the practices we’ve allowed to develop, despite the indisputable professionalism of our appointed successors.
In the face of dwindling declared remuneration, the holding companies discovered media was where the money was.
Putting profit before craft and best practice, arbitrage became a key revenue stream. Trading became the way to climb the pole.
Oceans of data, whether from online behaviour or other systems, fuelled a surge towards rationalism and away from intuition. True creative leaps became rarer.
The incursion of highly-leveraged tech businesses where fortunes can be made in months, not years, brought new behaviours and exacerbated these trends.
Bullshit evolved into misrepresentation at best or, worse, fraud.
Advertising, which (pace the Ad Association) has never had a great rap, became both less interesting and undermined its already poor standing, whether in the eyes of citizens or legislators.
Yet now - precipitated by speeches from senior WPP, Procter & Gamble and now Dentsu Aegis executives and initiatives from the US Association of National Advertisers and to a lesser extent, our own ISBA - we’re at last seeing serious multiple corrections.
For example, comScore’s universal viewability reporting; anti-fraud offerings like White Ops; Google and Facebook’s emerging undertakings to restore brand safety and JICWEBS certification; or investigations into Blockchains to restore transparency and accountability.
The tracker blocking in Apple’s new Safari browser has been condemned by those who remain hell-bent on peddling largely unwanted crap indiscriminately at the lowest possible price. I see it as another force for good, albeit externally imposed, as should any responsible and thoughtful user of the online channel.
In fact, I’m becoming quite optimistic about the medium-term. There are still huge issues and risks to be defused, but could we have hit peak non-transparency; unviability; unsafety; fraud etc? Not before time, but much better late than never.
I sincerely hope I’m right - I don’t want to end up like my old man, deflecting that I was ‘in commerce’ from my bath chair in Bexhill on Sea’s finest retirement caravan park.
Enough - next month, I promise I’ll get back to the knitting...
It also surfaced a troll who dismissed my and fellow columnist Dominic Mills’ musings as those of old men. While my piece above is evidently from someone of a certain age, if you’ve attended one of the many industry events Dominic facilitates, you’ll know this is preposterous.
This is our youthful industry’s own form of no-platforming and I’ll have no truck with it. If my arguments are found wanting, fine, but I won’t be naysplained on age grounds. Such cheap shots only discredit the perps.