March of the Math Men


“Success comes from standing out, not fitting in”


Who didn’t love Don Draper? The quotes come thick and fast.


“Change is neither bad nor good, it simply is”.


Well, ad agencies, and thus ultimately brands, are all certainly getting to live out that little quote in full. Don Draper, and his acolytes, creating perfect worlds for the world to aspire to – out. Billion dollar data centres running zillions of machine learning driven algorithms – in.


I grew up in New York and have lived in London for decades now. During most days (before Covid, we can but hope again soon) I sit in a quiet corner of the Groucho on Dean Street, looking out the window into Soho. Back in the day, what I saw was the London advertising industry moving in real time around me. People bustled between the film and TV production houses. They had big ideas. Consumer brands flourished, and wrapped around them, the agencies did too. They got the corporate jet to Madison Avenue. They went to Cannes every June to win a Lion. It was extremely exciting.


The goal was to take a product – any product – and wrap it with a wonderful association. You will feel younger. You will be more beautiful. You will finally be elegant and cool.


Everyone was very sure of their world. Now, 2021, not so much. The tectonic plates moved. People took too long to realise what was happening. They were still debating putting a URL on the poster when the building fell down. Whether it was the agencies or the brands, it didn’t really matter – they all lost their footing.


“We’re going to sit at our desks and keep typing while the walls fall down around us because we’re creative – the least important, most important thing there is” – Don Draper to Peggy, after Heinz told him they were going to “wait and see if you’re still in business in six months.”


Google and Facebook seized the attention of the consumer. In the same moment, we all realised that 99.9% of what we see in broadcast media was completely irrelevant to us as individuals. We realised – for a while at least – that targeted ads in social and search were less meaningless, and we started to click on them. It started to become clear, even creepy, where the personalisation was coming from. We were writing our own scripts, but that got normalised. Unbelievably intricate profiles (like ‘Muslim. Arsenal. Green Party. Crochet. Trans.’) started to become manageable as advertising personas. Now we are starting to feel overwhelmed and things are likely to change – but to what?


It is demonstrable now that consumers are far less likely to have favourite brands. That got taken away. They are far, far less likely to Just Do It, or shout Wassup? at their friends, or buy something because it is The Best A Man Can Get. We don’t shop like that. We type exactly what we need into Google and – probably – we buy the thing that is at the top of the list. If we are reacting to impulse, the chances of us — a) seeing something at random in a shop or in a magazine and buying it, compared to b) being guided by the collective intellect of a million algorithms looking deep into us through the screen of our phone and choosing the right teaser ad to place into a social feed that we then click on — are so slanted it is difficult to calculate.


When efficiency replaces creativity, the need for engaging, entertaining, seductive campaigns fades fast. The ad industry got taken down by the ad business. The ad business has little time for brand stories. Or brand image. Or a brand’s meaning in the culture of now. It prefers data science. The ad business sees shopping as an engineering problem that has been solved by a logical workflow that ends with a shopper being presented with what they want when they want it. What happens to the brand when you do that?


The relationship starts to break down is what happens. This abstraction of the relationship between a superbrand like Gillette or Heinz and its traditional buyer is only one of the pressure points damaging those brands’ performance. Opportunities for others appear. ‘Beanz Meanz Heinz’ was an incredible campaign, but as the memory of that ad fades, the love doesn’t stand up to every grocery ecommerce site placing their own label version front and centre at half the price. The squeeze is on.


And the retailers are not the only friend turned foe. We can now see that Facebook and Google created an opportunity for a renaissance of Direct to Consumer. The challenger brands, with no history and no retail placements, came punching through. Thousands of DTC brands took off in the late 2000s and 2010s. Social was well established as a credible channel for awareness and reach, and new brands took to selling products directly to end users over the internet, cutting wholesalers and retailers out of the process. A new shopping process evolved, tailored around the consumer, not the retailer. Today DTC marketing dominates social media feeds, tube platforms and podcasts. Niche brands became powerhouses without ever being available offline – Bloom & Wild, Eve, Gousto, Allbirds, Harry’s, Warby Parker – there is a very long list of brands that have never competed for shelf space with their competitors, not literally anyway, and never bought a single billboard, or page in a magazine, at least not until they were already tearaway success stories. Worst still, DTC customers tend to be very affluent with an appetite for shopping. This is a toxic trend for the traditional superpowers.


“If You Don’t Like What They’re Saying, Change The Conversation”


The biggest opportunity for brands right now is to make the product itself the channel to the consumer. The technology exists to make a physical item inherently digital – just hold your phone near it and unlock your digital relationship. Whether I am holding something I already love (Heinz beans in my case) or something I want to understand better (can this jumper tell me what the working conditions were in the factory where it was made?) the chance to cement the relationship for the brand is new and fresh. I already know the consumer has their phone with them. Can I inspire them to take action? If I can, my product will become a sensor sending data directly back to me about my products. That opportunity hasn’t existed since I was selling products at a market stall and I met 100% of my customers. Now I can do that for the billions of items I ship every year. This is a major opportunity for the brands to reclaim the relationship.


EVRYTHNG is part of the next wave of technology transforming the landscape for all participants. We connect physical products to a digital identity. Whether it is an Airwick air freshener, or a box of Ritz crackers, a Ralph Lauren polo shirt, or a Tissot watch – literally any physical item – a connection can now be made. Personalised experiences will trigger on a customer’s smartphone, tailored just for them – based on the current context, who they are, where they live, what they have done before, all in the language they speak. This is a new horizon for brands, and they are seizing the opportunity.


Stories are back in fashion – traceability, sustainability, recycling, reviews, reordering, offers, related products – with a direct digital connection between the consumer and the brand now in place, there are very few limits on what can be created. My AFC Wimbledon shirt can act as my season ticket. My Leon sandwich can tell me if I am allergic to its ingredients. Every product can let me know if the brand behind it is thinking about me – or not.


Alexander Nix, then chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, famously gave a presentation entitled “From Mad Men to Math Men”. It is a journey we are still on, but increasingly the maths is available to everyone, and we don’t need Facebook or Google for transport – proximity between our phone and the product itself is more than enough. Brands are on their way back.

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