Be More Carole

It’s been almost two months since I announced I would be posting fewer Cog Blogs. It was very gratifying to receive so many notes of support for the Cog Blog; thanks to everyone for the kind words and encouragement.

Fewer, better, is the idea and so here we go again.

This is the first of the less frequent Cog Blog posts. It takes as inspiration a visit I made to the Byline Festival in Devon in mid-July.

I am a supporter of Byline – an investigative site and newspaper and home to some of the best journalism around.

Before anyone has a go – Byline does not accept advertising so what follows is in no way an ad sales pitch.

The highlight of the festival for me was their Editor-in-Chief, Peter Jukes’ on-stage discussion with the journalist Carole Cadwalladr.

For those unfamiliar with Carole, she is best known for exposing the misdemeanours of Cambridge Analytica, and their use of Facebook data to target messages during the 2016 UK Brexit Referendum campaign.

Since then, Carole has been subjected to all kinds of personal and professional abuse and attacks (in the Courts as well as in social media). These have come from all sorts of people, some of whom (like the ex-editor of ‘The Sunday Times’, a newspaper once renowned under a previous editor, the great Harry Evans for its investigative work) you would like to think would understand the value of open journalism.

The point of this is not to enter into some paeon of praise for Ms Cadwalladr but to point out the single-mindedness of the work she does.

You may not agree with Carole who, alongside others, including in our world Bob Hoffman, is concerned at the detrimental effect that social media forms have on open-minded debate and democracy, but agree or not I think we should listen to what media-people-who-are-not-advertising-media-people have to say.

It is easy for an advertiser to justify spending money with the giant online platforms.

The arguments are clear. Yes, there’s a huge audience (even if not quite as huge as some have claimed – given past boasts of reaching more individuals in some demographics than actually exist); yes, it’s easy to do (give them the money and they’ll sort out the mucky details for you); and yes, there’s peer pressure (‘that’s what my competitors are doing. I can’t afford not to be there’).

What is not quite so easy or comfortable is to ask whether as an advertiser you should be supporting certain channels regardless of the impact such channels have on vulnerable individuals (remember Molly Russell?) and on society as a whole.

When the argument for using this or that channel revolves around support for movements that drive societal good, like sustainability or diversity it’s easy to fall in line.

But what if it’s about supporting those channels who look the other way when it comes to corrupt behaviours; or who ignore abuses of power; or pose a threat to freedom of expression; or whose content promotes lies and falsehoods in order to deceive and mislead?

That’s harder.

I don’t think it’s any longer good enough to say, ‘oh well that’s where the audience is’ (especially if in many cases the audience isn’t even human).

Nor is it acceptable to hide behind the procurement argument (ironically rarely proffered by procurement professionals themselves who tend towards a more holistic view of value): ‘what can you do it’s cheap and we need to satisfy our auditors’.

Nor is it good enough to blame the client. An agency’s job surely is to advise and lead, not to follow instructions blindly. If it were the latter the world would be full of one-second audio commercials and very small posters (‘what do you mean? Look at the audience numbers’).

Great media thinking has always been about putting your client’s messages in those places most likely to drive a return, to which I would add: whilst not supporting fraud, bigotry, hatred and lies.

We have our tools – the research, the technology, the impenetrable systems.

We should add a more holistic view of the media channels we support with our clients’ money.

We should have this debate. Where do we draw the line these days between editorial freedom and responsibility, and advertiser pressure? Far better surely to have a conference about this rather than yet another event on the latest shiny thing.

We don’t have to agree; but we should consider.

We should be more Carole.

  1. Brian, lovely to see you back with your ‘new, fewer but better’ blog. You have been missed. And what a brilliant piece to read and to make one think and consider.

  2. Fewer but not too few please!

  3. Agree with Hilary and Mainado

  4. Insight and intelligence – thanks Brian.

  5. Thanks Simon!

  6. Thanks for returning, and articulating this important challenge.

    Might I add one other thought? You write “Nor is it good enough to blame the client. An agency’s job surely is to advise and lead, not to follow instructions blindly.”
    The sad fact is that it often is the other way around. It is the client, not the agency, following instructions like “trust us, these MFA websites are perfectly fine, our algorithm weeds out the worst and even though we are creating a huge long tail of tiny increments, it is all worth it (for our margins…).”

  7. There have been complaints that for advertisers to exercise their judgement not to support media harmful to society and individuals is tantamount to the suppression of free speech. This is nonsense. No- one is preventing those views from being expressed but they have no right to be made profitable.

  8. Quite right Tess and very well put.
    I would add that the right to free speech comes with some responsibility. Rushing into a crowded theatre and shouting fire might be an expression of free speech but it is still not acceptable in a civilized society.
    To your point, no-one is suggesting that someone with particular political views shouldn’t start a channel in order to express them but equally why should an advertiser for whom a different set of values is important spend money supporting it?

  9. Thanks Maarten….I agree, and this is as it happens close to the subject of the next post which with uncharacteristic efficiency I’ve started writing!

  10. Making moral judgements has never been a strength of the ad industry. Quite simply ‘morality’ (or your version of it) is not an agreed common currency with the client (unless maybe it is in a few cases) whereas ‘the numbers’ are.
    If a media owner/seller can artificially increase those numbers (or massage them in some way beneficial to them) then it becomes caveat emptor without the benefit of having an independent arbiter.
    It always comes back to the client spending the money to demand that their version of the moral high ground is met.
    It is rare for a media owner to voluntarily reduce the exposures he has to sell. But it does happen.
    Professional footballers shirts will soon(?) be rid of the sponsorship of gambling companies. Exposures will be reduced as a result.
    The subject of a future Cogblog maybe?

  11. Thanks Richard.
    I’ve often wondered what would happen if some of our measurement surveys included questions on (for example) attitudes towards certain conspiracy theories. Or towards truth in media.
    If questions like this were on TGI then you could target by attitude, thus providing some numbers.
    What do you think?

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