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May I ask a personal question?

Opinion, 08 August 2016

When someone says that, what are they asking? They're asking for permission to enquire about something you may not be comfortable talking about because it's private. It's not something you would normally share publicly, hence the need for permission. (Especially if you are British.)

What makes something personal? Uniquely yours, concerning your private life (is that still a thing?), your emotions, desires, hopes, dreams, relationships, secrets. This is an interesting inversion, since the root of the word - persona - literally means 'mask': the kind worn in Graeco-Roman drama.

What, then, does the 'personalisation' mean for marketing? That was the topic of this year's Admap essay competition and the winners have just been announced. What did they tell us?

The winning essay from Oliver Feldwick warns us to be wary of the 'Uncanny Valley of Personalisation'. The titular problem is borrowed from robotics, which points out that robots that act and look almost, but not quite, like humans cause a 'response of revulsion'. They become creepy, which is how people feel about the current state of personalised advertising, which too frequently uses web browsing to try to sell us things we have already bought as they follow us across the web. This blunt use of data reminds us we are being watched when we think we are alone and can turn seemingly smart advertising into an annoyingly persistent sales bot.

Feldwick outlines three strategies to avoid this. First, be transparent about how you are tracking people and why. By demonstrating the value you deliver, you can get consent, which always matters. Second, leave room for serendipity and discovery. Humans reject the idea that they are predictable and don't want to be told they are pregnant by data-mining retailers. "Taken to its extreme, personalisation seems to threaten free will," says Feldwick. Finally, understand the power of combining humans and algorithms, the challenge for advertising people being to learn how to work with the machines.

The silver award winner comes from Hamid Sirhan and Ramzi Yakob (yes, that's my brother - full disclosure and full of pride). They point out that right now we are not doing personalisation at all. Most businesses are "drowning in data" and have no idea how to use it, especially not while it is still relevant, since any consumer data has a "finite half-life". We still rely on asking people questions about what they want - a deeply flawed methodology, as discussed previously in this column. They suggest we need a 'Ford Moment' to standardise the algorithmic creation - through the deep learning and AI creative that was discussed here last month - and distribution of marketing content, in dynamic dialogue with consumer algorithms that have "full access to every interaction you have with a connected device, be it active or passive, to create an accurate picture of your needs". This would negotiate programmatically with corporate versions and make sure that the automated production line only ever served you the best, most relevant, most valuable advertising for you.

Richard Morris's essay won bronze, for pointing out that true personalisation simply creates an endless paradox of choice, asking human beings to know what they want out of seemingly infinite choices. "Every Starbucks store offers me 80,000 different combinations to enjoy a hot beverage. Yet I pretty much order a Grande Skinny Latte every time." Indeed, the very function of brands could be understood as heuristics designed to avoid making endless, rationalised, commercial decisions.

Finally, your humble author offered up a point of view, which did not get metal but was printed among the commended papers in the special Admap issue. I suggested we all saw Minority Report fifteen years ago and its rendering of personalised advertising accosting Tom Cruise was so good that we all assumed it must be the future. A future where billboards scan your retina, ascertain your emotional state and identity, and assault you with offers for Guinness, my goodness. Philip K. Dick's paranoiac dystopia of a fascist surveillance state somehow became a blueprint for our industry despite the fact that the true impact of advertising is sociocultural, not personal. You can no more have a personal brand than a personal language.

So, let me ask a personal question. Do you want advertising to address you by name, to know what you buy and you lust over, to stalk you anywhere you encounter media or a beacon in an ongoing sales conversation? Do you want brands to see behind your mask? Or is that just for consumers?

About the author

Faris Yakob is co-founder of strategy and innovation consultancy Genius Steals, built on the belief that ideas are new combinations. He is co-author of Digital State and What is a Brand?, and the author of an upcoming book on the present future of advertising.