Searching for the soul of media

Media went programmatic and, in doing so, it lost its soul. It sacrificed quality for quantity, experience for scale, creativity for reach, meaning for volume. Brands have been encouraged by content aggregators, from walled-garden behemoths to open web SSPs, to skim the surface of content, bouncing off a layer of user data direct to users’ eyeballs. This intravenous media delivery mechanism has stripped the message of all meaning. It moves too fast to soak up any cultural or contextual nuance. Brand communication has been fractured by programmatic media into a million clever data fragments designed to appeal to our narcissistic age by reflecting the thoughts and moods of users. God forbid that brands dare to say something meaningful, something that might jar or jolt, let alone inspire or provoke.

Content creators have been relegated to mere conveyors. The crafts of creativity and curation that are the foundations of value for all media are all but irrelevant to programmatic media which is only just learning to tell the difference between real and fake content. Worse than that, content creators have been choked out of the economic equation by the programmatic pipes and platforms so that they have been facing extinction for some time. Google has recently admitted to taking 31c in every dollar spent by a brand on media but only they know if that is the true extent of their profit taking. More money is extracted by agents and technology on both sides of the media brand / publisher divide leaving barely half of the revenue going to content creators than their fragile business models are used to. Unsurprisingly many are cutting back or disappearing altogether. However, with the demise of the 3rd party data infrastructure across the web signalled by Google’s announcement at the start of this year that 3rd party cookies would be blocked in Chrome within two years and now mobile in response to increasing and overdue data privacy restrictions, time is running out for marketers to solve this dual monetary and meaningfulness crisis. 

Two start ups seem to me to be pointing the way forward in terms of technical solutions:  Brave is a custom browser/wallet with a built in ad blocker which helps users pay publishers direct for content while delivering a faster and cleaner user experience than Google’s market dominating Chrome browser. Slice compensates users directly for the anonymised intent signals detected in the personal data users make available to the platform from walled-gardens like Google, Facebook, Amazon and eBay. These solutions recognise the value and reward the contribution of publishers and users to the media ecosystem and relegate the role of automated aggregators. In addition, more publishers and media owners are working together to deliver quality inventory at scale and first party data solutions that start to offer brands options to work together more effectively. But technical solutions alone cannot bring back the rich, organic value of brands collaborating with content creators to create something truly original and build something of value rather than extracting value from media. This seems to be a forgotten instinct in the media world but something that we need to work hard to bring back before we run out of road with programmatic solutions based on 3rd party data. 

Ironically, it seems to be the programmatic teams who are leading the way here again; using private marketplaces and guaranteed deals across media owners to curate more meaningful inventory for brands to invest in (see Havas Media Group’s new social equity programmatic private martketplace). Unfortunately, the messaging distributed in these more conscious contexts is likely to be as meaningless as ever until we also apply creative brains to the problem but it seems to take a superhuman effort to host a constructive conversation between brands, publishers, creatives and media types. Let’s hope that as marketers awake from their blinkered, short-termist programmatic trance, we will find more opportunities to roll up our sleeves up and get creative with brands and content to deliver more meaningful experiences for audiences. Who knows, maybe they will once again appreciate being entertained by brands rather than simply targeted.