Waste is something to be avoided, according to many marketers and their favoured digital targeting platforms, while others understand its subtle power. Faris Yakob explores the uses of being seen.

It often seems that the field of human endeavor separates itself into two categories. There are things one wants to do, and things one wants to have done — and they are rarely the same. The things we are inclined to do veer towards instant gratification, whereas the things we want to have done often require effort. I want to eat a cake but tomorrow I wish I had gone to the gym. I don’t want to spend the evening working on my next book but I’m keen for it to have been written.

Indeed, the things we want to do very often are the things we actually regret having done, drinking to excess being an obvious example. We, like brands, operate in both the short and long term, and, as with brands' investment, focusing excessively on short term desires is often to the detriment of the long.

It’s not enough to just do the harder, impressive thing. We also want credit and social status for our improved physique or best selling novel. Often all the effort goes to naut. [We don’t get the six pack and no one wants to publish or read our novel.] There is a significant amount of luck impacting our chances of success. It is in that very delta that brands often play, promising that we can achieve those dreams just by handing over some of our more traditionally earned money.

In this mediated generation a new twist has developed, responsible for what we now call influencers — and for significant social anxiety especially among the young. When lives are constantly broadcast, doing anything has limited social value unless one is seen to be doing it.

This enables, for the few, a chance to avoid the travails of difficult endeavors. Fame was once the reserve of the wealthy and the lucky, but also hardworking and talented, artist. Minor celebrities are now a business venture, hacking social media for scale and then leveraging their trove of followers, real or fake, into endorsement deals.

The desire to be seen to be doing cool things that look good on Instagram [living one’s best life] leads to bars like the Rosé Mansion [NYC] and Ballie Ballerson [London]. These aren’t bars for socializing but rather elaborately designed “selfie sets” for creating social content.

All of which was on my mind recently in London where I noticed that many ads on television, and every ad on the Underground, were for digital brands I had never heard of, selling mattresses or delivery services. My anecdata was confirmed at a conference we were speaking at, where this trend was highlighted by the managing director of ITV, who noted how many “digital challenger brands” are buying spots. However, these ads vanished upon leaving London.

Now part of this is simply the obvious development of small companies, as they realize that ‘growth hackers’ have a very limited purview of advertising. Eventually every new brand sees growth decline from such tactics: one can only optimize to a local maxima.

Dark online advertising relies almost entirely on its ability to not be seen, to stop ads being served to certain groups and target others. This was nominally in the pursuit of efficiency. Latterly many have remembered effectiveness academic’s Tim Ambler’s adage [supported by research by economist John Kay at Oxford University] that wastage is that part that works.

It is the reliability of an expensive social signal that builds brands. At a certain point, targeting becomes discriminatory. Doc Searls at Harvard has pointed out “Facebook doesn’t so much allow advertisers to discriminate against groups, it is designed to do exactly that.”

However, it also occurred to me that there are secondary audiences that advertising is aimed at. It was well known when planning a campaign for the Central Office of Information [COI - UK Government’s former advertising department] that it was wise to include a full page ad in The Telegraph, regardless of the target audience, because that is what politicians read. Since they were ultimately signing off budgets, it was a good idea to make your campaign visible to them.

Similarly, considering that up to 40% of venture capital funding for start-ups is spent on advertising, it is advisable to make it visible to investors. As one wag on Twitter explained to me: they travel by tube, don’t watch commercial television, and don’t live beyond Zone 4. The efficacy of brand communication isn’t a function of perfect targeting. In order to generate a cultural stimulus and make brands famous, it’s important to be seen to be advertising to make it seem like the company has stability, stature and the confidence that it will be around for a long time. Start-ups want to seem like bigger brands, and be seen to be doing so by their investors.