Feel Like a Number.

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Feel Like a NumberAdweek columnist Mike Shields served up a beautiful rant this week about the  staggeringly huge numbers that ad technology players toss around to demonstrate their scale and market impact.  13 billion ads served every day by AppNexus; the same day in which Turn is making “30 billion ad decisions.”  The Rubicon Project reaches nearly 97% of all web users while competitor PubMatic is handling somewhere between a half-billion and a billion “bids” monthly.  “But at a certain point,” Shields calls out, “these eye-popping data boasts become more akin to rap brags.”

I feel like just another / Spoke in a great big wheel
Like a tiny blade of grass / In a great big field

He’s got a point.  At best, all of this “mine is bigger than yours” talk tends to bleed any real meaning or context out of the conversation.  As Shields puts it, “…reach, impression volume and targeting numbers cease to mean anything.”

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But I think there’s an even more critical downside to the ad tech sector.  Many years ago, McDonald’s restaurants used to give tours to groups of school kids. One of the more inspired tour highlights– and mind you, this was in mid 70s – was the claim that “If you took all the burgers McDonald’s has ever served and stacked them one on top of the other, they’d reach the moon and half way back to earth!”  The signage on every McDonald’s in those days called out the latest numerical estimate of the number served…until finally they simply started saying “Billions and Billions Served.”

To workers I’m just another drone / To Ma Bell I’m just another phone
I’m just another statistic on a sheet

They don’t say any of that anymore.  The unintended consequence of McDonald’s volumetric marketing was the cheapening of the individual experience.  If you’re making that many burgers, then what’s special about the one I’m eating?  Turns out, not much.  Once the consumer hears how many online ads are carpet-bombing web browsers every day, they become even more cynical, more deaf and immune to the content of any one message.   I think the “Parade of Big Numbers” also strikes out on a B2B level.  If I’m a web publisher or an agency holding company, am I really going to pick AppNexus or Rubicon because of the sheer number of ads they touch?

To teachers I’m just another child / To IRS I’m just another file
I’m just another consensus on the street

Look, these are all terrific companies that do amazing, NASA-like things which impress me every day.  But all this talk of numbers dehumanizes marketing.  It divorces the distribution channel from the individual connections and impact that makes advertising a premium business service.  Whether it’s a meal at McDonald’s, a Latte at Starbucks or a phone call with your mom via AT&T, marketers have learned to talk to consumers about individual quality experiences.  Maybe we’d be well served not to lose that thread ourselves.

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