Advertising’s mini crisis – not enough geeks

I’d neither met nor heard a ‘prophet’ speak before so my expectations were heightened when I learned that David Shing would address the third annual Media360 Summit in Hong Kong. Shing, or ‘Shingy’ for short, is an Australian-born, New York City-residing ‘digital prophet’. Blessed with the gift of prophecy, I like to think I’d choose to not work for a living and play the stock market for fortune and fun. Shingy, however, has chosen to ply his gift at AOL, a company that might best be described as a former global media goliath that misread the future, endured steep decline and never really recovered it’s former glory.

The advertising agency in Asia displayed a crisis of confidence at the Media360 Conference

The advertising industry in Asia displayed a crisis of confidence at the Media360 Conference

The Media360 Summit, hosted by Campaign magazine’s Asia Pacific edition, brings together the crème de la crème of Asia’s advertising industry – from the media themselves and the advertisers to the media buyers, creative-types and a handful of technology businesses that code the algorithms that somehow enable advertising to sell us stuff online.

During one of the panels, Bret Leece, chief analytics officer at media strategy consultancy Initiative Global, talked about a recent advertising campaign for a major car manufacturer that exposed US consumers to different content depending on where they live and the weather in their location on the day they saw the online advert.

If the weather was cold and wet, the consumer might see an advert for a rugged 4X4 highlighting road safety in difficult driving conditions. In sunny California, meanwhile, viewers might view a convertible model bathed in sunshine winding its way along Highway 101 on the California coast.

Implementing the campaign brought together the creative and geek teams to deliver what has long been promised: advertising personalised to the individual. However, Leece also admitted that the incremental cost of customising content was not justified by the campaign’s improved results.

Despite this exciting new era of personalised adverts, the mood in the room was sombre. Judging by the discussions, the advertising industry (in Asia at least) is enduring something of a crisis of confidence. Clients, it seems, no longer want to pay for the value that ad agencies deliver anymore. The advertising agency business model has been castrated by the combined evils of the global recession and the participation of procurement departments meddling in commercial contractual terms.

Adding insult to injury, the industry is struggling to attract the geeks who can do computer coding that is core to an ad man’s arsenal today. The geeks find Mountain View more attractive and lucrative than Madison Avenue.

Like many industries, advertising is struggling to adapt to the machine-centric world of programmatic advertising where algorithms match advertisers’ needs for an audience with online media. The business of advertising in the digital age is increasingly dependant on machines to make decisions and do the work previously carried out by people. To borrow from Warren Bennis, a pioneer in the field of leadership studies, the advertising agency of the future may have two employees: a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to stop the man from interfering with the machine.

The room needed a lift and Shingy was there to provide it. The former artist turned clairvoyant bounced into a room full of Armani, Ferragamo and Prada-clad executives donning sneakers, a black suit customised with white stripes of paint and a Pete Burns hairdo (c.1984). Prophets, it seems, need a style that says they’re unlike everyday (designer) mortals.

If Asia’s advertising industry was hoping Shingy would deliver the foresight of salvation, it was little wiser after his sermon. Shingy is an affable, energetic and irreverent chap who delivered a well-constructed 45-minute presentation that was high on entertainment and humour but, disappointingly, low on visionary foresight.

But maybe the advertising industry can learn something from David Shing: it takes a high degree of self-confidence to label yourself as a ‘prophet’. Maybe the advertising industry needs simply to be bolder rather than more corporate and to take itself a little less seriously: a more relaxed advertising industry might be more attractive to the geeks.