Welcome back to BRANDED, the newsletter exploring how marketers broke society (and how we can fix it).
Here’s what’s new with us:
We recently picked up a copy of Tim Hwang’s Subprime Attention Crisis for a look into the slow-mo implosion of the ad tech economy, which he believes is a matter of when, not if. This does not surprise us. It doesn't surprise anyone who understands the mechanics of ad tech.
What makes this a juicy, pint-sized read is how Hwang succinctly lays out his argument: what’s happening in the underbelly of adtech isn’t just a generic grift. It’s an extremely specific grift that we have seen before. It did not go well for us last time!
“When a hot, overpriced commodity is discovered to be effectively worthless, panic can set in, causing the market to implode,” writes Hwang.
Hmm, where have we seen this before?
From the inside, adtech looks exactly like the subprime mortgage industry right before 2008. Hwang practically goes down a checklist, point by point telling a story of junk assets and pathological confidence.
The plumbing: They’re using the same algorithmic real-time, high-speed trading model they use to buy and sell mortgage-backed securities.
Commodification: “What is different about the present-day online advertising system is the extent to which it has enabled the bundling of a multitude of tiny moments of attention into discrete, liquid assets that can then be bought and sold frictionlessly in a global marketplace,” writes Hwang.
Opacity: Marketers can’t see what’s happening within their ad campaigns, so there’s nothing stopping ad tech platforms from inflating the value of ad placements. Opacity helps middlemen hide substandard inventory.
These conditions, Hwang writes, create “perverse incentives,” and can encourage players “to continue pushing the bright horizons for a marketplace despite knowing that major structural problems exist.”
They sure can. In fact, the ad tech industry is looking a lot like a $300 billion house of cards right now because none of us know how much anything is actually worth.
You won’t hear the ad tech industry talk about The Bubble because they are invested in an economy that is built around it. Entire companies have been built, bought, and sold based on made-up metrics.
But Hwang — who’s standing close to the edge without going over— is seeing all kinds of things you can't see from the center. He paints a picture of a flourishing, creative practice hijacked by bankers and brokers who transformed advertising into a soulless trading desk.
We said yes to more efficient marketing. What we got was a system of mass surveillance that produces an enormous amount of waste and shows no evidence of being better than what we had in a pre-programmatic world.
Ironically, this has imperilled the advertising industry itself. Hwang argues: “There is, if anything, a strong ethical imperative to allow the collapse of global surveillance capitalism rather than attempting to save it, because it might clear the deck for something better to emerge.”
This might be hard to hear, but the digital advertising supply chain never even cared about you, babe. It was never built for us.
The bubble will burst, Hwang assures us. But we can make it a “controlled demolition” if we start thinking now about what life will look like after the collapse.
Instead of mourning the end of a thing that never worked for us, marketers should start to think about what we might want in a new system. But we have to know what we want.
Now is the time to ask: what do we want the future of advertising to look like? Last time, we took what adtech gave us. This time, we should be clear about our requirements. DARE WE DREAM?
Here’s where we would start:
Subprime Attention Crisis is a series of observations - and an unfinished story. It’s up to us to write the next chapter.
Marketing as we know it today was built on a series of design choices. And if a thing can be designed, it can be redesigned. A collapse wouldn’t just be the end of something, but the beginning of something new.
Thanks for reading,
Nandini and Claire