Rational mathematics

Our behaviour is about to be micro-measured. But just what tale will those numbers tell?

Our behaviour is about to be micro-measured. But just what tale will those numbers tell?

David MacGregor


I am feeling curiously nostalgic. I think I can lay fault squarely at the feet of an article in the New York Times: ‘Put Ad on Web. Count Clicks. Revise.’

It seems that Wall Street is about to make a hostile takeover of Madison Avenue. The future of advertising will lie in the measurement of even the most microscopic of shifts and changes in online human behaviour.

Number crunchers and data analysts will be the new heroes of advertising—fresh from screwing up the world’s financial markets. Some underoccupied (shall we say) digital advertising agencies are hoping to hire these former Masters of the Universe to test and measure the effectiveness of advertising messages, on the fly and in real time. Marketing communications will be more like a trading room floor.

That will never happen here,” I hear you chortle—but I think it will. Local agency Aim Proximity has already unveiled a ‘dashboard’ tool for clients to monitor in real time what their customers are doing with their products and saying about their brands. I found the prospect oddly invigorating. I rather like the idea of sitting in a comms rooms, tweaking and tweeting messages here and there, launching assaults on niches and full-blown markets from my eagle’s lair. Watching displays flicker and feed back the responses to my constantly re-refined messages. Dialling up the thesaurusometer to figure out which terms are the most persuasive. Measuring the effect and its cost in something like ‘milliscobles’ (which is an actual term used by one site that uses the Twitter API to measure the cost of generating a ‘follower’—imagine translating that into determining the true cost of a purchase).

But what will happen to ‘image’ advertising and creative advertising? Probably doomed, I’d say. What will be considered creative in the advertising industry will most likely be something entirely different from the days when young writers and art directors would shuffle listlessly into Work In Progress meetings of a Monday morning, all leather jackets and Raybans, slumping on the Italian leather couches at the back of the room while perky media girls breathlessly detail the tedious enthusiasms of the coming week and suits plaster over the cracks in the business development programme with optimism for meetings with prospective clients they dreamed of snatching away in the interminable billings land-grab. I fear those ramshackle days are gone, the agency caste system will be forgotten and it will be everyone for themselves, trying to remain relevant.

Who knows what motivates people? Why does a drumming gorilla or kids with wiggly eyebrows make one want to stuff one’s gob with Dairy Milk? Communicating with people will always have mad, uncertain dimensions

With analytics available for everyone maybe it will become a kind of mutually assured destruction? Fighting over dust motes?

Through it all, perhaps, there will come a warrior king who will look askance at the digital desolation, the entropic environment of enigmatic economics and say: “Right, clear your mantelpiece, have I got an idea for you!” and all the world will be shocked from its slumber. The data will suddenly look dismal and people will be reminded that understanding human behaviour in the round trumps click-throughs. We will be reminded that as little as five percent of consumer behaviour is rational (that’s the conclusion of Gerald Zaltman of Harvard University, author of How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market (Buy@Fishpond). He suggests the other 95 percent is due to ‘subconscious motivation’.)

In other words, who knows what will motivate people? Why does a drumming gorilla or kids with wiggly eyebrows tickle the fancy and make one want to stuff one’s gob with Dairy Milk? Immeasurable measurement may simply end in a universe of data that is impossible to make sense of. The allure is that of precision, but communicating with people will always have mad, uncertain dimensions. When marketers have neutralised each other’s best efforts with interminable short-termism and endless tactical gestures, perhaps the blockbuster idea that makes us laugh, cry and, importantly, buy—for reasons even we don’t understand—the genius of the creative idea will be appreciated again. It will be like déjà vu (which, after all, is simply nostalgia for the future).

Idealog has been covering the most interesting people, businesses and issues from the fields of innovation, design, technology and urban development for over 12 years. And we're asking for your support so we can keep telling those stories, inspire more entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and keep pushing New Zealand forward. Give over $5 a month and you will not only be supporting New Zealand innovation, but you’ll also receive a print subscription and a copy of the new book by David Downs and Dr. Michelle Dickinson, No. 8 Recharged (while stocks last).