How Facebook and Friends Derailed Advertising

It’s been a busy few weeks at Facebook, what with the ad boycott, hastily arranged meetings with agencies, bullish statements from Mark Zuckerberg (‘who needs advertisers, and in any case they’ll be back soon enough’), and remarks from the company and its supporters that there’s really nothing to see as here at Facebook we were in any event cleaning out the Augean stables. No one believed them.

In the midst of all this a ‘Campaign’ piece by Daniel Gilbert ‘In Defence of Facebook’ appeared.

This generated some comment, some negative, some along the lines of ‘FB has made mistakes but hey they’re great really’.

Forgetting ad boycotts for a moment (an action Daniel calls ‘a silly idea’), the piece includes this memorable sentence (memorable in its airbrushing of past misdemeanours): “Facebook has helped to define a new era of advertising, defined by data, measurability, relevance and transparency”.

The problem is:

Data was misused in plain sight by the likes of Cambridge Analytica.

Measurability has been marked by frequent apologies to advertisers for misleading, indeed on occasions made-up audience numbers.

Relevance is achieved by tracking people around the web despite this being unpopular (see Kantar’s Dimension work), an abuse of privacy and just plain wrong.

Transparency although FB’s walled garden approach is hardly transparent.

There was more: “Media advertising before Facebook (and Google) was slow, inefficient and rotten to the core, with backhanders and dodgy deals”.

To be fair he has a point on the last bit – something the Cog Blog has bored on about for years but, and this is a point missed by so many of the digiterati, advertising did in fact exist before online platforms.

Brands were built, nourished and became extremely valuable without Facebook and Google.

I know FB, Google, Amazon and some others are great examples of massively successful businesses built online by providing services people wanted, at the right moment.

They’ve built e-commerce, improved many buyers’ experiences, provided an amazing service to those unwilling or unable to get to the shops, brought a range of goods previously out of reach to us all, made the vast knowledge accessible online available to all, and linked families and individuals across the globe.

They’ve also derailed advertising.

By obsessing over short term metrics, by reducing ‘a view’ down to ‘a passing glance’, and by promoting these and other metrics as true indicators of brand value they’ve sent the ad business down a blind alley where the channel is seen by marketers as being far more important than the idea.

Their interaction with marketers has focused on the audience and the metrics. In this environment, creative ideas are an after-thought. They’ve subsequently withered – to the detriment of advertising as an industry.

Then there’s the content. By creating a user-generated free-for-all Facebook and friends have led us to a point where hate speech is easily spread and multiplied, where conspiracy theories abound, where anyone daring to voice an opinion is hunted down, threatened, abused and insulted by those holding a different opinion.

It’s really not good enough to say this is a few idiots responsible for a small minority of posts. It’s also not acceptable to hide behind freedom of speech. As someone once said, freedom of speech doesn’t give you the right to run into a crowded cinema and shout fire.

This is clearly a societal problem, but the consequence is that these platforms do not deliver a healthy environment for brand advertisers, regardless of how many people there are on them.

There are many examples of small businesses using FB and friends highly successfully as direct response channels. Absolutely nothing wrong with that; if the businesses concerned generate a response, and if the response generates a profit then good for them.

But it is wholly different for the big guys. The big guys care about brands. And brands are built, as the great Jeremy Bullmore has it like birds builds nests, from the twigs and sticks they come across along the way.

One of the sticks is the context within which brands appear. After all, you’re known by the company you keep – and you wouldn’t want to hang around with much of what’s on social media.

Hence the boycott. It really isn’t about money. We all know that Facebook has a massively long tail of advertisers. Even the hundreds of boycotters represent only a fraction of FB revenue.

What the boycott has done is strip away the veneer surrounding FB specifically and social media in general.

The world won’t end for the boycotting brands if they don’t advertise on Facebook. I doubt their models will pick up any sort of decline in business.

Whisper it quietly but the king has no clothes. Facebook and friends are not a suitable place for advertising designed to build brands.

The boycott has changed advertising’s view of the social media world.

I would say it has moved us all on but actually it’s made us pause, rethink and reset.

Advertising has a chance to regroup; brand ideas have a chance to flourish as budgets are invested (online as well as offline) in edited, context-appropriate, attention-grabbing, sales-generating media.

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