Advertising philosopher Faris Yakob on anti-intellectualism, Anchorman and the finite resource of attention

There’s no shortage of international experts being flown in to New Zealand to spread their wisdom to us New Zealand savages.

But very few of them are as interesting and energetic as Faris Yakob, a dreadlocked ‘advertising philosopher’, the author of Paid Attention and co-founder of Genius Steals. He was brought out by OMD to speak at its annual conference. So Ben Fahy sat down for a wide-ranging discussion about everything from the myth of originality to the fallacy of the impression to the musings of David Foster Wallace. Here's an edited transcript of that interview. 

Ben Fahy: So you’re a dual citizen?

Faris Yakob: Yeah, I’m English and Kiwi. I was born in London and my mum is from Greymouth. She naturalised me. And I came to live here when I was two and a half for two years.

So that’s where all your intelligence, charm and dreadlocks come from?

I assume so. And my inability to take things seriously comes from both. 

Although you do seem to take one thing pretty seriously.

What’s that?

Media.

I guess that’s true, and maybe I take it more seriously than I should. I do spend a lot of time thinking about it.  

So you’ve been called an advertising philosopher. And initially that was meant as an insult, wasn’t it?

That’s true. There is a very strong thread of anti-intellectualism in American thinking. They’re like ‘just do stuff’. But that doesn’t seem very strategic. So yeah, philosophy isn’t faffy, it’s quite grounding; it’s about how to make things better and finding out how they work.

Marshall McLuhan wouldn’t be called an anti-intellectual, although I guess he was Canadian.

He was famous because the Socrates of San Francisco, Howard Luck Gossage, took him down to the firehouse and introduced him to the media and celebrities. He was the agent of his fame. I loved The Book of Gossage. His essays are great. He had very strong opinions.

At that time, you could say there was a scarcity of media, and maybe a shortage of expertise, to the point where Gossage was able to tell clients what they should do because he knew best. That’s obviously changed now, on both counts, and there is a huge amount of media. You talk about the possibility of an ‘attention collapse’ and link it to the tragedy of the commons. Can you explain that?

My thesis here is that attention is a finite resource. You know that’s true to some degree because we can buy it and sell it. And you can’t buy or sell things unless it’s finite. Economics is the function of scarcity. And what’s happening is that the market has not appropriately valued attention because we buy it via a proxy, which is media. Media keeps increasing, there’s more and more of it, but the amount of attention is fixed. It used to be that people had free time. The famous 1950s housewife who helped invent [Consumer Packaged Goods] advertising had a lot of free time and all her attention wasn’t being consumed. Now all the pockets of easy attention, like all the pockets of easy oil, have been explored and exploited. It’s getting harder and harder to find it, it costs more and more to carve out a bit of it and it becomes a zero sum game. There’s a problem here. They can’t all be worth the same thing they used to be worth. It used to be the case—and you could argue very convincingly—that perception and attention were different. Even though no-one was paying attention to advertising directly, that didn't matter as long we could get it in front of them. If you could get it into their head, it would have an impact, which is true. But what I’m saying is that ad blocking is an attempt by the market to readdress the problems of pricing attention and when ad blocking comes in it’s no longer about not paying attention because you can’t get in front of someone. And it will escalate to other forms of media. The only exception to that is outdoor, but that is also being damaged because if you look at cities like Sao Paulo, there are no ads, because they banned them. When that happens, the attention/perception discussion becomes irrelevant. Recently [programmatic network] Cadreon did some research that said viewability really helps efficacy. And I was like ‘that is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.’ By a logical inference that a child could make, ads no one sees don’t work. And it seems silly to even discuss it.

The only difference now is with digital tools supposedly you can tell how many people aren’t looking at it, whereas before you couldn't. It was a guess. What’s the classic Wannamaker quote about half the ad dollars being wasted but not knowing which half …  Is there an issue around not respecting the power of the sub-conscious in marketing?

There is a thesis that advertising works by making people buy stuff. I don’t think that’s true. When you say, ‘go buy this now and measure direct sales response’, you measure a thing, which is fine. But one of the thoughts at the London Business School from Tim Ambler in 2000 is that wastage is the part of advertising that works. This is a complex idea and it sounds silly, but his point is that maybe advertising is like a peacock’s tail or an antelope jumping high when a lion appears. It’s a reliable signal to the market because it costs you something and the fact that it’s broad and expensive that suggests to a consumer subsconsciously you should buy our proposition because of our scale.

There’s an interesting paradox between the personalisation of everything, then looking at how humans actually operate. We're herding animals. And often we want the same car our boss has so we can be part of a club. 

We’re aligned in this way of thinking. I think personalisation is basically wrong. I think personalised advertising is an oxymoron. That’s selling. And advertising is not selling.

Most people wouldn’t make that distinction, however. We’re probably in a weird category where we quite like advertising, and talk about it and judge it. So do you see advertising as something that annoys the public?

Whatever you do becomes the filter through which you see the world. If you look at an ad planner walking in the subway, they look at all the ads to see what they’re trying to achieve. No-one else looks at ads. They go home, because they’re busy. Or they look at their phones. I think the value equation is slightly out of whack at the moment. Too much advertising and not enough value being created. Non-consensual tracking means that my data is being sold hundreds of times every time I go to a website. That’s not a fair balance to me. I wrote a chapter in my book called ‘Is all advertising spam?’ because when I was working with Google, the engineers would say, ‘Advertising? Oh you mean spam?’ And I said, you’re an ad company. You get that’s ironic, right?

It’s a little bit like people working in this industry using ad blockers.

I have a tracking blocker. Not an ad blocker. But I like ads.

Maybe they’re the outliers, but people seem to look forward to Super Bowl ads. A big chunk of the most-shared videos on YouTube were ads, or made by companies with an agenda. The Fair Go Ad Awards show always rates well here in New Zealand. You talk about the difference between advertising and content. But could you argue advertising is content?

All content is advertising something, but I don’t think all advertising is content. Most advertising people don’t choose to consume. Some they do. Advertising is something brands say about themselves. And the Venn diagram can overlap. Red Bull Stratos is an example of that.

I read recently about the podcasting singularity, where GE’s 'The Message' went to number one on iTunes.

But they also spend a lot of money on content. And it’s been doing that for a long time across different platforms. They also have a lot of interesting stories. Most companies aren’t that interesting.

Then again, I love the example of Will it Blend. It’s a pretty boring company making a boring product but they created something that made it more interesting.

They are brilliant, because they sit in the middle. They’re product demos that are done really interestingly. It’s fun.

Is that an example of a brand getting attention in a crowded market—and then creating demand for the product—simply by being more interesting than the next option?

The function of content when made by non-ad systems is to attract attention. That’s what it’s for. It’s the only thing. And you want people to buy it or sell ads around it. But brand content needs to do two things. It needs to attract attention in some fashion and then have a commercial effect for the brand and that’s harder by definition.

Do you see some media properties getting sucked into the vortex of popularity? Often, the quality of the media was defined by what they didn’t cover. Now it’s ‘look at this picture of a large spider’. Some of them seem to have become addicted to that attention, no matter the cost, and they know that’s what people will click on. But where does it end? Will boring but important things be neglected?

Even in the news media, and not to get worthy, but in the US, when you were given a licence for television, one of the costs you had to bear was making news. It wasn’t a product you could sell. CNN changed that and Fox really changed it. Making news is just shouting people with opinions and it’s really cheap. And people love that crap. Actual reporting is expensive. Having people in different countries just in case something happens is an incredibly expensive thing to do. And most US news media won’t do it anymore. They’ll wait for the AP story to come in and change the headline. It’s tricky. There’s an infinite amount of content and competition for it is always going to be tough. Also, the things that perform well are to some degree unpredictable, because otherwise film studios wouldn’t lose money on films.

I love that in a time of big data uncertainty still exists. There's meant to be a formula, but it often doesn’t work.

It’s a portfolio formula. If you make 10 movies with the right formula, nine will lose money, one will make loads and there’s no way to predict which one. There’s an argument for portfolio production for brand stuff now too, but now to be social content you have to put media weight behind it anyway, so you might as well try a few things out there.

I liked your idea of the axes of attention. I call it the resonance rating, where some things have more of an impact on the audience, or hold their attention for longer, but the focus these days is often on scale. Is it a measurement problem? 

There are programmes that have very small audiences compared to the reach of the broadcast networks and they are far more engaged and they will mobilise to get things back, like when a show is cancelled. Whereas people will graze on broadcast stuff and not care when it goes away. The conceit in media and advertising is that impressions exist and they’re a currency that are fungible, which they’re not [he writes they are more like "potential attention, or hopeful exposures, or two seconds of auto play below the fold, or something"]. I understand we need a currency to trade. That makes sense. But it makes us think about things in a binary way. I did an interview in the UK and they headed it with the Microsoft research about humans having a seven-second attention span like a goldfish. But the thing is there’s no such thing as an attention span. People will spend three days playing World of Warcraft in Taiwan to the point where they die. Clearly the idea of a span is a plastic concept. And we can’t hold it very often.

I've also always wondered how they test the attention span of a goldfish. 

Exactly. Do they hold up signs for them? 

I was listening to a podcast about a movie on David Foster Wallace and in 1997 he was talking about how we need to be careful with technology because if it gets too good and too realistic, we might find ourselves being happy to avoid human contact. And you see that to a point with phones. 

He did an interview in 1997 with Charlie Rose and he was asked if the audience for the novel was dying because it required work. Unlike TV, reading requires significant work from the audience and novels, especiallyInfinite Jest, are designed to be hard. But that’s the fun of it. Dennis Miller in the ‘90s said when an unemployed iron worker can sit in his Barker Lounger and have sex with Claudia Schiffer for $19. 95 it’s going to make crack look like Sanka.

But humans love extremes. And there are always opposite reactions to a prevailing trend. So some people are also trying to switch off because they sense it’s unhealthy.  

I think of culture as pendular. We have the culture and then we have the counter-culture. But attention is what we have to experience reality. That’s our life. Every bit we give up is creating value for someone else. It’s precious. And you can see that because there are media companies like Vice and Buzzfeed that only get a sliver of our attention that are valued in the multi-billions. And what I’m trying to impress on people is that because it’s precious we should respect it and remember that it’s a person at the other end of what we do.

Is that a slightly idealistic view in a room of money-hungry capitalists? Attention is the main currency of capitalism. I read the interview with Matthew Crawford about his book The World Outside My Head and what he called the ‘obesity of the mind’ from constant distraction. So what do you think the response will be outside of the digital space when people think there is too much advertising?

You have to remind them there’s a value exchange. Advertising is not a thing that sits around the stuff. It’s why you have the stuff. You can choose to consume content for free, but watch the ads. It needs to be a tolerable amount of ads though. In America the TV ad load is gross. And it's incredibly irritating, but in the US you just get used to it. Or you choose to pay. That’s what Professor Galloway says at Stern. Advertising will become a tax only the poor will pay, which is probably not great for anyone.

Do you agree with that?

I think it will happen to some degree. When you’re a kid at university, you’ve got a lot of time and not a lot of money so you might steal a lot of music. As you get older, you have less time and more money, and you say ‘I can’t be bothered. If it’s easy and it seems like a fair price, I’ll buy it.’ Both models can be sustained in the market, and it’s okay.

Sometimes advertising reflects culture, sometimes it is culture. And brands often play with pushing agendas, like the same sex marriage debate, because they have the resources to shape opinions.

There is a role there but I think our culture is fragmenting and it has been for the past 15 years now. There are very few things when you meet someone that you can talk about, whereas before you could always talk about certain big pieces of culture, whether it’s Shortland Street, or Neighbours, or things that even if you don’t watch them, you know about them. Now things can be really famous and no-one will have ever heard of them.

I find it slightly depressing when you go a new season launch for a TV network and I see all these new brilliant things that I will probably never have time to watch. Will the content keep coming?

It will as long as there’s enough money in the market to support it. The thing about Netflix is that people will pay if the content is strong enough and then the ads go away. But I like culture being a shared thing. It feels like culture is recycling itself. Movies like Anchorman and Zoolander are 15 years old.

There’s plenty of regurgitating in film. And that plays into the idea of the seven basic plots. But it seems like there’s a cult of originality in advertising. What’s wrong with using old ideas that work?

There are no new ideas, there are just new articulations, new combinations. I think one of the sleights of hand that ad people have often done is they hide the inspiration. And sometimes not very well, which is when they get called out for stealing an art piece [or a famous psychological experiment]. Don’t do that, that’s annoying. There’s an insecurity about creation and a romance. But it’s making combinations. Ideas are easy. Making them is hard. We can have ideas all day long. But knowing what’s going to work is really difficult. And what a good creative director is doing is using their emotional experience to try and get a gauge of the emotional impact the work will have. And they have a lot of experience trying to work out what things will feel like before they get made. That’s a very powerful skill.

Is that your sense of what works when it comes to getting people’s attention with advertising?

We make our decisions emotionally, and we reverse engineer the logic. There’s a metanalysis of the IPA databank in the UK that says says the most effective advertising has little to no rational content. Once you say, please buy this, it’s good, you say ‘why would I believe you? You’re selling it.

It’s like the study about the best way to ensure people like the wine is to tell them it’s expensive. We’re irrational creatures but we tend to think we’re rational so this is generally seen as a negative thing by the public because they feel the value that’s been created isn’t tangible.

People say it means it’s all bullshit. No, it means we’re symbolic creatures. We consume the symbol, not just the fluid. When Coca-Cola released a Christmas edition, it was in a white can and people kept saying it tasted like Diet Coke. It doesn’t. People were seeing white and taste happens in the brain, not in the mouth. That’s cool. That’s the magic of what advertising can do. It adds symbols to product experiences. And it’s what brands are all about.

Is it still as magic as it used to be? Or are there ways to hack that perceived value by being given information about a product?

The reason I think brands are so indefensible over time is that I will still pay more for the one with the brand on it and my brain wants me to do that [in his presentation, he used the example of new and improved, which is impossible to achieve, but hugely appealing to humans. Like cheesecake for the brain, 'new and improved' has got sugar, salt and fat, and that’s why he says FMCG players regularly change their packaging, but not their product].