Is the Algorithm the New Media Decision Maker?

05/26/2010 09:08 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Greg Hills wrote a very thoughtful piece over at AdExchanger titled, "The Algorithm Is the New Decision Maker: Communicating with the New Demand Side."

Of course, the title makes my skin crawl, as does Greg's statement that the "relationship driven world of advertising is being replaced by the data driven world of advertising."

Data has always played a critical role in advertising and the availability of new types of data today -- "real-time" or otherwise -- makes for exciting advances in the science of our business. But, advertising is still a relationship business, and I don't mean media sales relationships -- which Greg is really describing -- I mean brand relationships. Brands are still about relationships.

The underlying question asked by Greg Hills, therefore, and anyone else that would postulate the end of advertising relationships, is the extent to which media sales relationships are important to consumer brand relationships.

Are they?

I think Greg says two things about this. First, he says, no, they are not important insofar as the performance of advertising (which could mean anything, of course) can be measured and replicated today by machine algorithm. Sales relationships don't have to enter into it. Second, he says, it doesn't matter; there are not enough planning resources to harvest media sales relationships anyway. The value of media sales relationships has drowned under the tidal surge of new media.

As usual, I dispute relying exclusively on sales-by-media-vehicle to make media decisions. On the one hand, media can be 100% accountable for having an audience, but not for how the audience behaves towards advertising. On the other hand, advertising that succeeds can be ruined by products that do not - in which case, keeping customers means replacing smart and experienced ones with dumb and inexperienced ones, or changing the product offer (the escape hatch of all performance-driven advertising). Media algorithms can deliver that sort of media compromise, but media "performance" it is not -- at least, not where desirable brand relationships are concerned.

Which is the scary thing about Greg's second -- better -- point that media sales relationships have drowned under the tide of new media: there is too much new media and not enough media planning to go around.

Oh woe. It is true. And, yet, not too long ago media was to be new, creative, and by definition, bold and imaginative, and driven by a desire for deeper relationships between consumers and brands.

Whither that? Now what? Greg Hills proposes a short cut: performance algorithms. It's cheaper and easier than ferreting out creative media advantages for clients, evaluating by hand the media nuances visible to people, but invisible to machines. What sort of nuances? The sort that exist between soaps, or cereals, or airlines, or credit cards. The sort that separates a Sunkist from an orange. They are thin things, but expensive and worth a great deal.

There is an advertising spectrum that is visible only to the naked eye of a person. Brands are protected by this spectrum. It is their ozone layer. This is where the hard work of media planning needs to depend on media relationships, the outcome being consumer brand relationships. The Internet is a crucial new source of this spectrum, divided into tens of thousands of thin slices in which to carefully pack and ship our brand relationships through advertising.

Ad agencies need more media people to do the job, not fewer. We need capacity for more relationships, not less. To do that we need to fix agency compensation, remembering that thin things wear out, easily.