Rob Norman has been at the centre of the media world for over three decades. Now, as an adviser to his old firm WPP and a board member of others, he feels more involved with the industry than ever. At IAB Interact in Milan, he spoke to WARC’s Chiara Manco about GDPR, disrupting Facebook, and the state of digital media.

In your report for GroupM, Interaction: The State of Digital Marketing 2017, you said that the impact AI is having on our lives will be non-reversible. Do you believe there’s a risk that people may want to resist it?  

If you grew up with it, it’s not technology. For lots of people in the early days of smartphones, smartphones were pretty frightening. But people adapt to it pretty quickly.

I lived through the time when people thought one of the gating factors to e-commerce was that people would be scared to use their credit cards online. And then after a while people get into the issue of, what’s the actual harm?

It makes for good copy to create scary stories. But the human race, by and large, is infinitely adaptable and infinitely accepting of things that are life-enhancing for them.

One of the boogeyman factors about AI is that it will take jobs. And I think that is interesting. Obviously, we’ve seen it before in technology cycles and so forth. Although what tends to happen is that the nature of employment has changed.

I think that, as business has sped up and technology has sped up, the institutions that helped society evolve have slowed down and become more sclerotic. But I think government hasn’t adjusted social systems to deal with new technology. I don’t think we’ve adjusted education systems to deal with the new skills to say, “Actually, this isn't important anymore, do this.” It’s kind of interesting that people now say – I think Jack Ma said recently, “Don’t teach your children to code.” Ten years ago people thought all we should do was teach kids to code.

When I started working, I always thought I was an information worker. But I lived in the period where being an information worker was made redundant by the processing speed of computers because they could handle instructions far more efficiently than I could.

Now, in a world of AI, where does that leave you? Because analysis can be done better by machines, it can also apply an intelligence layer. It leaves you in a very creative space.

I like the idea of the migration from industrial worker to information worker to intelligence worker to imagination worker, in terms of education, not just in school and university, but also in business. If we don’t actively teach people to unlock their curiosity and to unlock their imagination, then I think the people that have made a good living from the information and intelligence age have let down their successors.

When you think about the renaissance of cities with the whole idea of a ‘make it’ culture, fused with creativity and imagination, it sounds alright to me. Reasons to be cheerful.

GDPR has recently come into force across Europe, are you optimistic about its impact?

The paradox I’m trying to sort out in my mind is, do consumers have an inalienable right to opt out of the use of their data by enterprises? I absolutely do believe that. Do I believe that all enterprises should have to ask permission of all consumers before they use data? I’m actually far from certain whether I think that’s right or not.

No one’s satisfactorily explained to me who the beneficiaries of the GDPR are. And I think to regulate without being able to be clear about who the beneficiaries are and why they’re the beneficiaries sounds to me like sketchy ground for regulation.

I don’t see what it is in the GDPR that prevents any of the harms that people have had. What it sort of prevents is this notion of ‘creepiness’ that people are concerned about, or say they’re concerned about. But there’s lots of other things that go on in the world that are more physically and socially dangerous than the things that are going on in the world of online marketing.

I would be much happier about a world in which the consumer was given a very easy set of tools to use that had to be respected by publishers that allowed them to opt out and customise their own data. Because if the underlying thing is that we want consumers to be in control of their data, I’m not sure that the GDPR achieves that. There’s a difference between preventing the use of people’s data and giving people control over their data.

Which platforms do you see having longevity? There are a lot of very popular platforms now, like Snapchat and Instagram and Facebook. You think about Myspace and how quickly it died when bigger giants came around.

It’s part of a longer-term issue. If you go back into the ages of computing, you have a period where IBM was predominant because they all ran on mainframes. You had two periods when Microsoft was dominant. And then the Internet came along, which changed the paradigm again. So it went from mainframe world to a distributed PC world to a network world rather than a device world.

The question then becomes, who has the most durable value proposition to the consumer in relation to the value exchange they create with them and who, therefore, could be most easily disrupted?

You can make an argument that Amazon’s knowledge building about their customers’ needs and wants, and also their value exchange with the consumers, who think they've got terrific service, sounds like a pretty broad and deep moat around their business, a very hard one to cross. Meanwhile, Google’s diversity of data, diversity of signals, is also very hard to match so it also feels quite durable.

Facebook’s issue, and its advantage, is that once people are on Facebook, coming off Facebook and de-connecting from your community is difficult. Equally, it provides terrific utility as a communications platform – there are people who remember when you paid 10 cents a text!

But if I’m honest, I would say Facebook was most easily disrupted because my sense is there’s a lot of people that are now getting more of their value out of enhanced messenger services, including ones that Facebook owns, like WhatsApp. WeChat in Asia is also a threat.

But we all know, don’t we, that after they just made the biggest PR blunder that you can possibly make in their world, all of their metrics – from their share price to their user base – look pretty damn healthy a few weeks later. So I wouldn’t bet against them.

I think the difference is that Yahoo, MSN, and AOL were actually old media on digital platforms, and Amazon, Google and Facebook are genuinely new, and it’s not the same thing.