John McGee: Ad Contrarian sets sights on the badmen of adtech
The first and only time I met Bob Hoffman, I sat beside him for dinner at Advertising Effectiveness Awards (ADFX) a few years ago. Held every two years and organised by the Institute of Advertising Practitioners of Ireland (IAPI), Hoffman was there to deliver the keynote speech.
An avuncular, somewhat laid-back and endearingly irreverent kind of guy from the Bay Area of San Francisco, Hoffman has ruffled more than a few feathers in his day. By the time his keynote speech in Dublin's Intercontinental Hotel had ended, a number of people - including several creative and media agency CEOs and their clients - were feeling a tad uncomfortable. As nervous laughs and glances were exchanged around the room, a few of them muttered that it was a disgrace that he was allowed speak at such an august advertising industry gathering.
Hoffman, you see, is a perennial thorn in the side of the advertising and marketing industry and his popular blog 'The Ad Contrarian' has asked soul-searching questions about the state of the industry, poked fun at it and generally derided the digital landscape that has been allowed develop, unfettered by regulation, scruples or morals, and enabled by us mere mortal consumers.
Think of Waldorf from The Muppets but with a bit more intellectual gravitas.
But Hoffman does know a thing or two about advertising and marketing. In his day, he was CEO of two different independent advertising agencies and has worked with a wide range of leading international brands like McDonald's, Coke, Toyota and Bank of America. He is also the author of a few highly acclaimed books including Marketers are from Mars, Consumers are from New Jersey.
His favourite targets are the adtech industry, Facebook, Google and marketers who dance to the beguiling tune of an adtech industry that is really only interested in self-preservation.
In making his arguments, he reserves some equal measures of sympathy and derision for those marketers and agency folk who, sheep-like, follow the next shiny new thing that the adtech industry throws their way without asking the tough questions about where the money is going, what's the return on investment and how customers might react to the black box of surveillance marketing techniques that are deployed in the quest to get their attention and their money.
He also shows some disdain for the industry advertising giants who have facilitated all of this with their clients' money.
Basic stuff, really.
In his latest book Badmen: How Advertising Went From A Minor Annoyance To A Major Menace (Amazon: £5.44), Hoffman once again doesn't hide behind the door when it comes to having a pop at the industry and all who collude in the many opaque and murky practices that have led to the phenomenal growth of online advertising, the bulk of which is controlled by a global duopoly.
It is worth pointing out that the book was published just before Christmas and before the ongoing Facebook fallout. While he didn't forecast that the fallout would pan out like it did, he can rightly pat himself on the back and say: "I told you so."
Rounding on the adtech industry and the Silicon Valley overlords who keep it ticking over, he says that the only reason why the adtech industry has been so successful is because we, as both the consumer and the product, have allowed it through our own actions. Everything they have done to date has been legal because we have given them our permission.
Like a dog with a bone, he tears into social media platforms whose armoury of tricks have included over-stating their actual reach, colluding with third-party data providers, propagating and distributing fake news and ultimately trying to corrupt the genuine news industry with spammy, click-bait, phoney news stories and websites with garbage content that are ultimately aimed at getting traffic and clicks and, obviously, money in the till. Few, if any, questions are asked.
Of course, not everyone will agree with Hoffman and he has proved to be a divisive figure in adland over the past number of years. But he presents an honest and fresh voice in what seems like an echo-chamber where few appear willing to change the status quo. He also makes some very good and valid points. On that basis alone, it's a book that should be read by everybody in the industry.
But as he concludes his relatively short tome of 76 pages, Hoffman poses an interesting but very important question. "There is something about agency silence that is screaming at me. For years we've had a steady stream of scandalous news about online advertising. There have been dozens of stories about corruption, click fraud, traffic fraud, misrepresentation of data, bots, plots and what-nots. And not a single one of the revelations has come from an agency. Not one. You've got to ask yourself why?"
And on that note, I think I had better go into hiding for a few weeks.
Sunday Indo Business