Book Review of “Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else)”

“Advertising in Times Square”, image by Dirk Knight

Every so often, an ad campaign comes along that is strikingly brilliant for its originality, execution, persuasiveness, longevity, humor and pathos. During the mid-1980’s, one of these bright shining examples was the television ads for Bartles & Jaymes Wine Coolers. They consisted of two fictional characters: Frank Bartles, who owned a winery and did all of the talking, and Ed Jaymes, a farmer who never spoke a word but whose deadpan looks were priceless. They traveled across the US to different locations in pursuit of sales, trying to somehow adapt their approaches to reflect the local surroundings. Bartles was very sincere but often a bit naive in his pitches along the way, best exemplified in this ad and another one when they visited New York.

These commercials succeeded beyond all expectations in simultaneously establishing brand awareness, boosting sales and being laugh-out-loud hilarious because Bartles’s and Jaymes’s were such charming, aw-shucks amateurs. In actuality, these ads were deftly conceived and staged by some smart and savvy creatives from the Hal Riney & Partners agency. For further lasting effect, they always had Bartles express his appreciation to the viewers at the end of each spot with his memorable trademark tagline of “Thanks for your support”. These 30-second video gems are as entertaining today as they were thirty years ago.

But those halcyon days of advertising are long gone. The industry’s primary media back then was limited to print, television and radio. Creativity was its  cornerstone and the words “data analytics” must have sounded like something actuaries did in a darkened room while contemplating the infinite. (Who knows, maybe it still does to some degree.)

Fast forwarding to 2018, advertising is an utterly different and hyper-competitive sector whose work product is largely splayed across countless mobile and stationary screens on Planet Earth. Expertly chronicling and precisely assaying the transformative changes happening to this sector is an informative and engaging new book entitled Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else) [Penguin Press, 2018], by the renowned business author Ken Auletta. Just as a leading ad agency in its day cleverly and convincingly took TV viewers on an endearing cultural tour of the US as we followed the many ad-ventures of Bartles & Jaymes, so too, this book takes its readers on a far-ranging and immersive tour of the current participants, trends, challenges and technologies affecting the ad industry.

A Frenemy of My Frenemy is My Frenemy

Image from Pixabay

This highly specialized world is under assault from a confluence of competitive, online, economic, social and mathematical forces. Many people who work in it are deeply and rightfully concerned about its future and the tenure of their places in it. Auletta comprehensively reports on and assesses these profound changes from deep within the operations of several key constituencies (the “frenemies”, conflating “friend” and “enemy”). At first this might seem a bit too much of “inside baseball” (although the ad pitch remains alive and well), but he quickly and efficiently establishes who’s who and what’s what in today’s morphing ad markets, making this book valuable and accessible to readers both within and outside of this field.  It can also be viewed as a multi-dimensional case study of an industry right now being, in the truest sense of the word, disrupted.¹ There is likewise much to learned and considered here by other businesses being buffeted by similar winds.

Frenemies, as thoroughly explored throughout this book, are both  business competitors and partners at the same time. They are former and current allies in commerce who concurrently cooperate and compete. Today they are actively infiltrating each other’s markets. The full matrix of frenemies and their threats and relationships to each other includes the interests and perspectives of ad agencies and their clients, social media networks, fierce competition from streamers and original content producers like Netflix², traditional media in transition to digital platforms, consulting companies and, yes, consumers.

Auletta travels several parallel tracks in his reporting. First, he examines the past, present on onrushing future with respect to revenue streams, profits, client bases served, artificial intelligence (AI) driven automation, and the frenemies’ very fluid alliances. Second, he skillfully deploys the investigative journalistic strategy of “following the money” as it ebbs and flows in many directions among the key players. Third, he illuminates the industry’s evolution from Don Draper’s traditional “Mad Men” to 2018’s “math men” who are the data wranglers, analysts and strategists driven by ever more thin-sliced troves of consumer data the agencies and their corporate clients are using to achieve greater accuracy and efficiency in selling their goods and services.

A deep and wide roster of C-level executives from these various groups were interviewed for the book. Chief among them are two ad industry legends who serve as the x and y axes upon which Auletta has plotted a portion of his reporting. One is Martin Sorrell, who was the founder and CEO of WPP, the world’s largest advertising holding company.³ The other is Michael Kassan, the founder and CEO of MediaLink, a multifaceted firm that connects, negotiates and advises on behalf of a multitude of various parties, often competitors in critical matters affecting the ad business. Both of these individuals have significantly shaped modern advertising over many decades and are currently propagating some of the changes spotlighted in the book in trying to keep it vital, relevant and profitable.

Online Privacy v. Online Primacy

“Tug of War”, image by Pixabay

The established tradition of creativity being the primary driver of advertising creation and campaigns has given way to algorithm-driven data analytics. All of the frenemies and a myriad of other sites in many other parsecs of the websphere vacuum up vast amounts of data on users, their online usage patterns, and even go so far as to try to infer their behavioral attributes. This is often combined with additional personal information from third-party sources and data brokers. Armed with all of this data and ever more sophisticated means for sifting and intuiting it, including AI4, the frenemies are devising their campaigns to far more precisely target potential consumers and their cohorts with finely grained customized ads.

The high point of this book is Auletta’s nuanced coverage of the ongoing controversy involving the tension between frenemies using data analytics to increase click-through rates and, hopefully, sales versus respecting the data privacy of people as they traverse the Web. In response to this voracious data collection, millions of users have resisted this intrusiveness by adding free browser extensions such as AdBlock Plus to circumvent online tracking and ad distribution.5 This struggle has produced a slippery slope between the commercial interests of the frenemies and consumers’ natural distaste for advertising, as well as their resentment at having their data co-opted, appropriated and misused without their knowledge or consent. Recently, public and governmental concerns were dramatically displayed in the harsh light of the scandals involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

Furthermore, Google and Facebook dominate the vast majority of online advertising traffic, revenues and, most importantly, the vast quantum of user information which ad agencies believe would be particularly helpful to them in profiling and reaching consumers. Nonetheless, they maintain it is highly proprietary to them alone and much of it has not been shared. Frenemies much?

Additional troubling trends for the ad industry are likewise given a thorough 3-D treatment. Auletta returns to the axiom several times that audiences do not want to be interrupted with ads (particularly on their mobile devices). Look no further than the likes of premium and the major streaming services who offer all of their content uninterrupted in its entirety. The growing ranks of content creators they engage know this and prefer it because they can concentrate on their presentations without commercial breaks slicing and dicing their narrative continuity. The still profitable revenue streams flowing from this are based upon the strengths of the subscription model.

Indeed, in certain cases advertising is being simultaneously disrupted and innovated. Some of the main pillars of the media like The New York Times are now expanding their in-house advertising staff and service offerings. They can offer a diversified array of ads and analyses directly to their advertisers. Likewise, engineering-driven operations like Google and Facebook can deploy their talent benches to better target consumers for their advertisers by extracting and applying insights from their massive databases. Why should their clients continue go to the agencies when their ads can be composed and tracked for them directly?

Adapt or Go Home

“Out with the Old, In with the New”, image by Mark

The author presents a balanced although not entirely sanguine view of the ad industry’s changes to maintain its composure and clients in the midst of this storm. The frenemy camps must be willing to make needed and often difficult adjustments to accommodate emerging technological and strategic survival methods. He examines the results of two contemporary approaches to avoiding adblocking apps and more fully engaging very specific audiences. One is called “native advertising“, which involves advertisers producing commercial content and paying for its placement online or in print to promote their own products. Generally, these are formatted and integrated to appear as though they are integrated with a site’s or publication’s regular editorial content but contain a notice that it is, in fact “Advertising”.

However, Auletta believes that the second adaptive mechanism, the online subscription model, will not be much more sustainable beyond its current successes. Consumers are already spending money on their favorite paywalled sites.  But it would seem logical that users might not be thus willing to pay for Facebook and others that have always been free. As well, cable’s cord-cutters are continuing to exhibit steady growing in their numbers and their migrations towards streaming services such as Amazon Prime.6

Among the media giants, CBS seems to be getting their adaptive strategies right from continuing to grow multiple revenue streams. They now have the legal rights and financial resources to produce and sell original programming. They have also recently launched original web programming such as Star Trek: Discovery on a commercial-free subscription basis on CBS All Access. This can readily be seen as a challenge to Netflix despite the fact that CBS also providing content to Netflix. Will other networks emulate this lucrative and eyeball attracting model?

As Auletta also concludes, for now at least, consumers as frenemies, appear to be the beneficiaries of all this tumult. They have many device agnostic platforms, pricing options and a surfeit of content from which to choose. They can also meaningfully reduce, although not entirely eliminate, ads following them all over the web and those pesky stealth tracking systems. Whether they collectively can maintain their advantage is subject to sudden change in this environment.

Because of the timing of the book’s completion and publication, the author and publisher should consider including in any subsequent edition the follow-up impacts of Sorrell’s departure from WPP and his new venture (S4 Capital), the effects of the May 2018 implementation of EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and the progress of any industry or government regulation following the raft of recent massive data breaches and misuses.

Notwithstanding that, however, “Frenemies” fully delivers on all of its book jacket’s promises and premises. It is a clear and convincing case of truth in, well, advertising.

So, how would Frank Bartles and Ed Jaymes 2.0 perceive their promotional travels throughout today’s world? Would their folksy personas play well enough on YouTube to support a dedicated channel for them? Would their stops along the way be Instagram-able events? What would be their reactions when asked to Google something or download a podcast?

Alternatively, could they possibly have been proto-social media influencers who just showed up decades too soon? Nah, not really. Even in today’s digital everything world, Frank and Ed 1.0 still abide. Frank may have also unknowingly planted a potential meme among today’s frenemies with his persistent proclamations of “Thanks for your support”: The 2018 upgrade might well be “Thanks for your support and all of your data”.

 


For a very enlightening interview with Ken Auletta, check out the June 26, 2018 podcast entitled Game Change: How the Ad Business Got Disrupted, from The Midday Show on WNYC (the local NPR affiliate in New York).


September 4, 2018 Update: Today’s edition of The New York Times contains an highly enlightening article directly on point with many of the key themes of Frenemies entitled Amazon Sets Its Sights on the $88 Billion Online Ad Market, by Julie Creswell. The report details Amazon’s significant move into online advertising supported by its massive economic, data analytics, scaling and strategic resources. It comprehensively analyzes the current status and future prospects of the company’s move into direct competition with Google and Facebook in this immense parsec of e-commerce. I highly recommend a click-through and full read of this if you have an opportunity.


1.   The classic work on the causes and effect of market disruptions, the disruptors and those left behind is The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen (HarperBusiness, 2011). The first edition of the book was published in 1992.

2.    Netflix Topples HBO in Emmy Nominations, but ‘Game of Thrones’ Still Rules, July 13, 2018, New York Times, by The Associated Press. However, see also Netflix Drops Dud on Wall St. As Subscriber Growth Flops, July 16, 2018, New York Times, by Reuters.

3.   Sorrell is reported in the book as saying he would not leave anytime soon from running WPP. However, following the book’s publication, he was asked to step down in April 2018 following allegations of inappropriate conduct. See Martin Sorrell Resigns as Chief of WPP Advertising Agency, New York Times, by Matt Stevens and Liz Alderman, April 14, 2018. Nonetheless, Sorrell has quickly returned to the industry as reported in Martin Sorrell Beats WPP in Bidding War for Dutch Marketing Firm, New York Times, by Sapna Maheshwari, July 10, 2018.

4.  For a very timely example, see The Ad Agency Giant Omnicom Has Created a New AI Tool That is Poised to Completely Change How Ads Get Made, BusinessInsider.com, by Lauren Johnson,  July 12, 2018.

5.   Two other similar anti-tracking browser extensions in wide usage include, among others Ghostery and Privacy Badger.

6.   See also  Cord-Cutting Keeps Churning: U.S. Pay-TV Cancelers to Hit 33 Million in 2018 (Study), Variety.com, by Todd Spangler, July 24, 2018.

Ethical Issues and Considerations Arising in Big Data Research

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

In 48 of 50 states in the US, new attorneys are required to pass a 60 multiple-choice question exam on legal ethics in addition to passing their state’s bar exam. This is known as the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). I well recall taking this test myself.

The subject matter of this test is the professional ethical roles and responsibilities a lawyer must abide by as an advocate and counselor to clients, courts and the legal profession. It is founded upon a series of ethical considerations and disciplinary rules that are strictly enforced by the bars of each state. Violations can potentially lead to a series of professional sanctions and, in severe cases depending upon the facts, disbarment from practice for a term of years or even permanently.

In other professions including, among others, medicine and accounting, similar codes of ethics exist and are expected to be scrupulously followed. They are defined efforts to ensure honesty, quality, transparency and integrity in their industries’ dealings with the public, and to address certain defined breaches. Many professional trade organizations also have formal codes of ethics but often do not have much, if any, sanction authority.

Should some comparable forms of guidelines and boards likewise be put into place to oversee the work of big data researchers? This was the subject of a very compelling article posted on Wired.com on May 20, 2016, entitled Scientists Are Just as Confused About the Ethics of Big-Data Research as You by Sharon Zhang. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety. I will summarize, annotate and add some further context to this, as well as pose a few questions of my own.

Two Recent Data Research Incidents

Last month. an independent researcher released, without permission, the profiles with very personal information of 70,000 users of the online dating site OKCupid. These users were quite angered by this. OKCupid is pursuing a legal claim to remove this data.

Earlier in 2014, researchers at Facebook manipulated items in users’ News Feeds for a study on “mood contagion“.¹ Many users were likewise upset when they found out. The journal that published this study released an “expression of concern”.

Users’ reactions over such incidents can have an effect upon subsequent “ethical boundaries”.

Nonetheless, the researchers involved in both of these cases had “never anticipated” the significant negative responses to their work. The OKCupid study was not scrutinized by any “ethical review process”, while a review board at Cornell had concluded that the Facebook study did not require a full review because the Cornell researchers only had a limited role in it.

Both of these incidents illustrate how “untested the ethics” are of these big data research. Only now are the review boards that oversee the work of these researchers starting to pay attention to emerging ethical concerns. This is in high contrast to the controls and guidelines upon medical research in clinical trials.

The Applicability of The Common Rule and Institutional Research Boards

In the US, under the The Common Rule, which governs ethics for federally funded biomedical and behavioral research where humans are involved, studies are required to undergo an ethical review.  However, such review does not apply a “unified system”, but rather, each university maintains its own institutional review board (IRB). These are composed of other (mostly medical) researchers at each university. Only a few of them “are professional ethicists“.

To a lesser extent, do they have experience in computer technology. This deficit may be affecting the protection of subjects who participate in data science research projects. In the US, there are hundreds of IRBs but they are each dealing with “research efforts in the digital age” in their own ways.

Both the Common Rule and the IRB system came into being following the revelation in the 1970s that the U.S. Public Health Service had, between 1932 and 1972, engaged in a terrible and shameful secret program that came to be known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. This involved leaving African Americans living in rural Alabama with untreated syphilis in order to study the disease. As a result of this outrage, the US Department of Health and Human Services created new regulations concerning any research on human subjects they conducted. All other federal agencies likewise adopted such regulations. Currently, “any institution that gets federal funding has to set up an IRB to oversee research involving humans”.

However, many social scientists today believe these regulations are not accurate or appropriate for their types of research involving areas where the risks involved “are usually more subtle than life or death”. For example, if you are seeking volunteers to take a survey on test-taking behaviors, the IRB language requirements on physical risks does not fit the needs of the participants in such a study.

Social scientist organizations have expressed their concern about this situation. As a result, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has recommended:

  • Adding more social scientists to IRBs, or
  • Creating new and separate review boards to assess social science research

In 2013, AAUP issued a report entitled Regulation of Research on Human Subjects: Academic Freedom and the Institutional Review Board, recommending that the researchers themselves should decide if “their minimal risk work needs IRB approval or not”. In turn, this would make more time available to IRBs for “biomedical research with life-or-death stakes”.

This does not, however, imply that all social science research, including big data studies, are entirely risk-free.

Ethical Issues and Risk Analyses When Data Sources Are Comingled

Dr. Elizabeth A. Buchanan who works as an ethicist at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, believes that the Internet is now entering its “third phase” where researchers can, for example, purchase several years’ worth of Twitter data and then integrate it “with other publicly available data”.² This mixture results in issues involving “ethics and privacy”.

Recently, while serving on an IRB, she took part in evaluated a project proposal involving merging mentions of a drug by its street name appearing on social media with public crime data. As a result, people involved in crimes could potentially become identified. The IRB still gave its approval. According to Dr. Buchanan, the social value of this undertaking must be weighed against its risk. As well, the risk should be minimized by removing any possible “idenifiers” in any public release of this information.

As technology continues to advance, such risk evaluation can become more challenging. For instance, in 2013, MIT researchers found out that they were able to match up “publicly available DNA sequences” by using data about the participants that the “original researchers” had uploaded online.³ Consequently, in such cases, Dr. Buchanan believes it is crucial for IRBs “to have either a data scientist, computer scientist or IT security individual” involved.

Likewise, other types of research organizations such as, among others, open science repositories, could perhaps “pick up the slack” and handle more of these ethical questions. According to Michelle Meyer, a bioethicist at Mount Sinai, oversight must be assumed by someone but the best means is not likely to be an IRB because they do not have the necessary “expertise in de-identification and re-identification techniques”.

Different Perspectives on Big Data Research

A technology researcher at the University of Maryland 4 named Dr. Katie Shilton recently conducted interviews of “20 online data researchers”. She discovered “significant disagreement” among them on matters such as the “ethics of ignoring Terms of Service and obtaining informed consent“. The group also reported that the ethical review boards they dealt with never questioned the ethics of the researchers, while peer reviewers and their professional colleagues had done so.

Professional groups such as the Association of Internet Researchers (AOIR) and the Center for Applied Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA) have created and posted their own guidelines:

However, IRBs who “actually have power” are only now “catching up”.

Beyond universities, tech companies such as Microsoft have begun to establish in-house “ethical review processes”. As well, in December 2015, the Future of Privacy Forum held a gathering called Beyond IRBs to evaluate “processes for ethical review outside of federally funded research”.

In conclusion., companies continually “experiment on us” with data studies. Just to name to name two, among numerous others, they focus on A/B testing 5 of news headings and supermarket checkout lines. As they hire increasing numbers of data scientists from universities’ Ph.D. programs, these schools are sensing an opportunity to close the gap in terms of using “data to contribute to public knowledge”.

My Questions

  • Would the companies, universities and professional organizations who issue and administer ethical guidelines for big data studies be taken more seriously if they had the power to assess and issue public notices for violations? How could this be made binding and what sort of appeals processes might be necessary?
  • At what point should the legal system become involved? When do these matters begin to involve civil and/or criminal investigations and allegations? How would big data research experts be certified for hearings and trials?
  • Should teaching ethics become a mandatory part of curriculum in data science programs at universities? If so, should the instructors only be selected from the technology industry or would it be helpful to invite them from other industries?
  • How should researchers and their employers ideally handle unintended security and privacy breaches as a result of their work? Should they make timely disclosures and treat all inquiries with a high level of transparency?
  • Should researchers experiment with open source methods online to conduct certain IRB functions for more immediate feedback?

 


1.  For a detailed report on this story, see Facebook Tinkers With Users’ Emotions in News Feed Experiment, Stirring Outcry, by Vindu Goel, in the June 29, 2014 edition of The New York Times.

2These ten Subway Fold posts cover a variety of applications in analyzing Twitter usage data.

3.  For coverage on this story see an article published in The New York Times on January 17, 2013, entitled Web Hunt for DNA Sequences Leaves Privacy Compromised, by Gina Kolata.

4.  For another highly interesting but unrelated research initiative at the University of Maryland, see the December 27, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Virtual Reality Universe-ity: The Immersive “Augmentarium” Lab at the U. of Maryland.

5.  For a detailed report on this methodology, see the September 30, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Google’s A/B Testing Method is Being Applied to Improve Government Operations.