How the first digital ads 25 years ago changed the world (and what to do about it).
In October 1994 President Bill Clinton was nearing the middle of his second term, Pulp Fiction drew crowds to movie theaters, Brazil won the World Cup…and five brands made history. On October 27, 1994, AT&T, Volvo, Club Med, 1-800-Collect and Zima ran the world’s first digital ads on hotwired.com, Wired magazine’s first website.
As our industry celebrates the 25th anniversary of this milestone (or glosses over it because, hey, all things digital are taken for granted now), we might best describe our dependence on the Internet as a love-hate relationship. The world wide web – once hailed for its ability to democratize information – has clearly connected humanity in a positive sense but it has also given rise, most recently, to Russia’s dezinformatsiya campaigns during our elections.
At the same time, trust in government and religious institutions is on the decline, resulting in the public’s need for other sources of structure, according to Wired Co-Founder John Battelle. As a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, Battelle is leading a project to study the private-sector malfeasance feeding the governance vacuum. His latest venture is The Recount, a video journalism company covering politics and the 2020 election.
“The most egregious and consequential example of this failure of governance is, to my mind, the very large and consequential corporation known as Facebook and second, but not by much, companies like Apple, Google and Amazon.” – Wired Co-Founder John Battelle
“We have put our full faith and trust in the governance of these four corporations, without really having a robust public discourse about what that meant,” Battelle says.
At the root of concern is the corporations’ hold on people’s data, society’s new and invisible currency.
If no one can see the underlying drivers of daily life, “the public good deteriorates,” he says. “Think about the problems that we’re having as a society writ large, independent of technology companies, like the ability to have a rational political discourse. We cannot divorce that from an examination of the architecture of how data flows through our society.”
Hence Columbia’s Mapping Data Flows project, which is turning the Big 4’s terms of service and data polices into digitized records. Each term is cross-indexed with other terms across all four companies.
“Then we’re visualizing this governance flow that essentially argues the new constitution we are governed by. It’s just we don’t understand it, didn’t ratify it. We certainly didn’t have a constitutional convention about it,” he says. “If we’re going to understand that governance we need to see it. God knows we’re not going to read it.”
Another Internet pioneer is advising companies about the intersection of leadership, a moral compass and the future of advertising.
“We need to no longer think about the consumer; we need to think about the citizen,” says Rishad Tobaccowala, chief growth officer and member of the Management Committee of Publicis Groupe. “How do we move forward, in a world I’m very positive about, to bring our whole selves and people along?”
Having been at the helm of many Publicis agencies over the course of 37 years, Tobaccowala divides the Internet into three connected eras. The first one, starting with the hotwired.com ads, connected a page to a page or let readers buy a book. Google and Amazon dominated.
Facebook and Apple were the big winners in the second connected era beginning in 2007. This period connected people to people, with Twitter and LinkedIn also taking off.
A few years ago we entered the third connected era, which has four major components: data connected to data (machine learning and AI); things connected to things (Internet of Things); new ways for people to connect over voice, such as Alexa; and 5G mobile technology, which he says will upend business.
“All these things are really good, but there is also a downside when technology is unleashed. And that downside is a lack of trust, closed-mindedness, blaming the other, and the rising of inequality.” – Rishad Tobaccowala
Tobaccowala, author of Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data, recalls a February 2017 talk he gave to Facebook executives, that they would come to recognize that the technology they’d used for advertising was the same technology that weaponized politics.
“These technologies are optimized to engage people and it works very well for advertising and politics and to basically separate content creation from content monetizing,” he says.
“For years I told the press and they didn’t take me seriously. I said, ‘Marketers want audience. They don’t want to underwrite content,’ and that’s exactly what happened.”
The 2016 election cycle and the tenor that has followed are changing the dynamic for marketers who want to take back control. Burned by programmatic advertising that placed their ads on Breitbart and Infowars, they are increasingly looking to do large direct buys with publishers and other owners of high-quality content.
For example, brand managers may be more likely to buy a specific YouTube channel, not the entire network, opting to pay a premium for content they deem worthy. “Because remember, a lot of this ecosystem was also set up by massive industries including bots that separated marketers from their money,” says Tobaccowala. “If you pay really cheaply it’s probably a diseased pig.”
This isn’t to say that marketers should forego Facebook and Google ads; rather, when doing business with them, it’s important to ask questions about data sharing, safety and measurement. Partnering with other marketers to create first-party audiences and experiences, while spending with other publishers, will keep brands from being held hostage by the giants.
“I would look at the Notre Dame article in NYT (Notre Dame came closer to collapsing than most people knew) to see the future of advertising,” he says of the Time’s July 18 exclusive on how the cathedral was saved from April’s fire. “Multimedia storytelling on screens is the future.”
During a recent read, three horizontal ads served judiciously as section breaks in the article, which features large-scale photography, animated infographics and user-generated video interspersed with text.
For his part, Battelle will monitor digital commerce and citizenship for the foreseeable future.
“Brands need to think about all possible interpretations and scenarios that might come from either their own collection of data, and/or their use of data peddled by platforms like Facebook,” he says. “The best way to protect their own interests is to seek permissions from consumers for using their data, as well as to educate their consumers on the value they receive, as well as on how that data is used and protected. And yes, I think these practices will necessarily conform into some kind of ‘consumer bill of rights’ around brands’ data use.”
Image via Jefferson Online