Techlash 2020

Techlash 2020

1920 1076 Hunt Adkins

Has adtech transformed modern marketing for good, or will techlash, and consumers’ increasing apathy towards ads make creativity valuable again?


Read time: 6.5 minutes

Hunt Adkins’ extended holiday break provided the precious time to relax with my family and closeout up my 2019 to-do list—including finishing up some light reading—Stephen King’s 1200 page opus, The Stand.

No spoiler: The Stand didn’t disappoint.

But it did spark a mild existential crisis. As I pondered the real efforts and talents required to rebuild society in a world stripped of the network technologies that we too often take for granted—I wasn’t entirely confident my skill sets would be valuable.

Despite a 20-year career as a market researcher and brand strategist, traveling broadly, learning exciting things from even more interesting people, would any of this be as valuable as the skills I learned as a Cub Scout (gulp, 30-years ago)?

This idea remained fixed in my mind once we returned to work in the new year.

Has adtech transformed advertising for good?

Like The Stand makes abundantly clear, within any systematic transformation, one is either valuable or expendable.

Back here in our real world of marketing and advertising, no concept has taken more of a central role in shaping our personal and professional lives than data. Data is everywhere and everything.

The past decade has seen data-driven adtech transform the industry. Budgets, tactics, and talents continue to shift even more significantly towards advertising that arrives in a consumer’s media stream at just the right time in their digital journey, accompanied by seemingly precise attribution. [Sidenote: This is not a post on challenges to attribution methods and models. We’ll let minds like these check the maths for you.]

2019 was the first year that digital advertising eclipsed traditional advertising media spending. And the gap wasn’t slight: 15 percent or roughly $20 billion. Nor is the growth slowing. By next year spending on digital advertising is estimated to grow to over $172 billion. That’s nearly 40 percent more than traditional spends.

Bar graph comparing digital versus traditional ad spending in billion from 2018 to 2021.

While many marketers will point to the gains in attribution from digital advertising that is overwhelmingly efficient (often uncreative) and cheap, one wonders if too few are acknowledging the costs or more significant risks to effectiveness ahead.

Consider the impact on talent. The end of the 2019 and beginning of 2020 brought news layoffs across the agency industry. (Note: Hunt Adkins was not part of this downsizing trend.)

Agency layoffs are often merely unfortunate business realities. From time to time, organizational reconfigurations need to align talent to tactics better.

But are these moves pragmatic right-sizing, or are they symptomatic of an industry watching its increased reliance on adtech atrophy its most valuable muscle—creativity?

And if this is the case, and this is the path that continues to be advanced as modern marketing, are we prepared to face the real existential threat that awaits us all? What (media, skills, styles) in this modern marketing will evolving consumer behaviors consider valuable or expendable?

Techlash 2020: Creative atrophy breeds consumer apathy

Some of you might be saying, “No, the cries calling ‘beware techlash’ are not new. Oxford Dictionaries shortlisted it for 2018’s Word of the Year. Techlash is nothing more than today’s Y2K.”

But yes, consumer privacy fueled “techlash” presents an increasingly real threat to the “surveillance economy” and all who benefit from it. [Sidenote: Is there any doubt that if The Stand took place today, King’s iconic antagonist, the omniscient sorcerer Randall Flagg would stage his society at the hub of surveillance capitalism, Silicon Valley?]

It may just be getting started. Consumers are more clued up. Technology and data have lost some of their mystery. Thanks to GDPR and CCPA, now nearly every web page is a reminder to consumers that their behaviors are being monitored, their data collected, and often sold.

Indeed, the almost continuous outbreak of consumer privacy headlines hasn’t helped slow techlash’s momentum either. From Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, Amazon’s always-listening Alexa transcripts to Google’s location tracking issues, or Facebook’s record-setting $5 billion FTC fine for mishandling users’ personal information, and even a Luddite would be hard-pressed not to be aware.

Consumer distrust in brands’ digital behaviors is increasing, and so is their disinterest in where and how brands communicate with them. After endless retargeting and seeing the same ads over and over again, more than half of consumers now feel apathetic towards advertising, and only 1 in 10 states they enjoy advertising.

The fact is, many consumers have had enough with our industry’s less transparent actions. And are taking back control of their data. More than 1 in 4 internet users are now using ad and tracking blockers on their digital devices. Over one-third of consumers say they subscribe to content services to avoid being targeted by advertising.

We’re not just talking about losing the Luddite market to techlash, but the tech-savvy, young, and affluent markets — those who modern marketing typically wrests its success.

Big Tech is taking notice, but are marketers?

The “Chief Privacy Officer Roundtable” at CES this month provided the most definitive evidence of techlash’s threat to the current digital marketing landscape. Representatives from Facebook, P&G, and the FTC were joined by Apple’s Senior Director, global privacy, Jane Horvath, to discuss the state of user privacy.

More notable than the absence in the discussion of two of Big Tech’s largest surveillance economy mavens in the Google and Amazon was Apple’s presence. The company broke a nearly 30-year absence from CES, not to tout a new product but promote its stringent privacy standards that aim to “put the consumers in the driver’s seat.”

Based on Apple’s track record for designing digital experiences that consumers covet at any expense, we would be wise to follow suit. The current practices are primed for a systemic fallout.

CES Chief Privacy Officer roundtable panelists sitting on the stage.

When Apple breaks a 30-year absence from CES to talk consumer privacy, everyone needs to listen.

Unfortunately, research within the marketing industry suggests differently. A recent study conducted by the AMA states that the majority of marketers do not take these concerns seriously enough. Marketers overate how consumers will accept the positives (convenience, relevance) over their concerns for data privacy.

The perception gap between marketers and consumer concern on data privacy and innovations in martech is close to 30 percent.

Four out of five Americans worry that they will lose their privacy with new ad and martech, further increasing their fears that they will be under constant surveillance due to it.

Consumers are missing creative muscle

Further highlighting the relationship between advertising’s consumer apathy and the atrophy in its creative muscle, nearly half of consumers fear martech will continue to make ads less creative.

Sure, consumers do appreciate the occasional increase in convenience and relevance. Still, the potential negatives of digital marketing innovations—loss of privacy, increase in false information, detrimental psychological effects—are difficult trade to make for instant gratification for a non-existent urge.

So how should modern marketing advance? The choice between championing data or creativity is not as binary as The Stand‘s choice between siding with good or evil. But we can no longer risk putting all of our focus, talents, and budgets into one at the risk of atrophying the other.

Timeless truth: Consumers will decide

One truth will always ring real no matter how marketing and advertising transforms. Consumers will have the final say about what or who is valuable and expendable.

But the notion that modern marketing is data’s exclusive domain is a mistaken belief that risks further atrophy best talents, ideas, and outputs.

Listen, no one is suggesting that data and adtech don’t deliver excellent benefits to marketers and consumers. But neither should marketers believe that these innovations have made creativity expendable. The means for marketing and delivering advertising always change, but what works for consumers has remained constant: creativity and ideas.

We must never forget that consumers are people, not spreadsheets.

Getting consumers back into modern marketing

Modern marketers should be looking to the maestros of traditional marketing to protect their own interests and prevent further consumer apathy to marketing and advertising. Modern marketing must put consumers’ interests first by ensuring the following:

  1. Be transparent. Tell consumers what data you request, how you will use it, and why it will make their experience better. Help them feel they are in control of how they collaborate with the brand. Make it easy for them to opt-in—or opt-out.
  2. Be welcoming and amenable. No one likes to be badgered or overwhelmed with requests, especially if they have already said no. Keep a balanced approach to integrating niche targeting tactics with mass brand building.
  3. Be creative. Big, bold creative ideas are still the best way to add to a consumer’s experience. Either deliver entertainment, useful information, surprise and delight—or risk being found expendable.

If The Stand can teach us anything, it’s that those devoted to the human condition whose craft is connecting hearts and minds are not expendable. They’re essential. -JS

Want to stay valuable? Follow the Hunt Adkins Total-Consciousness Reading List for a cheat sheet of all the things you need to know to always be the smartest, trendiest, techiest, pop culturiest, most informed know-it-all in the room.