Advertising Philosopher: An Interview with Faris Yakob (Part Three)
You write a lot about “content” in the book, but I’ve lately been pondering the meaning of the term, content, which according to my dictionary refers to “that which is contained.” Yet, your argument, as well as my own work, suggests that the stuff of media is no longer contained in any meaningful sense of the word. Has the concept of content then outlived its usefulness? Is it forcing us to still hold to old paradigms about how value is created through media?
As an aspirant philosopher, like any undergrad in philosophy 101, we have to spend so much time defining our terms, don’t we? This is only appropriate, because language stresses, fractures, warps and reforms in response to changes in the world around it.
Content is the new solution célèbre in advertising, and most of the time we can’t agree as to what it means. Personally, I feel brand content, as we are using the term, is something created by / for a brand that people choose to consume – as opposed to advertising which we essentially pay people to consume, indirectly.
Is content the content of media? The words are breaking down, or free, from the derivations because digital. Previously media goods were assemblages. A book is a typology of content and expectations and format that delivers it [and an industry that gets one to the other]. So is television. Television is the device, the industry that delivers the content, the content typologies, the cultural associations around it. Then digital unbundled them. So you get linguistic confusion, where you can watch a “television” show online, or what to call shows made by Netflix, which has nothing to do with television, although you can certainly watch it on the screen formerly known as that.
The unbundling also impacts the value creation, or at least monetization. When you control the reception, you can make money through advertising more easily than when you don’t. So new models are growing up around us for content creation and monetization. Content doesn’t seem contained, but even platform agnostic digital content is mediated and consumed through some kind of screen or experience.
Ultimately, brands making things people like is probably a good idea, but fraught with the challenges always faced by media producers. As the screenwriter William Goldman says, no one knows anything about what will work in media. Most films and books and magazines fail to make money. But some become hits.
Let me ask you the provocative question you use to frame one of your chapters — Is all advertising spam? And if so, what should brands be doing differently as a result of this insight?
Essentially, yes. Spam is unsolicited commercial messaging primarily used in reference to emails but by digital extension, advertising can easily fit into the descriptor. So, there are a couple of ways to think about this.
One, we can make it solicited. If, when watching a “television” [see previous answer for the problems with that] program, and we get a choice, to pay to watch ads, then it’s spam no longer because we solicited it. This is really just about reminding consumers that there is value being delivered to them. It’s harder to argue with billboards, unless they contribute to municipal services and improvements. The great adman Howard Gossage went as far as to argue that it was hard to justify their existence at all, which is something the city of Sao Paulo seems to agree with, since they banned all billboards. I think billboards can be some of the most creative spaces, using context, adding value to commutes and so on, but it’s a right to invade the public that we must continually earn.
More broadly, ad blocking options, and the advertising industry’s tendency to double up on exposure and frequency whenever possible have created a situation where people want to skip through or avoid advertising if it’s easy and they remember to do it. The value exchange of content /media /advertising has broken down for many users. So, ultimately, if advertising is to exist in a perfectly controlled digital world, where I have software protecting me, filtering my content choices, making recommendations, and so on, then we need to consider how advertising pays the attention debt it owes to people by adding value.
No doubt we’ll see your house robot come subsidized if you accept add offers being displayed on its screens, as the Amazon Kindle does now.
You argue forcefully across the book that advertising can be a force for good. What do you mean by that? Why do you think advertising is viewed so negatively now and what would need to change for advertising to become a force for good?
Who wants to be a force for evil? I grew up listening to Bill Hicks, who had some quite polarized views of marketing and advertising people. I think he spoke at one of extreme, but advertising is often conflated with “capitalism” perhaps because it’s the most obvious face of it. It grew from propaganda, with all the attendant associations. The attention arms race and increased consumer consumption of media makes advertising seem utterly, annoyingly, ubiquitous.
But advertising is just a tool, the lubricant of the modern day hyper-capitalist machine. The banking sector might be considered a rapacious set of money wrenches to said machine but let’s not get into comparison “at least we aren’t as bad as” arguments. Rather let’s think on what advertising is: a tool, a lever, an attempt to manage mass behavior through perception and creativity. As David Ogilvy once said: Advertising is only evil when it advertises evil things.
I think people feel somewhat bombarded by modern brands and modern branding. In the book I speak about the attention debt that brands create by invaded people’s consciousness unbidden, To rebalance the debt, to create value in consumption, is part of what will help.
I also think advertising – as the more emotionally comfortable of the professional and business advisory services, have a role in helping companies act less like psychopaths. Since the Friedman revolution in corporate strategy – where shareholder value is the only god – companies abandoned their social roles and responsibiliies. A function of this is that they seem manipulative, glib, unwilling to take on social responsibility, unwilling to accept fault, and only willing to engage with people to get what they want. These are hallmarks of psychopathic behavior. And it creeps people out once they realize they are being manipulated. So advertising agencies have a role to help make corporate “people” better rounded citizens – better citizen brands are starting to make waves and money.
You draw a distinction in the book between copying and stealing. You write, “Stealing multiplies meaning, copying does not.” Can you explain the distinction? How might we apply this to the unauthorized production of content around brands by consumers or for that matter, ad-busters?
This is the heart of Genius Steals, the term I took from the quotation supposedly attributed to Picasso: talent imitates, genius steals, that also became the name of our company.
Copying attempts to disguise its derivation, or at least it does now.
Previously all art work was copied, endlessly, iterated, by apprentices learning crafts. Then the Romantics decided creation was a magical act, akin to giving birth, or creating the universe, making man at once woman and god. I find this idea of originality nonsensical.
So when someone sets out to copy an idea it’s plagiarizing, taking something you found and passing it off as your own.
Stealing is copying where you acknowledge and revel in the debt to others. All art is a comment on that which came before. Quotations and remixes don’t hide their sources. Indeed, Modernist poetry and hip hop or pop music built from samples instead challenge the consumer to look back to the sources if they don’t know them.
So stealing multiplies meaning in various ways. It connects things together, like wormholes in culture, pulling separates spaces together. It reaches out to other pieces of culture and deploys them. It builds on things, and invites you to build on them further.
We are working with a start-up called Seenapse that’s turning these ideas about ideas into an inspiration engine. A “Seenapse” is a non-obvious connection created by a human – you can search through these or create your own as you look to extend out into other areas for inspiration.
Warhol, perhaps, mostly famously appropriated everyday symbols of commerce – brands – to create art. There is a great letter from the Campbell’s Soup Co to the artist from 1964 saying they admired his work and would love to send him some soup. That’s the approach I favor. If someone is passing off your trademark to make money by pretending to be you, then fine, cease and desist them. If they are exploring ideas using some of yours, good luck to them, they are multiplying the meanings of your brand in culture.
Faris Yakob is co-founder of Genius Steals, an itinerant strategy and innovation consultancy he started with his wife, Rosie. He is the author of Paid Attention, which come out in April 2015, and a contributing author of Digital State  and What is a Brand? , all published by Kogan Page. He was named one of ten modern day Mad Men by Fast Company but hopes he is less morally bankrupt than the television show characters. Despite living on the road, you can reliably find him on Twitter (@Faris) and on his blog: www.farisyakob.com. For more information on Genius Steals head to www.geniussteals.co