Alex Steer

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Black boxes

347 words | ~2 min

This post by Faris Yakob got me thinking with this side thought:

My concern is that the advertising industry is in danger of being taken for a ride by the same people who have destroyed trust in banking.

I think the ad tech industry is currently repeating a lot of the mistakes that the financial industry made a decade or so back. And look how well that played out for us all.

It's hiring a lot of people with backgrounds outside of marketing, with specialist skills in statistics and software, and setting them interesting challenges around measuring and optimising the performance of ads and media bids. All of which, when done properly, makes the industry smarter and better informed. The problem comes when those skills aren't balanced with a knowledge of what that industry is trying to achieve in the world. Then you get what you saw in finance and what you're seeing in advertising - solutions that trend towards the things developers can do most simply, and the things they find most interesting, rather than what's most important. And you get a lack of proper oversight and understanding from the people who commission and sell those solutions. The result is a lot of black box algorithms and snake-oil tech that neither the buyers nor the sellers can explain. And that creates a classic market for lemons.

Advertising needs smart planners and smart technologists working together: using strategic thinking to understand what ads really need to achieve, data analysis to see if they're achieving it, and technology to help them achieve it better. And even if the 'how' of the details is specialist, the 'what' shouldn't be. No part of the process of making, distributing or measuring advertising is so complicated that you can't explain it to a moderately well-informed person.

You should know what you're buying, basically - what it's meant do, and whether it does it. Anything else is not just pointless, it's risky.

# Alex Steer (02/12/2014)