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A pox on the house of ad tech

Opinion, 04 May 2017
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Bob Hoffman, the author of "The Ad Contrarian” blog, was part of a four-person "debate” at the 2017 World Federation of Advertisers annual conference in Toronto. The motion: "The rush to invest in programmatic and ad-tech has served to further ostracize the potential customers we seek to connect with.”

His opening statement, below, clearly addresses his passion for the Affirmative side of the discussion.


"I'm a copywriter. I don't know very much about technology. I don't know very much about anything else. So why am I here today shootin' my mouth off about ad tech? Because, although I don't know much about technology or media. I think I know a little something about bullshit.

"I spent 41 years in the agency business. If you think you're full of shit, I have a lifetime achievement award. And, I think some software people and some global agency people have gotten together and sold us a bunch of dangerous bullshit known as ad tech.

"But, we'll get to that in a minute.

"First, I believe that on the whole, we advertising and marketing people are good people. We are hardworking and well-meaning. We want to help our brands. We want to help our clients succeed. We want to make good products for consumers and provide them with good service.

"If the realization came to us that something we're doing might be marginally beneficial to our company—but was clearly harmful to consumers, clearly harmful to our industry, and clearly harmful to society—I would hope that we would have the integrity to give it some serious scrutiny.

"And, I'm afraid that's the situation we find ourselves in today.

"It's hard for us to imagine that technology we are using that began with a simple and benign purpose of delivering online ads to websites efficiently has morphed into a monster.

"It's powered by ‘tracking', which is just a pleasanter word for surveillance, and it has led to all kinds of dangerous mischief. It is subverted our industry's relationship to the public. It has enabled a cesspool of corruption, and an ocean of fraud. It places personal and private information about us within the reach of criminals, governments, and other potential malefactors. It has devalued the work of legitimate online publishers. It is degrading our news media. It is distrusted by marketers, and it is despised by the public.

"Other than that, it's fuckin' great.

"Let's do a little data-driven review of the facts.

  • "First, over 600 million web connected devices are now armed with ad blockers. According to David "Doc” Searls, author of The Intention Economy (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), this is the largest boycott of anything in the history of humanity.
  • "Second, according to this World Federation of Advertisers, about 90% of you are going to review your programmatic relationships this year. I cannot imagine a more unambiguous vote of no confidence for the ad tech'ers.

    "Ad tech has enabled a massive transfer of money—billions of dollars—from you to middlemen. About 60% of your programmatic ad budget is being scraped by ad tech middlemen.
  • "Ad tech drives money to the lowest quality bumper stickers. Ad tech's value proposition is this: we will find you the highest quality of eyeballs at the shittiest possible location.

    "This has resulted in the struggle for existence among quality publishers, and the brand safety crisis we are currently in the middle of.

    "And what has ad tech given us in return? An overall engagement grade that is usually reported at about six clicks per 10,000 ads served. Solve Media says a consumer is more likely to complete Navy Seal training than to click on an ad.

  • "Ad tech is also the economic engine behind fake news. One of its most pernicious effects is the corruption of journalism and the scourge of click bait.

  • "And then, of course, there's fraud. Within eight years, online ad fraud enabled substantially by ad tech may become the second largest source of criminal revenue in the world.

  • "Finally, everything the ad tech industry has ever told us about privacy and security in the fullness of time has turned out to be complete horseshit. They are incompetent, irresponsible, and dangerous.

"Technology is a trial-and-error endeavor. Nobody gets technology right the first time. The Wright Brothers didn't. Thomas Edison didn't. Steve Jobs didn't. And guess what: We didn't either.

"We don't need ad tech as it is currently configured. We can do online advertising better, more successfully, and more profitably without spying on the public. Without destroying our credibility. Without enriching criminals. Without degrading our news media. And, without endangering our freedoms.

"We are dealing with a very clear risk/reward situation. The rewards of ad tech (if any) have been quite low. The risks have become enormous. Why are 600 million devices now armed with ad blockers? It's not a mystery. It's because ad blockers are currently our only defense against ad tech. A technology that started benignly and has morphed into a monster.

"There is no reason why technology can't be used well online. But, ad tech is now essentially driven by tracking. Tracking is, I believe, an evil that we don't need, and I think we need to get rid of it. And, once we get rid of tracking, ad tech can do whatever it wants.

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About the author

Bob Hoffman spent 41 years in the advertising-agency business, staring as a copywriter in New York and continuing as a copywriter in San Francisco even as he became a creative director and agency principal. He served as ceo of Mojo USA and president/creative director of San Francisco agency Allen & Dorward and as ceo of Mojo USA. Hoffman also founded and was chairman/ceo of Hoffman/Lewis advertising, one of the West's largest independent advertising agencies. In 2012, he was selected "Ad Person of the Year" by the San Francisco Advertising Club and retired from Hoffman/Lewis the following year.

His portfolio of creative work includes advertising he's created for AT&T, Bank of America, Blue Cross, Chevrolet, McDonald's, Nestle, PepsiCo, Shell, and Toyota.

In his spare time, Hoffman has served on the boards of the Advertising and Marketing International Network, the Foundation for Osteoporosis Research and Education, and spent one year as Special Assistant to the Executive Director of the California Academy of Sciences.

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